When a President Dies

President George H.W. Bush at his Oval Office desk

The public honors given to the 41stPresident of the United States, George H. W. Bush, brought clearly into focus the respect our country owes the office of the Presidency. However, many parts of President Bush’s obsequies were presented on television without much explanation of their origins. Knowing where and how things came to be make them even more worthy of honor, and I have been privileged in my research on Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and President Abraham Lincoln to have investigated these traditional formalities. Here are some of the back stories of the traditions with which President Bush was remembered this past week.

Not everyone gets the same honors. The 21-gun salute traces its origins back to early warriors who chose to empty their weapon caches, thereby rendering them useless. In the 14thcentury guns and cannons came into use. Because they only shot one projectile, they were shot once to render them ineffective. The first gun salutes were naval and numbered seven shots. Apparently, seven was a mystical number for a variety of reasons.

Land batteries had greater access to ammunition and could fire three guns for every one fired at sea. A land salute thereafter numbered 21 guns. When munitions science evolved to improve potassium nitrate, gunpowder could be kept drier at sea. At this point, the naval salute became 21 guns as well.

Cannon fire–about 1914

This salute is the highest honor a nation can render its heroes. It has changed over the years. In 1810, the War Department defined the “national salute” as equal to the number of states in the Union—there were 17 at that time. This salute was fired at noon on all American military installations on the 4thof July. The President also received a salute equal to the number of states whenever he visited a military installation.

In 1842 the salute for the President was changed to 21 guns. In 1890, the traditional Independence Day salute was set at the number of states. There are 50 states now, so 50 guns are also fired on all military installations equipped to do so at the close of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

President Bush received a 21-gun salute as his remains were carried to the rotunda of the U. S. Capitol. The guns were fired separately, which I loved. Quite often there are seven guns, each being fired three times. It adds up to 21, but still . . ..

Henry Clay

As to lying “in state” in the rotunda, this is only the 34thtime someone has been accorded this honor. It all started with Henry Clay. The Kentucky statesman had served in the House (including being the only person ever elected speaker on his first day in office) and Senate and had been secretary of state and the Whig Party’s presidential nominee three times. When he died at age 75, on June 29, 1852, in his room in Washington’s National Hotel, congressional leaders felt “Harry of the West” deserved a big sendoff.

Funeral services were held in the Senate chamber. Afterward, his casket was moved to the rotunda where, according to one account, a “vast multitude assembled” to view “all that remains of Henry Clay,” and a national tradition was born.

But as with all traditions, things are not as simple as they seem. One can “lie in state,” or “lie in honor.” Only presidents, military commanders, and members of Congress may officially “lie in state.” All others, such as Rosa Parks or the Reverend Billy Graham, “lie in honor.” And it does not happen automatically. It takes a congressional resolution or the approval of congressional leadership to approve this honor, and even then, it is not for sure. The family of the deceased must agree to it. The families of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon chose to decline this honor.

Part of the honor began in 1865. Lincoln’s death was unexpected, and a makeshift catafalque—the stand upon which a casket is placed—was cobbled together and draped with the darkest fabric that could be found to hold President Lincoln’s coffin. This structure, now shored up and expanded to fit modern caskets, is known as the Lincoln Catafalque. Its center is still the simple boards hammered together for Lincoln, and it holds the remains of those whose lives and careers have created the story of America. The fabric has been replaced several times, but the deep Victorian folds and the heavy tassels have always been duplicated exactly.

The folds & tassels on the Lincoln Catafalque

The most moving part of President George H. W. Bush’s funeral for me, however—with all the beautiful touches of history recalling Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and our service branches—was the simple fact that the cannons used to fire the 21-gun salute were lined up near the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial. It sits at the base of Capitol Hill, below the western front of the Capitol building itself. Every time the news coverage turned their cameras toward a cannon that had been fired, there was Grant, sitting astride Cincinnati and gazing down at the guns. Perhaps it is more so to those of us who study history, but the American Civil War is always there, daily, looking over us, charging us to keep things together, reminding us of what happens if we do not. Grant looks stern but confident.

Rest in peace, Mr. President.

Cannon with Grant looking on from the far background


Thanks to the Library of Congress, Architecture in Washington, and USA Today for these images.

A list of those who have lain in state or in honor in the Capitol rotunda: https://history.house.gov/Institution/Lie-In-State/Lie-In-State/

6 Responses to When a President Dies

  1. Wonderful post. President George H. W. Bush will be carried on a funeral train, just like Abraham Lincoln. This will be a much shorter trip and will go from Spring, Texas to College Station, Texas. The train will be pulled by Union Pacific locomotive 4141, which is painted in a scheme simulating Air Force One. President George H. W. Bush was the 41st President and that is the reason for the numbering of locomoitive UP4141. UP 4141 was painted this way in 2005 to honor the George Bush Presidential Library and has been in storage for the past few years. It was brought out of storage to pull this funeral train. The Union Pacific Railroad was started on July 1, 1862 and was part of the transcontinental railroad, part of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln.

    1. Thanks so much for your additional information. ECW has covered Lincoln’s funeral train as well in our train month several weeks ago. I hooe to get some good images of this historic event for future posting. I love those whistle-stop tours some of the candidates do. The busses just don’t have the same link to history for me. And thank you for your kind words.

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