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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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cambridge’s Revolutionary Elm

Cambridge’s Washington Elm died in 1923 after over two centuries of life, not always in the best of circumstances. The legend of that tree collapsed under its own weight soon afterward. From being what the New England Magazine called “perhaps the best known of all living American trees” in 1900, it went to being a slightly embarrassing lesson in believing everything one saw in one’s textbook.

Yet that tree had stood beside Cambridge common for over two hundred years. It was there when the Rev. George Whitefield preached outdoors, a moment in what a century later was dubbed the “First Great Awakening.” It was there from 1769 to 1772 when the royal governors, Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson, insisted that the Massachusetts legislature meet in Cambridge instead of Boston. It was there when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had a short session in the Cambridge meetinghouse.

The elm was standing when Earl Percy passed through central Cambridge with his reinforcement column on 19 Apr 1775. It was there when provincial troops assembled to march to Charlestown and fortify a part of Bunker Hill on 16 June. It was there on 8 September when volunteers for Benedict Arnold’s march through Maine to Quebec assembled on the common, where, orders said, “tents and everything necessary is provided for their reception.”

I think the most important Revolutionary event the elm “witnessed” was the Powder Alarm of 2 Sept 1774. On that day four thousand Massachusetts men were estimated to have marched onto Cambridge common from the west, mostly along the Watertown road and thus past that elm tree. Alarmed by rumors of an attack on Boston, they refused to leave until all the royally appointed Councilors in Cambridge had resigned their seats and the county sheriff had promised not to assist the Gov. Thomas Gage in further disarming the militias.

This was the Revolution “out of doors,” with the people en masse demanding change from their social superiors. Even the Boston Whigs were worried that the people would go too far. Yet that crowd was orderly enough to choose committees and take votes. On hearing that the worst rumors weren’t true, they had already left their muskets at a tavern near the town border and let their numbers do the talking. It was a hot day, so some men almost certainly stood in the elm trees’ shade.

Violence threatened to erupt when the Customs Commissioners happened by, and later as the crowd surrounded the house of Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver to demand that he resign as well. There was a lot of intimidation, but nobody was hurt that day.

By the end of 2 September those men, largely from Middlesex County, had made clear that a revolution in government was already well under way. The Crown no longer had any authority in Massachusetts beyond the range of its guns. Outside of Boston, the only government would be one the people chose. That shift is what the pieces of the “Washington Elm” could signify.

It’s notable that the legend of that elm spotlights a gentleman—a wealthy Virginia planter—coming to tame such militiamen. Textbooks such as Horace Scudder’s History of the United States emphasized how the New England troops were “undisciplined.” James Russell Lowell called the new commander “The incarnate discipline that was to free / With iron curb that armed democracy.”

Basically, the Washington Elm legend captured the site of the “out of doors” revolution of 2 Sept 1774 and turned it into the site of Gen. Washington’s descent into Cambridge, his firm hand calming those too-democratic farmers. And then when it turned out there’s no good evidence that Washington stood under that tree on any important occasion, the Washington Elm’s historic significance disappeared.

If that tree had been dubbed the “Cambridge Elm” or the “Revolutionary Elm,” it would have survived the debunking of one incident. (Though it still wouldn’t have survived city traffic.)

TOMORROW: So what did George Washington do on 3 July 1775?

(Plaque photograph courtesy of Merle Braley’s Just Outside Boston. As a real estate expert, he warns that this spot—right in the middle of traffic—is not one of the more desirable.)

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