In 1927, the editor of the Chronicles of Oklahoma, Joseph B. Thoburn, editorialized about Samuel F. Batchelder’s recent attempt to tell the truth about the Washington Elm:
A paper, entitled “The Washington Elm Tradition,” by Samuel F. Batchelder, occupies thirty pages in the “Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society,” for 1925, in a laborious effort to prove that the popular tradition concerning the proximity of General Washington and his army to the noted old tree at the time of his assumption of command, in July, 1775, is without foundation in fact. Numerous authorities are cited, not because any of them throw any real light upon the subject but, seemingly, because none of them even mention it.I sometimes see this same attitude today. Thoburn didn’t find any weakness in Batchelder’s evidence or analysis. He must have recognized that quoting diaries that didn’t mention a ceremony on 3 July 1775 was relevant to the question of whether there was one and how strong the evidence was.
It would seem that, if there is a reasonable doubt as to the authenticity of the popular story concerning the Washington Elm, it should be possible to state the same in a few paragraphs. Exploding commonly accepted “traditions” and resolving popular “myths” into their elemental gases seems to be a favorite pastime of some historical writers, who manifest as much zeal, display as much erudition and use as much space in print as if engaged on some really constructive historical composition.
But Thoburn was clearly bothered by Batchelder’s conclusion, and apparently by having to accept. So he complained about his colleague spending effort on “Exploding commonly accepted ‘traditions’ and resolving popular ‘myths’.”
Thoburn didn’t seem bothered by the stacks of school textbooks, tourist guidebooks, histories, biographies, and even horticultural catalogues that had devoted many more pages to retelling the “tradition” or “myth” of the Washington Elm without a good factual basis.
TOMORROW: In discarding the Washington Elm, have we gone too far? Or, what should we do with all those souvenirs made from the tree?