When Edward Everett designed a seal for the city of Cambridge in 1846, he included the Washington Elm alongside a Harvard building (now gone) built with a bequest from Christopher Gore.
As Thomas J. Campanella discusses in Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm (2003), those images had particular appeal in the middle of the nineteenth century because they represented Cambridge’s past more than its present.
Cambridge was no longer a rural college town, but an industrial city with a growing immigrant population. Streets were getting crowded; in fact, the Washington Elm had ended up on what we’d now call a traffic island in the middle of a broadening road.
In 1864, the city of Cambridge honored the Washington Elm in another way, installing a granite monument at its side to proclaim its place in the nation’s history. That was, of course, in the middle of a very big, deadly fight over the meaning of that history.
According to tradition reported as early as 1884 (in the Bay State Monthly), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed the line on that monument:
Under This TreeI can’t say I recognize Longfellow’s poetic touch in those words. But he was quite aware of the tree, and appears to have had strong feelings for it. In April 1871 Longfellow transplanted a seedling from the elm on his property, and in March 1875 the city forester brought him some items made from branches that had been pruned off the big tree.
First Took Command
July 30, 1775.
In between those events Longfellow lobbied the mayor to preserve the Whitefield Elm (discussed yesterday). When it came down anyway, he wrote in his diary, “Cambridge has an ill renown for destroying trees.” All the more reason to memorialize them.
TOMORROW: So where’s the historical evidence?