Two hundred years ago last night, George Washington died in his bed at Mount Vernon. At the time, the nation could not grasp the loss. Citizens draped themselves in black for months, and a Christ-like rendering of Washington in Heaven appeared in newspapers within days.
Today, in contrast, historians say, the nation has a hard time grasping the stature or significance of the man whose face people see every day on the dollar bill. But all year, and especially yesterday, the staff of Mount Vernon and admirers of the first president have asked the nation to try.
The effort, spread across hundreds of communities in all 50 states, has its culmination this week at the estate that was Washington's home for 45 years.
Yesterday, every visitor to Mount Vernon was given a black armband. The mansion was stripped of Christmas decorations. And as the hour of Washington's death approached, staff members and family descendants drew the window shutters and draped every mirror with black cloth.
This Saturday, with great fanfare, staff and volunteers will reenact the Mount Vernon funeral of George Washington.
All over the nation, flags were at half-staff yesterday, and bells tolled at 1 p.m. Eastern time to honor the nation's first president.
If historians worry that Washington has been overshadowed by some of his more colorful contemporaries, they might have taken heart yesterday. The day's intensity worked its magic on many a visitor to Mount Vernon.
Larry Weber, a city worker from Cincinnati, wearing his black armband and standing in Martha Washington's kitchen, spoke of Washington and Abraham Lincoln in one breath.
"To walk in their steps and to be where they thought the thoughts and made the decisions that made this country what it is today--how can you pass up that opportunity?"
Others who revere the gentleman farmer who won a war, started a nation and then returned to farming tried to explain why he still moves them.
"This means a lot to us," said Eritrean immigrant Eden Ghebreab, who was chaperoning a school trip. She drew a parallel with her native land, which achieved independence in 1993. "Our Eritrean president is like George Washington. What Washington did for America--delivered independence--he did for us."
Outside the confines of the 8,000-acre estate, the modest president would have been humbled by the salutes he received.
Residents in Newport, R.I., and Seattle laid wreaths at statues of the first president yesterday. At a commemorative dinner last night in Erie County, Pa., history buff Carl Anderson III planned to give a modern-day eulogy. And closer to Washington's home, Bill Kehoe soberly stood in the rain and hung a wreath with an elaborate black bow on the historic Friendship Firehouse in Old Town, where Washington once served.
Historian Garry Wills called Washington the country's "unifying icon."
After leading a small and frightened army to victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington stunned Europe by not seizing power. Instead, he returned to Mount Vernon to farm, thereby establishing the precedent that "the military did not rule and the people did. And that precedent has held for 200-some years," said John Riley, a former staff historian at Mount Vernon.
Washington had a tremendous impact on the capital region, selecting the sites for both the U.S. Capitol and the White House and the designers for both, said Riley, who suggested that people should feel his presence when they walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.
He was one of the nation's leading farmers, experimenting with crop rotation and new techniques for separating wheat from chaff, including construction of a two-story, circular barn that is re-created at Mount Vernon today.
Another legacy, this one tainted, historians acknowledge, is that he inherited and kept slaves, though he was far ahead of his time in ordering them released upon his wife's death.
In his book "Certain Trumpets," Wills writes that Washington's contemporaries "thought him the most exciting man in the room, even when the other men in the room were Franklin and Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton."
Even so, said Mount Vernon Director James C. Rees, modern history books devote one-tenth the number of pages to Washington that those 40 years ago did.
And this for a man whose name Abraham Lincoln called "the mightiest . . . on earth. . . . To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is alike impossible."
Yesterday, as she began a tour of Mount Vernon with her fourth-grade class from Arlington's Way of Faith Christian Academy, Tabitha Ellis, 9, explained the same phenomenon as she understands it:
"He started the government, and he did a lot of stuff for our country."
CAPTION: Cheryl Lillie attends the somber tour explaining the funeral procession for George Washington at his Mount Vernon estate.
CAPTION: Peg Henry-Pokusa, who leads the funeral procession tour at Mount Vernon, has black armbands for visitors to wear on the 200th anniversary of George Washington's death. The estate at Mount Vernon was home to the nation's first president for 45 years.
CAPTION: Mourning ribbons tie the shutters closed at Washington's Mount Vernon. His funeral will be reenacted Saturday.
CAPTION: Nancey Drinkwine irons the felt on the outer coffin to be used in Saturday's reenactment of George Washington's funeral procession at Mount Vernon.