The Inauguration of Washington. As First President of the United States, April 30th 1789, At the Old City Hall, New York. The oath of office was administered by Chancellor Livingston of the State of New York. Mr. Otis the Secretary of the Senate holding up the Bible on a crimson cushion. By Currier & Ives. Hand-colored lithograph, 1876. Public Domain.

Those familiar with the history of Congressional Cemetery are likely aware that the Public Vault temporarily housed the remains of three U.S. presidents: William Henry Harrison in 1841, John Quincy Adams in 1848, and Zachary Taylor in 1850. It’s popularly known that the cemetery also sheltered the body of First Lady Dolley Madison for nine years, from her death in 1849 until 1858, when private funds were raised to lay her to rest beside President James Madison at their Virginia plantation, located 100 miles southwest in Montpelier Station. These temporary internments illustrate Congressional’s proximity to political power despite the fact that no commander-in-chief or leading lady of the land stand as permanent residents. However, its 35-acre grounds do cradle the remains of numerous people with ties to the White House and the office of the presidency: aides, a private secretary, five cabinet members, an assassination conspirator, and a vice president are just some of the HCC residents whose lives intersected with our nation’s chief executives.

These figures did not serve as presidents themselves, but they still profoundly influenced the highest office in the land and its occupants. First Lady Hillary Clinton popularized the idea that “it takes a village” to raise a child. The adage is also true of presidents. On this Washington’s Birthday (colloquially known as Presidents’ Day), Congressional Cemetery delves into the narratives of some of these comparatively overlooked White House connections and the ways in which they helped – or in some instances, hurt – the presidents’ ability to fulfill their duties.

First Friends: George Washington Connections

Washington’s Birthday commemorates the first U.S. president to serve under the Constitution. George Washington took the first oath of office on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall in Manhattan and he relied on dozens of individuals to execute his official duties, including at his inauguration. The person who held the St. John’s Lodge Bible used in the ceremony was the secretary of the Senate, Samuel Allyne Otis. A Massachusetts native and Harvard graduate, Otis served in the commonwealth’s state legislature and then in the Congress of the Confederation prior to the adoption of the Constitution. Otis followed the Senate from its original location in New York to the second capital in Philadelphia, and then finally to Washington, D.C. He is reputed to have never missed a day of work, and he fulfilled his administrative duties as secretary until his death in 1814, concluding a still-record quarter of a century in the role. He was laid to rest in Range 30.

Mere feet from Otis is the grave of someone with deeper ties to the first president: Washington’s personal secretary, Tobias Lear. Washington hired Lear in 1786 to manage his correspondence and his expense reports submitted to the Confederation Congress. He continued in this role during Washington’s presidency, assisting the first president with various executive functions. Lear also tutored the Washington grandchildren and married into the family in 1795. The details of Washington’s final illness, including his last words of “’Tis well,” and his time of death, are known thanks to Lear’s notes. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1816. The epitaph on his box tomb is the origin of one of Congressional Cemetery’s nicknames, “The City of Silence.”

The final resting place of Horatio King. Photo by Kitty Linton.

A Bit of Advice: The Cabinet

Washington assembled the first presidential cabinet during his first term. He created the body to resemble his war council that advised him during the Revolutionary War. All subsequent presidents have followed his precedent and gathered department heads together to provide advice and carry out policies.

Five cabinet members currently call Congressional home. Robert Mosbacher, who worked as the finance chairman of Gerald Ford’s unsuccessful 1976 campaign, served as secretary of commerce under George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1992. Acting Postmaster General Horatio King filled a vacancy left by his predecessor, Joseph Holt, in December 1860, and then was appointed to the position properly for the final three weeks of James Buchanan’s term. In contrast to King’s brief tenure, William Wirt, entombed in Range 50, is one of the longest-serving cabinet members. He was one of only ten cabinet officials to serve over a decade, and he is still the longest-tenured attorney general, serving during John Quincy Adams’s presidency and James Monroe’s two terms before that. One of Wirt’s predecessors as AG, William Pinkney, was in James Madison’s cabinet from December 1811 to February 1814. Pinkney then served as one of Maryland’s U.S. senators from 1819 to 1822, when he died. He is buried beneath one of Congressional’s distinctive Cenotaphs. Georgian John Forsyth held the post of secretary of state during the administrations of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. He is interred in Range 37.

The grave of Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher. “He Cared.” Photo by Kitty Linton.

Multiple cabinet members have left Congressional Cemetery for other environs. President John Quincy Adams, who previously served as James Monroe’s secretary of state, was returned home to Quincy, Massachusetts, after his ten-day stay in the Public Vault from February 26 to March 6, 1848. Abel P. Upshur served in President John Tyler’s cabinet, first as secretary of the Navy, and then as secretary of state. It was the latter office Upshur occupied on February 28, 1844, when he was killed during a canon demonstration gone awry aboard the USS Princeton. Upshur was buried at Congressional in Range 54 until 1895, at which time he was disinterred and reburied at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Secretary of War John Rawlins died in office in September 1869, and President Ulysses S. Grant participated in his funeral procession to Congressional. Rawlins’s permanent resting place is at Arlington National Cemetery. John C. Calhoun served as vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, but bookended his time as VP by serving in James Monroe’s cabinet as war secretary and John Tyler’s as secretary of state. Calhoun has a Cenotaph at Congressional and stayed in the Public Vault in 1850. Although Calhoun’s body was soon transported from Congressional to his native South Carolina, his young daughter, Elizabeth, rests here, as does the offspring of another of the Senate’s nineteenth-century triumvirate, Henry Clay, the loser of three presidential elections. Clay, who was John Quincy Adams’s secretary of state, is memorialized with a Cenotaph immediately next to Calhoun’s.

