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pound such a question. iMost of us have no wish to examine the
tradition critically. ^Mental inertia (as in so many other cases)
is prhnarily to blame. Every old Cantabrigian has been brought
up on the story, and that is enough. The more often it Ls re-
peated the more frrmly it is believed. To upset it would be as
painful a shock to our historic equilibrium as to declare the
truth that the Declaration of Independence was not signed on
the Fourth of July. Besides, the fame of the Elm has spread
over the whole country, so that it formed the best "sure-fire"
attraction in town for every visitor. To discredit it would in a

1 It was remarked that the President in his address made no reference to the
Elm.



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1925.] BATCHELDER: WASHINGTON ELM 49

manner impugn the good faith of the city. Lastly, some of us
devoutly believe the tradition has been handed down in an un-
broken chain from heroic Revolutionary sires. To disbelieve it
would somehow be not only unpatriotic but unfilial. Washing-
ton's Elm in short is as much an accepted part of American
history as his cherry tree, or the dollar that he tlirew across the
Potomac, or his wonderful twenty-two-foot jump.

But when we find, for instance, that such a painstaking and
judicious local historian as Paige, who had unrivalled opportuni-
ties for collecting and sifting evidence, and the greatest regard
for all authentic relics of the past, makes no reference to the
Elm in his account of Washington's arrival in Cambridge,^ we
are justified at least in assimaing an attitude of open-mindedness,
and in making some investigation of the subject along simple
and obvious lines.



First of all, then, what do the upholders of the tradition
claim?

Nothing at all, as I understand, concerning Washington's
arrival in Cambridge on Sunday, July 2 — but everything con-
cerning his "taking command" on Monday, July 3, 1775. This
simplifies matters at once ; for the events of those two days were
very different, and must be kept sharply separated in all that
follows.

The text, so to speak, of the traditionists, seems to be taken
from the letter which John Adams had written a fortnight before
from Philadelphia: "I hope the utmost politeness will be shown
to these officers [W^ashington and Lee] on their arrival. The
whole army, I think, should be drawn up upon the occasion,
and all the pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war dis-
played; — no powder burned, however."

This passage is not only sufficiently blatant in itself, but
(since the wTiter of course knew the utter impossibility of pomp
and circumstance in the American forces) it is positively silly.
Nevertheless the traditionists have seized upon his sentiments
and, ignoring the fact that he referred to the reception of both
the generals, have applied them to a perfectly distinct function

» History of Cambridge (1877), 421.



50 THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORICAL SOCIETY [Oct.

which apparently never entered his head. From the picture
which he suggests they have ideaUzed the ^-ision of a really
soul-stirring ceremony, and then, as an additional touch of
romance, have located it "under this tree."

A tj-pical account of the fully developed vision is in the
"Diary of Dorothy Dudley," under date of July 3, 1775:

"Today he [W'ashington] formally took command under one
of the grand old ehns on the Coimnon. It was a magnificent
sight. The majestic figure of the General mounted upon his
horse, beneath the wide-spreading branches of the patriarch
tree; the multitude thronging the plain around, and the houses
filled with interested spectators of the scene, while the air rung
with shouts of enthusiastic welcome as he drew his sword and
thus [sic] declared himself the Conunander-in-Chief of the Con-
tmental Army."

Let us simply remark in passing that John Adams' letter was
not a statement of fact but merely the expression of a wish —
not in the past tense but in the future. And very curiously we
shall find as we proceed that every other contemporary refer-
ence to the great event was also in the future tense. As for
Dorothy Dudley's diary, almost everyone knows by this time
that it is a Hterary forgery — and not a very clever forgery at
that — written for the centennial anniversary volume entitled
The Cambridge of 1776. Its whole phraseology is obviously
modern, and it is full of small inaccuracies. In this passage, for
example, the only house near by was the ]Moore house, built
about 1750, where the Shepard Church now stands: as Cam-
bridge had been virtually deserted by its inhabitants there could
have been no thronging multitude of spectators: and the army
was not then the Continental Army but the Army of the United
Colonies. All the same, the passage is worth repeating to show
the traditionists' state of mind. It is just the sort of thing which
our school children have been fed up with for generations. And
on the scene which it describes, the traditionists are ready to
stake "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor." ^

*The incident Ls pictured in substantially similar terms by sundr>' "popular"
historiaiLs, from Wa-siiington Irving (who seems to have started the whole thing)
to Henr>' Cabot Lodge. These gentlemen allow their enthusiasm for the mam
event — the first entry of Washington upon the military' scene which he was to
dominate for so many eventful years — to run away with their fidelity to detail.



