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.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.
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.
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.