The Lincoln Presidency at Congressional

Abraham Lincoln, a celebrated team builder and delegator, stands as the president with the most connections to Congressional Cemetery’s residents. Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton participated in the funeral procession of seventeen of the victims of the June 1864 Arsenal explosion, fifteen of whom are buried under the monument sculpted by Lot Flannery. Close to the gatehouse, in Range 53, lies the grave of Ann G. Sprigg. During Lincoln’s lone term as a member of the House of Representatives (1847 to 1849), Sprigg was the future president’s landlady. When Sprigg fell on hard times during the Civil War, Lincoln wrote to his Treasury secretary and inquired if he could find a position in the department for his former landlady. Benjamin Brown French was the chief marshal of Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration, and Lincoln re-installed French to his previous position of public buildings commissioner that September. He worked closely with First Lady Mary Lincoln, and the disclosure of French’s diary entries illuminated many of the inner workings of the Lincoln White House. Ultimately, he oversaw the funeral arrangements for the Lincolns’ son Willie in 1862 and for the president himself in 1865.

This towering obelisk marks the final resting place of Benjamin Brown French. Photo by Kitty Linton.

Lincoln assassination connections are plentiful at Congressional Cemetery. White House messenger Charles Forbes sat outside the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. Around 10:00 p.m., renowned actor John Wilkes Booth presented Forbes with a paper or calling card, which Forbes accepted and then allowed him to enter the box. His grave, marked by the Lincoln Group of Washington in 1983, notes that Forbes accompanied President and Mrs. Lincoln to the theatre that fateful night, but does not divulge that Forbes was the person who let Booth into the box.

David Herold never met Lincoln, but he was one of four people sentenced to death for their role in the 16th president’s assassination. Originally consigned to the earth by the site of the gallows at the Washington Arsenal, in 1869 his family secured permission to take possession of his body. Herold was buried here at Congressional in Range 46, with the only indication of his occupancy being the inscribed stones of other kin in the family plot.

Charles Forbes. Courtesy of Picture History.

Mathew Brady, Photographer to the Presidents

Mathew Brady sits for his portrait in 1875.

Visually, the most clear-cut presidential connection is Mathew Brady, the acclaimed photographer whose daguerreotypes vividly captured the likenesses of many famous personalities of the nineteenth century. They included every president from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley, with the exception of William Henry Harrison – an astonishing nineteen in total. Brady notably took several images of Abraham Lincoln, including one that served as the basis for his portrait on the five-dollar bill. Lincoln asserted that Brady’s work, specifically his photograph of the then-presidential candidate after his 1860 Cooper Union speech, “made me President of the United States.” His other subjects included First Lady Dolley Madison, presidential candidate Belva Lockwood, and John Wilkes Booth. The Mathew Brady Memorial, dedicated beside his grave in 2022, includes tiles that show recreated samples of Brady’s handiwork, including images of the presidential connections who reside at Congressional Cemetery.

Abraham Lincoln’s statue at the Mathew Brady Memorial. Photo courtesy of Kitty Linton.

Not So Sudden Impact: Congressional’s Vice Presidents

Since the administration of Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), presidents tend to have close working relationships with their vice presidents. Vice presidents often sit in on cabinet meetings and can be “the last person in the room on every major decision.” Presidents have not always relied on their vice presidents as much. Their primary – and sometimes only – duty was to preside over the Senate and cast the occasional tie-breaking vote. Generally, vice presidents were chosen solely for electoral purposes, to balance out a national ticket by representing a different region of the country than the presidential candidate, or to satisfy another wing of the political party. Such is the case with New Yorker George Clinton, who ran with both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two Virginians. Clinton was buried in Range 31 from the time he died in office in 1812 until 1908, when his remains and his 6,000-lb limestone monument were removed to Kingston, New York. Clinton was succeeded as James Madison’s vice president by fellow northerner Elbridge Gerry, who likewise died in office, in 1814. His 12-foot memorial of Massachusetts marble, topped by a “towering and animated flame,” is one of the most unique older monuments at Congressional. Calhoun, for his part, raised the ire of Andrew Jackson for his role in the 1832 nullification crisis, and Jackson later lamented that he did not hang Calhoun.

The presidents can easily be viewed as monolithic figures in American history, yet this interpretation of them can obfuscate the hundreds of individuals who influenced the course of their presidencies. Congressional Cemetery’s presidentially-connected residents help illustrate that presidencies are not singular ventures, but the products of the American people.

By: Kurt Deion

Education Specialist and Future Resident

Historic Congressional Cemetery

Edited by A.J. Orlikoff, Director of Programming

Works Cited:

Associated Press. “Biden Casts Himself as Obama’s Kindred Spirit.” YouTube, 1:18. October 20, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NXuDgxACrk.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon. “Tobias Lear.” Accessed February 12, 2024. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/tobias-lear/.

Reynolds, Hugh. “Old Dutch the center of Friday’s Clinton commemoration.” Hudson Valley One. April 16, 2012. https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2012/04/16/old-dutch-the-center-of-fridays-clinton-commemoration/.

Swanson, James L. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. Boston: Mariner Books, 2007.

Verheyen, Egon. “William and John Frazee’s Gerry Monument in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 52 (1989): 92–103. Accessed January 17, 2022. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40067861.