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1925.] BATCHELDER: WASHINGTON ELM 51

Moreover, to clinch the effect of the printed word, the most
outrageous pictiucs have been pubUshed in the history books,
especially the school histories issued during the middle of the
last century. In these pictures the artists have allowed their
"historical imagination" to run amuck. Prancing steeds, dip-
ping colors, dear httle drmnmer boys, long rows of troops
ahgned to a hair's breadth, gorgeously uniformed, and present-
ing ghttering arms with fixed bayonets, thrill every youthful
heart, whUe smack in the middle of the front rank stands the
Elm, with just room for Washington, flourishing his sword, to
ride between it and his immaculate warriors,^ What child after
devouring such a scene could doubt the tradition for the rest of
his life?

II

Before we proceed, let us emphasize that it is agreed on all
hands we are dealing with a tradition. Now the value of a tradi-
tion varies inversely with the civiHzation of the community in
which it is found. Among savage tribes, where traditions are
handed down from father to son with solenm ritual, they are
as authentic as written records. But the invention of printing
may be said to have killed the rehability of tradition. As we all
know, any sort of statement now has only to be made in type to
be beheved. Have we not "seen it in the papers"? This bit of
psychology is the basis of all modern advertising.

A modern tradition is thus at the mercy of every unscrupu-
lous meddler who can rub one idea against another. x\s Carlyle
says in his Essays on History, " Our Letter of Instructions comes
to us in the saddest state; falsified, blotted out, torn, lost, and
but a shred of it in existence." In a modern community a tradi-
tion grows Uke Jack's Beanstalk, and sends out the most amaz-

All are carefully discussed (and discredited) by Charles Martyn on page 153 of
his recent scholarly and minute Life of Ariemas Ward. This writer devotes nriore
space and critical study to the events of early July, 1775, than any other whom
I have found.

1 Perhaps the most amazing of these pictures was published as the "front page
feature" of Ballou's Pictorial for July 7, 1855. It is credited to "Mr. Warren, the
artist." Washington, mounted apparently on a Shetland pony, is backed up tight
against the Elm, and gazes calmly off into space, surrounded by an indescribable
confusion of staff officers, orderlies, infantry in heavy marching order, cavalry,
cannon, and enthusiastic ladies standing up in barouches to point out the hero
to their children.



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52 THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORICAL SOCIETY [Oct.

ing ramifications. Witness the preposterous embellishment of
the Elm tradition — that Washington built a platform in its
branches where he was accustomed to sit and ''survey the
camps." ^ Considering that his view would have been limited
to a few hundred yards in any direction, this would indeed have
been a pleasant and restful method of spending time for a com-
mander almost driven to death by his manifold cares and re-
sponsibilities!

WTien we admit, then, that we are discussing a tradition, and
a tradition of modern times in a highly civilized community, it
is tantamount to saying that we are leaning upon a very feeble
reed. A tradition, for instance, connected with the founding of
Harvard College would be entitled to much more weight, be-
cause arising much earlier and in a much more primitive society.
But at the risk of breaking a butterfly on the wheel, let us try
to trace this tradition as far back as we can.

The first appearance in black and white that its champions
claim for it seems to be a short article by John Langdon Sibley
in his American Magazine of Useful Knowledge for 1837. The
crucial passage is this:

"WTiitfield stood in its shade and moved a vast multitude
by his eloquence. . • . The Revolutionary soldiers, who stood
shoulder to shoulder, — blessings be on their heads, — tell us
that when Washington arrived at Cambridge, he drew his
sword as commander-in-chief of the American army, for the
first time, beneath its boughs, and resolved within himself that
it should never be sheathed till the Hberties of his country were
established. Glorious old tree, that hast stood in sight of the
smoke of Lexington and Bunker's Hill battles, and weathered
the storms of many generations, — worthy of reverence."

