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.

Follow by Email


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some People Don’t Like Myths Being Taken Away

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.

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.
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.

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?


RFuller said...

Every one is afraid of having their favorite cherished belief smashed like little more than a porcelain idol. For many people, reexamination of our nation's history amounts to heresy.

People want to believe in something greater than themselves. Unfortunately, the use of flawed mortal beings and sketchy retellings of possibly apocryphal events as a basis for belief give such legends a shaky foundation. These foundations need much mortar to hold them up. The mortar lies in the credulity of the believer.

Part of the dismay Thoburn probably held was possibly due to some long-held unstated doubt on his part he might have had about the veracity of the Washington Elm tale. That he had believed in this so fervently probably made him even more upset as a result.

(Am I reading too much into this? Maybe. But his screed strikes me as a matter of 'The lady doth protest too much, methinks.')

Children have to be told sometime that there is no Santa Claus. However, as with telling the children, in historical contrarianism, it's all in how it's done. Thoburn's main criticism is that it was done. Sour grapes.

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

The elm and the story live on.
An Arizona Daily Sun/AM story appearing in the Woburn Daily Times Chronicle February 24th, 2011 describes the efforts of the University of Northern Arizona to preserve their "George Washington Elm" scion from the perils of European Elm Scale. Prominently featured is a photo of former local D.A.R. regent Joan Brundige-Baker. She is quoted as saying few of the 1930's clones of the tree are still alive.

But Brad Blake with the campus arboretum says he has 200 cuttings taken from pruned limbs...


J. L. Bell said...

I suspect the legend is in better shape far from Cambridge because (a) folks there don’t have such easy access to the Cambridge Historical Society Proceedings and other sources for debunking, and (b) people have fewer relics of the Revolution, and want to hold on to those they have.

Although there’s little evidence linking the Cambridge common’s elms to anything significant in Washington’s career, they definitely cast shade on some significant moments of the Revolution. Arizona values descendants of one such tree since its own colonial history goes back “only” to 1528 (nearly a century before the Plymouth Colony).