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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Sunday, July 18, 2010

An Earlier Allusion: “Beneath the Venerable Elm…”

I interrupt my analysis of the Washington Elm’s decline and fall to share new information on its rise to fame. Yesterday Cambridge resident Robert Winters alerted me to an allusion to the tree predating John Langdon Sibley’s 1837 magazine article that apparently produced the term “Washington Elm.”

The author was politician, academician, and orator Edward Everett (shown here), and the occasion was his speech in Cambridge on 4 July 1826. He told the crowd how fortunate they were to be right where they were:
Here the first American army was formed; from this place, on the seventeenth of June, was detached the Spartan band that immortalized the heights of Charlestown—consecrated that day, with blood and fire, to the cause of American liberty.

Beneath the venerable elm which still shades the southwestern corner of the common, General Washington first unsheathed his sword at the head of an American army; and to that seat he was wont every Sunday to repair, to join in the supplications which were made for the welfare of his country.
A footnote identified “that seat” as “The first wall pew on the right hand of the pulpit,” which suggests Everett spoke in the Cambridge meetinghouse beside the common. I’ve seen evidence that Washington attended at least one service in that church, but not that he went there habitually.

In addition, on 4 July 1842, the Rev. Charles W. Upham of Salem delivered an oration in that city which said:
A more perfectly fitted and furnished character has never appeared, on the theatre of human action, than when, reining up his war-horse, beneath the majestic and venerable elm, still standing at the entrance of the old Watertown road upon Cambridge Common, George Washington unsheathed his sword, and assumed the command of the gathering armies of American liberty.
Both speeches were reprinted and anthologized in the 1800s, and Upham’s passage was quoted in several elocution textbooks, helping to seal the image of Washington under the elm in Americans’ minds. (Everett was also, you may recall, responsible for putting the Washington Elm on Cambridge’s city seal.)

TOMORROW: But nothing lasts forever.


Charles Bahne said...

The reference to "The first wall pew, on the right hand of the pulpit" is interesting. A pamphlet distributed in Christ Church today gives that as the exact location where General & Mrs. Washington sat when they worshipped at that church on December 31, 1775. I believe there is also a plaque on the wall next to that pew. However, other sources say that the church was only opened twice for services during the Revolution, since the congregation had fled to Boston. The second time was for the funeral of a British army officer, a prisoner of war from Saratoga, who died in Cambridge in 1777 or 1778.

I've read that the reopening of Christ Church in December 1775 was at Martha's request, since she had recently arrived in Cambridge. Like J. L., my understanding is that at other times Gen. Washington worshipped at the Congregational meetinghouse. The sources I've seen don't say how often Washington worshipped in the meetinghouse, just that he worshipped there.

That meetinghouse was located near the modern-day Lehman Hall in Harvard Yard, not far from today's Out Of Town newsstand. It was still standing in 1826, but would be demolished in 1833. The square then really was a square, and included part of the present Harvard Yard.

From other references in the text and intro of Everett's oration, it's clear that he was indeed speaking in the meetinghouse, which doubled as the town hall until 1832. And the footnote about the site of the pew is printed in the 1826 book -- Everett was obviously gesturing to the pew as he spoke on that July 4.

All this implies that Christ Church has its plaque on the wrong pew, and in the wrong building!

Or maybe Washington just liked to sit near the minister, no matter which church he was in.

J. L. Bell said...

The source on the Washingtons’ use of Christ Church in Cambridge is a letter from William Palfrey, the aide de camp to Gen. Charles Lee (and later to Washington) who led the service. That was a special service on 31 Dec 1775, and no other is known to have taken place during the siege.

In his sermon on the reopening of that church, the Rev. Nicholas Hoppin wrote: “It is more than probable that service was performed in the church on other occasions while the head-quarters of the army were at Cambridge. . . . There has always been a tradition in Cambridge that General Washington was in the habit of worshipping there; and when the church was repaired in 1825, a pew which he occupied was pointed out by a person who had been present. No written evidence however, other than that already given [Palfrey’s letter] has been found.” But of course Hoppin had every reason to connect his church with Washington.

J. L. Bell said...

I want to add that the phrase “venerable elm” was already on its way to cliché when Everett and Upham used it.