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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Friday, October 26, 2007

Rev. Waldo and Gen. Washington

On Wednesday I promised an 1846 version of the story of Gen. George Washington greeting his new New England troops by reading from the 101st Psalm. (I started tracing that story back through sources in this posting.)

The following article appeared in Boston’s Emancipator newspaper (also called the Emancipator and Republican) on 29 July 1846. It may have appeared even earlier in the Boston Journal, which is the newspaper that the Southern Patriot of Charleston, South Carolina, credited when it picked up the piece. The article was also reprinted over the next year in the Connecticut Courant and the Friend of Salem, Massachusetts. Harriet Beecher Stowe might have read the tale in a newspaper before she retold in Oldtown Fireside Stories, though in 1846 she was living in Ohio.


The Rev. Mr. Waldo, an old revolutionary veteran from Connecticut, who attended the celebration at Westfield [Massachusetts?] on the 4th, made himself quite interesting at the dinner table. He is now nearly ninety years old, but is in the vigor of a green old age and was able to preach two sermons last Sabbath.
(There were probably not a lot of ministers from Connecticut named Waldo who had fought in the Revolutionary War and were in their late eighties in 1846. Those clues point to the long-lived Rev. Daniel Waldo as the subject of this newspaper article. The photograph of him above comes from the Clements Library website.)

In his remarks he referred to the allusion made by the orator to Washington, and observed that he never heard even the name of that glorious chieftain and good man, “without feeling the cold chills through his whole system.”

He remarked that there was a single incident that came within his personal knowledge which he believed was not generally known. It was that Washington, on the day that he assumed the command of the American Army at Cambridge, read and caused to be sung the 101st Psalm, a portion of which we publish... [verses 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of the version in this book]

This psalm the reverend worthy deaconed off to the company in true primitive style, a line at a time, which was sung to the tune of “Old Hundred,” that tune being as the old veteran said, “just the thing for it.”

Modern improvements in Psalmody have almost obliterated the good old Psalms and Hymns with many of the tunes that the fathers sang with so much spirit and understanding. Such a Psalm as the one quoted above would be deemed a political one now a-days, and sorry are we to say it, very many ministers would hardly deem it a proper one to be sung on public occasions.
(Since the Emancipator was an Abolitionist paper, my first interpretation of the last paragraph was that it alluded to criticism that Abolitionism mixed politics and religion. However, the Southern Patriot printed that paragraph as well.)

Where did Waldo come by this story of Washington in Cambridge? He reportedly said that it “came within his personal knowledge [but] was not generally known,” implying that he had not seen it published. But Waldo could not have witnessed the event himself. He was only twelve years old when Washington took command of the troops, and many miles from Cambridge. Waldo joined the Continental Army in 1778 and, according to his profile in E. B. Hillard’s The Last Men of the Revolution (1864), “never saw either Washington or La Fayette.” I’ve found no connection between Waldo and the area of New Hampshire where Andrew Leavitt was reportedly telling the same story until his death earlier in 1846.

An even earlier printed version of this tale may yet surface, which would require revising some of the following thoughts. But for now here are some speculations about the truth behind this tale.

One possibility is that Washington really did read the 101st Psalm as a way to win over his New England troops. Yet no one recorded this impressive (and uncharacteristic) event in newspapers, letters, or diaries of the time. No one outside one small area of southern New Hampshire claimed to have witnessed it. And, even as the story was somehow spreading far enough to reach Waldo (who lived in Connecticut until 1835 and then in upstate New York), no one put it into print until more than seventy years after the event. That scenario strikes me as unlikely.

Another possibility is that Capt. Josiah Crosby’s company greeted Washington by singing Isaac Watts’s psalm; he responded with polite, dignified thanks; and the story got polished in retelling to have the general read the psalm first. Such a story might well have seemed like a fine way to inspire children and/or congregants with faith and patriotism (mixing religion and politics, some would have said back then). That scenario would fit with all we know about Washington and the pious New England army he came to command. But it wouldn’t explain how the story got to Waldo.

Here’s my pet theory. Andrew Leavitt, known for his religious fervor, told this story to his grandchildren, improving it over time. Some of those children grew up to be the Hutchinson Singers. They traveled around the U.S. of A., speaking against slavery and singing—maybe even using Grandpa Leavitt’s tale to introduce performances of the 101st Psalm. They carried the story to the Rev. Waldo in Syracuse and Mrs. Stowe in Cincinnati. (I must acknowledge, however, that the “Washington’s Psalm” tale doesn’t appear when this 1896 biography of the Hutchinsons describes Grandpa Leavitt’s service in the Revolutionary War, where this scenario implies it should.)

COMING UP: A completely different legend of Washington and the 101st Psalm, and how historians have dealt with that.

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