Enthusiasm rather than accuracy marks this passage. The
author is flatly in error as to the Whitefield Elm, draws the long
bow as to the battle smoke, and docs not explain how the
Revolutionary soldiers could divine what Washington resolved
within himself! Such accessories appreciably weaken the main
statement. The article is chiefly interesting as containing the
first known picture of the Elm, with a signboard nailed to its
trunk for the direction of travellers.

» Cf. S. A. Drake, Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex (1874), 268.



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1925.] BATCHELDER: WASHINGTON ELM 53

In 1S44 another picture of the Ekn was made — a pencil
sketch by Miss Quincy, daughter of the president of Harvard.
According to a memorandum in the corner of this sketch, in
1830, or fourteen years earUer, ''an old resident" remembered
that Washington "stood" (not rode) at "about the place"
when he took command. Like Sibley, she gives no names or






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Earliest Know^ Picture of the Washington Elm, 1837

direct statements — all is vague and at second hand. This
seems to indicate that the tradition was then, so to speak, still
in its fluid or formative state. But old residents will remember
anything. The older they are the more they will remember.
We all know the story of the convivial octogenarian who before
dinner could remember George Washington, and after dinner
could remember Christopher Columbus.

Anyhow, it was evidently in the 1830's that the tradition
began to appear in recorded form. In all that long interval from
1775 there had been innumerable Fourth of July orations, politi-
cal sermons, and other patriotic harangues, many of them



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54 THE CAIVIBRIDGE HISTORICAL SOCIETY [Oct.

printed and preserved, which might easily have referred to such
a striking event. But nothing of the sort has been brought for-
ward by the traditionists. The tale apparently had no recorded
existence for over fiftj^ years !

In 1851, Benson J. Lossing, after a visit to Cambridge, printed
the story (with another sketch, showing the Moore house also)
in his Pictorial Ficld-Book of the Revolution. Here the embellish-
ments begin. Washington "walked" — he was then still on
foot — from his quarters to the tree, "stepped a few paces in
front, made some remarks, drew his sword, and formally took
command of the Continental Army." This is quite mild and un-
assuming — almost tentative. But unfortunately Lossing lo-
cates the Elm "on Washington Street"^ and "at the north
end of the Common"; and also locates Washington as then in
the Vassall-Longfellow house, "in which mansion, and at Winter
Hill, he passed most of his time." Further, in his Seventeen
Seventy-Six, published in 1847 without the tradition (i.e. before
he had seen Miss Quincy?), Lossing makes Washington arrive
in Cambridge on July 12. Thinking that such a frame for the
picture was rather shaky, the late Horace E. Scudder, in the
interests of local antiquaries, wrote to Lossing to ask where he
got his authority for the story. But no satisfactory answer was
ever received. ^

In 1S64 the thing became an accepted part of history by a
very simple device. The City of Cambridge, during the height
of the Civil War "patriotism, " did a good bit of propaganda by
erecting the granite tablet "to commemorate," as the vote of
the Aldermen vaguely read, "the Revolutionary event and
date that rendered said Tree historical." Of course after such
an indorsement from such an authority, no "100 per cent
American" could do otherwise than accept the "fact."

It was not till this period, by the way, that the Elm attracted
sufficient notice to be marked on the maps of Cambridge as one

^A retraction is necessary here. I find this portion of the way was knowTi as
Washington Street tiJl 1S48. It is a curious illustration of the early indifference to
(or doubt of) the tradition that the title was then deliberately dropped, and the
name Garden Street extended to the whole length of the thoroughfare. The public
interest of those days was plainly much greater in the Botanic Garden than in the
Elm — a condition long since reversed!

* For the above data I am mainly indebted to Professor Albert Bushnell Hart.



Vf>



1925.] BATCHELDER: WASHINGTON ELM 55

of the local points of interest. From that time its fame steadily
increased, fostered by scores of writers and hundreds of speakers,
until as has been said it became the Mecca of uncounted thou-
sands of tourists, sight-seers, and ''souvenir hounds" — the
city's chief "exliibition piece."

