Death, not birth, was the source of George Washington’s lasting fame. Whatever Washington had done right or wrong during his time on earth, when the Father of His Country passed on at Mount Vernon in December 1799 he also ascended to a special place in the American imagination. Grieving Philadelphians provided a mock funeral procession for an empty, draped casket led by a riderless horse. Even folks who didn’t know much care for the man while he was general or president joined Washington’s true and lasting following that continued in monuments all the way to the end of the new century.
No resting in peace for George Washington. Shortly after his burial at Mount Vernon, John James Barralet, an Irish-trained artist who arrived in Philadelphia during Washington’s second term in office (when the Capital resided in Philadelphia) imagined the restless scene in this commemorative engraving. It may as well have been real: the late President in his fresh burial clothes seems only a bit taken aback being met by allegorical figures of Immortality and Time. They lift Washington from his tomb while America mourns at his feet and Faith, Hope, Charity—behind an enthusiastic Bald Eagle—look on. This elevation, if not deification, came with the heady name of apotheosis, a treatment reserved only for very, very special characters since the days of ancient Greece and Rome.
Barralet’s print proved popular, so popular that British manufacturers of souvenir creamware in Liverpool and Staffordshire put aside the fact that they had been defeated by the late General and used their transfer printing process to put his image on a line of jugs for their United States market. Grieving Americans snapped them up.
The appetite for all forms of commercial and civic expressions in honor of the late President would include everything from statues to cities. Sculptor William Rush’s full-length figure in pine from 1815 was noble enough, but only a gesture compared with what Congress commissioned on the occasion of Washington’s 100th birthday in 1832. Sculptor Horatio Greenough was asked to carve a great statue in stone for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and delivered a 30-ton “Enthroned Washington” based on Zeus at Olympia. This seated, sandal-wearing and bare-chested Washington was relinquishing his god-like powers to the American people, but so many were shocked by the half-naked President they made sure he never made it into the hallowed halls of the Capitol.
Not until 1865 did a classical and monumental depiction of Washington find its way into the Capitol dome, now a fresco apotheosis inspired by another of Hercules. This time, a fully-clothed Washington rises in glory, surrounded by thirteen maidens (one maiden per each original state) and flanked by allegories of Liberty and Fame.
Did the apotheosis, that ever-reliable, classical rebuff of death appeal to Americans deeply stung by the losses of the Civil War? Absolutely. After Lincoln’s assassination, souvenir makers came to rescue once again with a carte-de-visite image of this late President’s arrival in heaven. This time, instead of being guided by god-like allegories, Lincoln arrives into the waiting arms of George Washington’s heavenly self, who places a laurel wreath on Lincoln’s head.
Times and tastes changed, of course. After enough time residing in heaven, a Sesquicentennial reenactor stationed at Independence Hall brought Washington (and the Liberty Bell) back to life on earth. Meanwhile, visitors to the nation’s 150th anniversary exhibition in South Philadelphia stayed awake sipping “George Washington’s Delicious Instant Coffee” suggesting that there’s really no end to the ways Americans can, and will, remember.