J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

“First in the hearts of his fellow-citizens” first?

Yesterday I quoted the famous praise for George Washington that appears in the House of Representatives’ record for 19 Dec 1799: “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Those words were entered into the record by Rep. John Marshall. However, Marshall always insisted that the credit belonged to his fellow Virginian, Rep. Henry Lee (often called “Light-Horse Harry” Lee and shown here).

In 1832 Marshall set down this recollection in a letter:
As the stage passed through Philadelphia, some passenger mentioned to a friend he saw in the street the death of General Washington. The report flew to the hall of Congress, and I was asked to move an adjournment. I did so.

General Lee was not at the time in the House. On receiving the intelligence which he did on the first arrival of the stage, he retired to his room and prepared the resolutions which were adopted with the intention of offering them himself.

But the House of Representatives had voted on my motion [to adjourn], and it was expected by all that I on the next day announce the lamentable event and propose resolutions adapted to the occasion.

General Lee immediately called on me and showed me his resolutions. He said it had now become improper for him to offer them, and wished me to take them. As I had not written anything myself and was pleased with his resolutions which I entirely approved, I told him I would offer them the next day when I should state to the House of Representatives the confirmation of the melancholy intelligence received the preceding day. I did so.
Marshall also wrote about that moment in his overly long biography of Washington, published in 1804-07. Circumspectly not naming himself, he wrote that the following “resolutions were prepared by general Lee, who happening not to be in his place when the melancholy intelligence was received and first mentioned in the house, placed them in the hands of the member who moved them”:
Resolved, that this house will wait on the president in condolence of this mournful event.

Resolved, that the speaker’s chair be shrouded with black, and that the members and officers of the house wear black during the session.

Resolved, that a committee, in conjunction with one from the Senate be appointed to consider on the most suitable manner of paying honour to the memory of the MAN, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.
Sharp-eyed readers will note that these clauses differ from what appears in the House record, quoted yesterday. The official resolutions spelled out “President of the United States” and called the event a “national calamity” instead of a “mournful event.” The third resolution is worded differently, and there’s a fourth about adjournment.

And when it comes to the most famous phrase, “first in the hearts of his countrymen” appeared in Marshall’s biography as “first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.”

The authors I’ve read don’t seem to know what to make of this. Some suggest that Marshall was simply wrong in his Washington biography, even though he wrote about an event that had happened only eight years before and the official House records were available to him (he was by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, after all).

Another possibility is that in the biography Marshall quoted the actual draft that Lee had handed him. In that case, “fellow-citizens” was the first version of “countrymen,” and Marshall or the House revised Lee’s language.

Within a couple of days the “countrymen” phrase had become official in both House and Senate resolutions, and Lee incorporated that into the public eulogy he delivered on 26 December.

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