Thus snowball-like grew the tradition, from vague and feeble
beginnings ever gainmg, as it rolled along, in weight and im-
portance, till it represented the greatest Revolutionary event in
town. Nevertheless, ahiiost apocryphal as it seems in its present
form, we must not forget one point in its favor. A tradition may
grow and flower siu-prisingly ; but it doesn't grow like a kind of
historical orchid. It must have its root in something defmite.
Very few traditions associated with a given location spring from
nothing at all. If I point out to my little boy the crack in the
parlor floor where I once lost a quarter, my descendants will
doubtless in time show each other the very room where great-
grandfather was declared a bankrupt — but it will be the same
parlor.

Now it is a notable example of the survival of our ancestral
"tree worship" to consider what a number of famous trees
there are (or were) in Cambridge. There was the "\\Tiitefield
Elm" already noted. There was the "Election Oak" across the
Common, on the spot now marked by another tablet. There
was the "Spreading Chestnut Tree" beside which stood the
"village smithy," at the corner of Brattle and Story Streets.
There were the "Rebellion Tree" and the "Class Tree" in the
College Yard. There were the "PaUsade Willows" on Mount
Auburn Street, made famous by Lowell's poem. We confidently
challenge any other community to exhibit such an historical
and poetical arboretum.

Yet none of these trees have ever been associated with the
name of Washington. He has a tree all to himself . We will allow
the "unpatriotic" and the "un-American" and other e^nl-
minded persons to insinuate that as this particular tree was not
already "tagged" it was conveniently open to be assigned to
the Father of His Country. Let such cavillers go. We are quite
ready to admit that from the considerations above set forth
Washington probably did do something, active or passive, be-
neath his Ehn. The only question is — what?



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66 THE C.\]MBRIDGE HISTORICAL SOCIETY [Oct.



Ill

In trj'ing to answer the question we may first apply the
"process of exclusion," and consider (even, it is to be feared, at
tedious length) what he almost certainly did not do. Let us
begin with the ''antecedent probabihties." What was natural
and likely under the cii'cmnstances? \Vhat were the known
conditions under which Washington "took command"? And
what logically follows from them?

We may first discuss the topogi-aphy. The road from Water-
town (the most ancient travelled way in town) came down by
what is now Brattle Street, passing the scattered country seats
of the rich Tories, and tiu-ned into the present Mason Street.
Its lower end debouched upon the Common, then a perfectly
open plain. Aroimd the edge of the Common were several
dwellings, the schoolliouse, the Episcopal church, the grave-
yard, and the buildings of Harvard College. At this point,
therefore, the real village might be said to begin; and here stood
a big elm, either at the side of the road or just within the door-
yard of the Moore hoase already mentioned.

Now important military ceremonies do not normally take
place under roadside trees, especially with an excellent parade
ground only a few yards away. (If the Elm had stood in the
center of the Conmion instead of cramped against the edge and
almost in one corner, the probabilities would be much more in
its favor.) And in such an important affair as taking command
of an army, the leading figure of all would not naturally "take
cover" whether under a tree or any other shelter. The cere-
mony (if any) emphatically calls for him to seek an open space.
Or are we to assume that the immortal George, like the im-
mortal Robin Hood, sate himself down 'neath greenwood tree
and called on his merry men to gather round his leafy retreat?
No manual of tactics covers such an emergency. Perhaps an
exhibition drill by the Shriners — but why pursue the inquiry?

The supposition, by the way, that Washington "sheltered
himself from the heat beneath its branches" is too ridiculous to
be taken seriouslj^ Would a man in the prime of vigor, inured
to all weathers, act like a schoolgirl preserving her complexion?
Would a commander on his first appearance before his men give



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1925.] BATCHELDER: WASHINGTON ELM 57

such an example of trivial self-indulgence? Would Washington
confess himself inferior in stamina to sturdy farmers from the
haj-fields who two weeks before had sweated and blistered
through that infernal Seventeenth of June? Assuredly not —
but we are digressing.

