Tree Of Liberty?
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
On October 27 the famous Washington Elm, under which George Washington supposedly took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775, collapsed onto Garden and Mason Streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Workers had been removing branches to ease the strain on the ailing tree (whose trunk had rotted into “a mere mass of punk,” in the words of a later historian) when they tugged too hard and accidentally knocked the whole thing down. Local residents swarmed over the site to gather souvenirs, but enough wood was salvaged to fashion into more than a thousand assorted tokens and relics, including gavels for the legislatures of all forty-eight states. A botanist estimated the tree’s age at 210, meaning that it had been around 60 in Washington’s day.
Cambridge’s veneration of the Washington Elm dated back many years—though not, it turns out, all the way back to Washington himself. The first mention of his taking command beneath it came in the 1830s, when a few octogenarian Revolutionary War soldiers dimly recalled something of that nature happening somewhere in the vicinity. (One such account included a description of Washington reading the 101st Psalm.) From these shaky beginnings the legend grew steadily.
An 1837 version depicted a pensive Washington standing beneath the elm’s sheltering branches, unsheathing his sword, and thinking that he would not sheathe it again until his country’s liberty had been won. Over the years descriptions of the event got more elaborate, especially in the patriotic fervor of the Civil War, when a tablet was erected on the site. By the time of the Centennial, in 1876, the general’s conjectured private thoughts had been embroidered into a stirring, emotional speech before massed thousands of troops and civilians, at whose climax the general brandished his sword and made a florid public declaration while bands played.
In 1925, for the 150th anniversary of Washington’s ascension, Cambridge replaced the original plaque at the site with one marking where the beloved elm had formerly stood. Then five years later Samuel Batchelder, a Harvard University professor, cast serious doubt on the story that had made the tree’s reputation. He combed through records, letters, and diaries from 1775 and found no mention of any such event. In any case, he wrote, there would have been no reason for Washington and Artemas Ward, the general he was replacing, to leave their headquarters and stand beneath a tree simply to hand over the order book and conduct a few other formalities. And with the whole Boston area in peril less than three weeks after Bunker Hill, no one had time for elaborate ceremonies. Washington was much more concerned with inspecting his troops and reconnoitering the enemy, who were rumored to be preparing an attack.
According to Batchelder, Washington may well have stood under the elm sometime around July 3 and reviewed the few regiments stationed in Cambridge, to the usual accompaniment of fife and drum. But no grand ceremony took place, and the actual transfer of command was a perfunctory bureaucratic event that doubtless took place indoors. Modern historians tend to downplay or dismiss the Washington Elm tradition. Still, the plaque remains embedded in the street at the corner of Garden and Mason, joining Longfellow’s “spreading chestnut tree” (at Brattle and Story Streets), the Whitefield Elm (under which the revered evangelist preached), and many others on Cambridge’s roster of famous vanished trees.