Upon receiving the news of Washington's death, Congress selected Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee to deliver a eulogy on behalf of the nation. Lee, a former Continental army officer, a Virginia congressman, and a close associate of Washington for many years, delivered his speech on December 26, 1799. His words have endured for two hundred years:
First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere—uniform, dignified and commanding—his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. . . . Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. . . . Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.
The commemoration of Washington's death began on December 26, 1799, with an elaborate mock funeral in Philadelphia, at that time the capital of the United States. This event established the pattern for the other tributes held throughout the grieving nation over the next several weeks.
Sixteen cannon announced the arrival of morning on the 26th, and volleys repeated on every half hour until eleven o'clock. Troops assembled at the State House as people came from the surrounding countryside to observe the ceremony. The magnificent and solemn procession, accompanied by the beating of muffled drums, began its march through Philadelphia a little past noon. A riderless horse, escorted by two marines wearing black scarves, preceded the clergy. According to the Pennyslvania Gazette, the horse carried an empty saddle, holsters, pistols, and boots reversed in the stirrups. It also was "trimmed with black—the head festooned with elegant black and white feathers—the American Eagle displayed in a rose upon the breast, and in a feather upon the head." In the midst of the procession, pallbearers carried an empty bier. Arriving at the German Lutheran Church, the bier was placed in the center of the middle aisle, and members of Congress and other participants heard prayers by the Right Reverend William White, a bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Then an estimated four thousand persons heard Congressman Henry Lee give his eulogy. The memorial service concluded with vocal and instrumental music, and the firing of three volleys ended the ceremonies that day.
From Washington's death in December 1799 through February 22, 1800, the official national day of mourning, hundreds of commemorative speeches were given. Many orations subsequently were printed and then either sold or distributed freely to local residents. Of those, 346 are extant.