The first general mourning proclaimed in the United States came upon the death of Benjamin Franklin in 1790, followed by the death of George Washington in 1799. Preparations for Franklin’s funeral after his death on April 17, 1790 included a procession to Independence Hall (then known as the Pennsylvania State House) in Philadelphia and burial at Christ Church Burial Ground on April 21. It is estimated that 20,000 mourners gathered for Franklin’s funeral. The cortege was composed of Philadelphia society, ranging from Mayor Samuel Powel to American astronomer David Rittenhouse. Muffled bells rang and flags on the mast of ships as well as atop all government buildings flew at half-staff. The United States Congress convened in New York City, which at the time served as the nation’s capital, and passed a concurrent resolution observing an official period of mourning for one month. The French National Assembly, at the suggestion of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, was so moved by the death of Franklin that the legislature observed a three-day period of mourning.
When George Washington died of acute epiglottitis at his Mount Vernon plantation on December 14, 1799, the young nation was stunned. In Philadelphia, which at the time served as the nation’s capital for ten years while the new federal city was being built, Congress selected Henry Lee III to eulogize Washington. Mock funerals were held all over the United States. Perhaps the most poignant of them all occurred on December 26, 1799. At daybreak, sixteen cannons were fired and volleys were shot on a half-hour basis in Philadelphia. An empty casket was carried in an elaborate funeral procession which consisted of two marines wearing black scarves escorting a riderless horse festooned with black and white feathers, and a bald eagle depicted on the horse’s breast. A religious service was held at the German Lutheran Church officiated by Reverend William White, a bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The news of Washington’s death had a profound effect in Europe. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul, personally gave a eulogy and ordered a ten-day requiem. In Britain, the Royal Navy was ordered to lower flags at half-mast on its entire fleet.
Washington’s actual funeral was a simple affair that was organized by the local Masonic lodge and held on December 18, 1799. In his will, Washington stated, “t is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration.” The funeral procession consisted of the president’s casket mounted on and using a caissons, foot soldiers, clergy, and a caparisoned, riderless horse. Upon arrival at a red brick tomb on a hillside in the environs of Mount Vernon, the casket was placed on a wood bier for grieving mourners to gather around for a final viewing and clergy to conduct funeral rites. Reverend Thomas Davis, rector of Christ Church, Alexandria, read the Episcopal Order of Burial. Next, the Reverend James Muir, minister of the Alexandria Presbyterian Church, and Dr. Elisha Dick, conducted the traditional Masonic funeral rites.
Two ex-presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, which was coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s funeral, held in Charlottesville, Virginia, was simple. No invitations were sent out for the religious service that was officiated by Reverend Frederick Hatch at the Episcopal Church in Charlottesville. Only friends and family members gathered at his gravesite on the grounds of Monticello. It is likely that Jefferson’s casket was wooden, built by Monticello slave John Hemings. The funeral of John Adams at the First Congregational Church (now known as the United First Parish Church) in Quincy, Massachusetts was held on July 7 and was attended by an estimated crowd of 4,000 people. Pastor Peter Whitney officiated the service. Although many people in Boston wanted Adams’s funeral to be held at the State House using taxpayer money, this idea was rejected by the Adams family. Nevertheless, cannons were fired from Mount Wollaston, bells rang, and the procession that took the president’s casket from the Adams’ home Peacefield to the church was followed by Massachusetts Governor Levi Lincoln, Jr., Harvard University President John Thornton Kirkland, members of the state legislature, and United States Congressman Daniel Webster