Secondly, what inferences can be drawn from the date? It
was only a fortnight after Bunker Hill. Everybody expected —
and expected very naturally — that the British would follow
up their victory by another attack. This second attack did in
fact very nearly come off — though the historians have gener-
ally failed to notice the circumstance. A letter from Cambridge
(to which we shall have occasion to refer again) dated Monday,
July 3, states:

"Wlien the Generals were within twenty miles of the camp,
they received an express that the Parliamentary troops had,
on Saturday morning, about 6 o'clock, begun a very heavy
caimonading on the town of Roxbury, which continued better
than two hours, without intermission, tho' with httle or no loss
on the side of the Provincials, and that they expected a general
attack on Sunday, about two o'clock, at the time of high water;
that we had confirmed, and this I beheve was prevented by a
heavy rain, which began at half-past twelve, and continued till
late at night." ^

Even on the very day of the alleged ''taking command"
Glover's regiment (stationed just behind Harvard College) was
ordered to be ready to march at a minute's warning, to support
General Folsom ''in case his hue should be attacked."

Pretty plainly, then, the camp during those days was in a
state of considerable trepidation. The paramount need was to
strengthen the defences, and the army was strung out all the
way from Maiden to Roxbury, digging like beavers. In Cam-
bridge village there were not more than three or four regiments,
and even these were heavily depleted by drafts for the en-
trenching parties. To have assembled the army, or even a
respectable portion of it, for a grand parade on Cambridge
Common at that time would have been a risky business —
rather hke calling off the ditchers at a forest fire to attend a
political rally. And thus to assemble them, to bully or coax

1 Pennsylvania Gazette, July 12, 1775.



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58 THE CA]VIBRIDGE HISTORICAL SOCIETY [Ocrr.

them into any sort of mass formation (for according to Von
Steuben the men had an invincible habit of marching in single
file like the Indians), to go through any sort of ceremony, and
to disentangle them again would have taken up the best part of
a day. It is not likely that Washington would have sanctioned
any loss of time like that. Besides, he hunself was too desper-
atel}' anxious (as we shall see) to get a look at the enemj' and
the location of his own forces to wait for an\i;hing of the kind.

In the third place, what can we learn from those same sturdy
farmers? There probably never was an army — except perhaps
the late lamented Boers — so little fitted by inclination or by
training for ''fuss and feathers." The men, officers and all,
could shovel and shoot. At that point their military notions
stopped. Their drill was a farce. Timothy Pickering asserted
that not one officer out of five knew even the commands for the
simplest evolutions, much less how to execute them. Most of
the camps, according to Wilham Gordon, were in a condition of
most immiUtary nastiness. Nobody cared a fig for uniforms.
Washington had to order the officers to wear colored ribbons, at
least, so as to be distinguished in any way from the privates.
Even in the matter of an official flag there was so little interest
that the whole thing was left in abeyance until the war was
almost half done. Esprit de corps was entirely lacking. The
troops of each colony were under control of their own com-
manders only, and frequently not on good terms with their
neighbors. Up to that time, there is record of only one occasion
on which the bulk of the army had been assembled for concerted
manoeu\Tes — a practice march to Charlestown and back on
May 13 — a feat which seems to have astonished everybody
concerned, including the enemy. On one point indeed the army
seems to have been well supplied. There was, if countless family
traditions are to be beheved, a superabundance of drummer
boys. But as in the Civil War, this merely allowed the young-
sters to enlist and see the fun, and probably gave a painfully
uncertain quality of field music.

How are we going to construct a soul-stirring military func-
tion out of elements like these? WTiere do the illustrators get
the material for their elaborate uniforms, glittering arms, and
serried ranks of the army beneath the Elm? Is it probable that



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1925.] BATCHELDER: WASHINGTON ELM 59

the ofBcers would have attempted, or that Washington would
have encouraged, a spectacle that would have done nothing
but reflect discredit and ridicule upon his motley, fidgety, and
none-too-enthusiastic forces? Let any militia oflicer of today
reply.

And fourthly, how about W^ashington himself? It is well
known that he was extremely unassuming and modest — so
modest that when he was nominated for the high command by
the Continental Congress he immediately left the hall. We may
be sure that any pompous ceremony would not have been at
his own seeking. Moreover, none realized better that he was in
a very delicate position. As Charles Martyn points out, he was


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