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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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Little Lady Who Started the Anecdote?

As I’ve been documenting, in 1878 and then in 1883, New Hampshire writers put into print a story that they said they’d heard from Revolutionary War veteran Andrew Leavitt more than three decades before: that on taking command of the Continental Army in Cambridge in July 1775, Gen. George Washington had read his men the 101st Psalm.

Soon after I started looking into that tale, I found a version published in 1872. It wasn’t credited to Leavitt, and I could find no link between its author and the part of New Hampshire where Leavitt had lived. Most interestingly, this version was clearly presented in a fictional story.

The author was Harriet Beecher Stowe (pictured here, courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center), and she told the story in a volume called Oldtown Fireside Stories. This was a sequel to her Oldtown Folks, inspired by her husband Calvin’s upbringing in Natick, Massachusetts, in the early 1800s. Stowe turned her husband’s (and her own) memories of growing up in New England into tales of eccentric relations and small-town characters, particularly Sam Lawson, introduced as “The Village Do-Nothing.” Sam is kind-hearted, unreliable, and a fine storyteller—which made him popular enough that the second volume is sometimes called Sam Lawson’s Oldtown Fireside Stories.

The tale at issue is “Oldtown Fireside Talks of the Revolution,” a collection of anecdotes put into the mouths of the narrator’s grandfather and Sam Lawson. And here’s the relevant passage:

“Your granfather Stowe, boys, was orderly of the day when General Washington took the command at Cambridge.”

“Wal,” said Sam, “I was in Cambridge that day and saw it all. Ye see, the army was drawn up under the big elm there; and Ike Newel and I, we clim up into a tree, and got a place where we could look down and see. I wa’n’t but ten year old then; but, if ever a mortal man looked like the angel of the Lord, the gineral looked like it that day.”

“Some said that there was trouble about having General [Artemas] Ward give up the command to a Southern man,” said my grandfather. “General Ward was a brave man and very popular; but everybody was satisfied when they came to know General Washington.”

“There couldn’t no minister have seemed more godly than he did that day,” said Sam. “He read out of the hymn-book the hundred and first Psalm.”

“What is that psalm?” said I.

“Laws, boys! I know it by heart,” said Sam, “I was so impressed hearin’ on him read it. I can say it to you...”
Lawson then recites verses 1, 2, 5, and 7 of Isaac Watts’s translation of that psalm, as printed here.

Stowe presented Sam and grandfather Stowe as fictional characters, retelling some standard late-1800s American tales of how the Revolution began. We now know some of those notions were limited, others simply wrong. For example, the “elm” in Cambridge that Sam talks about, while featured in Benson J. Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution and subsequent books, is not mentioned in any sources from 1775 or soon after.

When I found this 1872 version of the psalm story by a best-selling fiction writer, my first thought was that Daniel F. Secomb might have mixed it in with his memories of listening to Andrew Leavitt when he wrote his history of Amherst, New Hampshire, in 1883. After all, when a story appears in print as fiction years before anyone writes that it really happened, that casts doubt on the historical version. To point to the most notorious example, the main reason we call the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion a fraud is that, while the book was presented as notes of a meeting that took place in either 1897 or 1902-03, it echoes passages from the 1864 satire Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu (Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu).

Finding the 1878 newspaper profile of Andrew Leavitt containing the same story changed my thinking. And all along I’d been wondering about that rival version of the tale from the Wallace family of Milford, New Hampshire. The psalm story had clearly circulated in the Amherst-Milford area for decades.

Furthermore, it looked like Stowe had probably come across the same story in a source that she felt was reliable. She didn’t seem to invent Revolutionary anecdotes out of whole cloth for Oldtown Fireside Stories; instead, she presented widely accepted stories through a fictionalized lens. (This saved her from having to make up so much stuff.) Though we now understand the “Washington elm” that Sam Lawson mentioned to be a myth, in 1872 everyone believed in the importance of that tree on Cambridge Common.

I therefore suspected there was probably an even earlier printed version of the story of Gen. Washington and the 101st Psalm which inspired Stowe.

COMING UP: A “Washington’s Psalm” tale from 1846.


Anonymous said...

I've been following your story about Washington and the Psalm and find it fascinating. My impression is that when Andrew was giving his account of Washington he had thought about that day so much that he actually believe Washington did read the Psalm. Given that he was a very religious man, maybe Andrew wanted to believe Washington did read the Psalm and over time and old age he couldn't distinguished what was true and what he made up. Great stuff, looking forward to your next posting on the matter.

J. L. Bell said...

That may indeed have been the case. One of the approaches I've been taking to Revolutionary legends is to think of how they might have gotten into the history books without anyone knowingly trying to deceive the nation, without anyone being deluded about what they've experienced.

For instance, a grandma tells a story to her grandkids to entertain or inspire them, saying it's about an ancestor. The grandma never thinks that adults will believe this tale, or that it will go out of the family. The grandkids grow up believing that story to be true. Long after the grandma's gone, they take it to their local historians.

That's a possible scenario for the legends of Betsy Ross, Sybil Ludington, John Honyman, John Pedrick, and many other examples.

Another possible avenue involves churches and synagogues. A minister or rabbi builds a sermon around a parable of the Revolution. Some congregants believe it not just to contain a moral truth but to be historically true.

The tale of "Hannukah at Valley Forge" that I traced earlier this year seems to fit that model, and this tale of General Washington's psalm might also.