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From the Serial Set: Before It Was Presidents’ Day…

The following is a guest post by Bailey DeSimone, a library technician (metadata) in the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress.

Correspondence between the Congress and the American public is essential in understanding legislative decision-making. Among the documents and journals of the Serial Set, we’ve discovered reprints of letters between Congress and the Washington family in regards to the famed first president of the United States.

Presidents’ Day was first observed as a federal holiday in 1885, in commemoration of George Washington’s birthday (February 22, 1732). That is why the official name of the holiday, although rarely used, is still “Washington’s birthday.” By his centennial birthday, Washington’s posthumous future was subject to much debate in Congress.

On February 22, 1830, Maryland Representative George Edward Mitchell proposed to relocate Washington’s remains to a “national entombment…in the Capitol, in the City of Washington.” (H.R. Rep. No. 21-318, at 2 (1830), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 201). Mitchell drew upon previously approved resolutions from 1783-1799 for support. By this time, the Architect of the Capitol had constructed a tomb for Washington underneath the Capitol Rotunda (completed in 1829), overcoming one of the barriers preventing the motion from being carried out in full. The tomb still stands in the Capitol Crypt and is a part of U.S. Capitol visitor tours.

While both Washington’s will and Martha Washington’s wishes were to keep his remains at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, a 1799 testimonial expressed Martha Washington’s “sacrifice of individual feeling…to a sense of public duty.” She consented to Congress’s wishes after recognizing Washington’s legacy in the lives of the American people. “[H]is best services and most anxious wishes were always devoted to the welfare and happiness of his country.” (H.R. Rep. No. 21-318, at 5 (1830), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 201).

In 1832, following a failed grave robbery at Mount Vernon during which a former employee attempted to steal Washington’s skull, the motion was reexamined. Passing firstly through the Senate and then the House, Vice President John C. Calhoun and Speaker of the House Andrew Stevenson were authorized by a joint committee to write to John A. Washington, then the keeper of Mount Vernon, and George Washington Parke Custis for permission to exhume and transfer the Washingtons’ remains to the Capitol building tomb. This request was made on February 22, 1832, in commemoration of George Washington’s centennial year.

Text of Letter from John C. Calhoun and Andrew Stevenson to John A. Washington. S. Journal, 22nd Cong., 1st Sess. 140 (1832), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 211. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

George W. P. Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, supported the motion. He affirmed his “most hearty consent,” congratulating “the Government upon the approaching consummation of a great act of national gratitude.” (H. Journal, 22nd Cong., 1st Sess. 368 (1832), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 215).

Text of Response of George W. P. Custis to the U.S. Congress. H. Journal, 22nd Cong., 1st Sess. 368 (1832), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 215. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

However, the Washingtons’ remains never left Mount Vernon. Of Washington’s will, John A. Washington wrote:

“But when I recollect that his will, in respect to the disposition of his remains, has been recently carried into full effect, and that they now repose in perfect tranquillity [sic], surrounded by those of other endeared members of the family, I hope Congress will do justice to the motives which seem to me to require that I should not consent to their separation.” (H. Journal, 22nd Cong., 1st Sess. 367 (1832), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 215).

Text of Response of John A. Washington to the U.S. Congress. H. Journal, 22nd Cong., 1st Sess. 367 (1832), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 215. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

The question of how to commemorate Washington’s legacy is one of the many joint resolutions that has come before Congress, but was not fully effected. Nonetheless, the testimonies of the Washington family, along with many others in the time span of the Serial Set, invaluably personalize legislative history. Although the tomb in the Capitol Crypt was never put to its intended use, the legacy of George Washington, as preserved in these testimonies, continues with the annual celebration of Presidents’ Day.

Digital copies of the House and Senate Journal are accessible through A Century of Lawmaking. House Reports, like the one that inspired this post, and more will soon follow with the full digitization of the Serial Set.

One Comment

  1. Elina Lee
    February 18, 2020 at 9:34 am

    Thank you. I really enjoyed reading your post.

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