skip to Main Content

Welcome to the website of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. The society is an educational, non-profit that seeks to maintain and extend the institutions of American freedom, and a respect for our national symbols and American citizenship. We do this by perpetuating the stories of courage, sacrifice, and triumph of those who achieved our independence to inspire succeeding generations.

The Influence of Cambridge in the Formation of the Nation

The Influence of Cambridge in the Formation of the Nation

By Andrew P. Peabody, D. D.

CAMBRIDGE was the first capital of our infant Republic, the cradle of our nascent liberty, the hearth of our kindling patriotism. Before the 3d of July, 1775, there were tumults, conflicts, bold plans, rash enterprises; but there was no coordinating and controlling will, purpose, or authority. On and from that day the Colonies were virtually one people. Before, they had nothing in common but their grievances. They were as yet British provinces, – though wrenching the cords that held them, still undetached, and with no mode of action upon or with one another. By adopting the army and choosing its head they performed their first act, not of alliance, but of organic unity, and became a nation unawares, while they thought themselves still wronged and suppliant dependencies of the British crown. They thus decided the question between a worse than unsuccessful rebellion and revolution.

That the rebellion, as such, would have been an utter failure, is only too certain. The American party in England had on its side eloquence, indeed, and wisdom, but neither numerical force in Parliament, nor the power to mollify ministerial obstinacy, or to penetrate with a sense of right the crass stupidity on the throne. Boston was held by disciplined, thoroughly armed, and well-fed troops, under officers of approved skill and prowess, strongly entrenched and fortified at accessible points, and sustained by a formidable naval force. Hardly one in fifty of the colonial army had any experience in war, and I doubt whether there was a single man among them, officer or private, who was a soldier by profession. They had come from the farm and the forge, with such arms and equipments as they could bring; they had no bureau of supply, no military chest, no organized commissariat, and their stock of ammunition was so slender that it was ordered by the Provincial Congress that no salute should be fired on the reception of the Commander-in-chief. They were from four different provinces, under as many generals, with sectional jealousies which the common cause could hardly keep at bay; and harmonious counsels could be maintained or expected only and scarcely at moments of imminent peril. At Bunker Hill they had shown both their strength and their weakness, their unsurpassed courage and their poverty of resource. Superior in the conflict, overwhelming the enemy with the shame and disaster of a signal defeat, they had been compelled to yield the ground on which they had won imperishable glory, and to see the heights they had so bravely defended occupied by a hostile battery. They held Boston beleaguered by the prestige of that day, too feeble to press the siege, yet, as they had well proved, too strong to be dislodged and scattered, but by the disintegrating elements in their own unorganized body. These elements were already at work, and the secession of even a single regiment would have been the signal for speedy dissolution and submission to the royal government.

This precarious condition of affairs was beyond the remedial authority of the individual provinces. Massachusetts could choose a general for her own troops, but could not place the forces of New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island under his control. Still less could any efficient system of sustenance or armament have been arranged by separate legislatures. A central authority alone could carry forward the resistance so nobly begun. The Continental Congress would in vain have passed patriotic resolutions, protests against tyranny, votes of sympathy; in vain would they have aroused popular indignation and multiplied centers of resistance through the land. The one decisive act in the struggle, the seal of what had been achieved, the presage and pledge of all that should ensue in the coming years, was the taking command of the American army at Cambridge, by Washington.

Cambridge was for obvious geographical reasons the only place where the provincial troops could have their headquarters, – lying near enough to the enemy to watch and check his movements, yet protected from sudden or insidious attack by the intervention of the then unbridged arm of the sea which separates it from Boston. There was, at the same time, an intrinsic fitness that the opening scenes of the great drama should be enacted here, where so many of the leaders in counsel and arms had learned to loathe oppression and to hold the cause of liberty sacred.

From its earliest days our university had always been on the side of freedom. Its first two presidents were far in advance of their times in their views of the right of the individual man to unrestricted liberty of thought, opinion, speech, and action. Increase Mather, when president, took the lead in the opposition to the tyrannical acts of Andros and Randolph, sailed for England as the unofficial agent of the aggrieved colonists, was appointed to an official agency on the news of the revolution of 1688, bore an important part in the construction of the new provincial charter and in securing its acceptance, and nominated to the royal court the governor, council, and principal officers under it. His successors were of a like spirit, and there is on record no instance in which the college succumbed to usurpation, stooped to sycophancy, or maintained other than an erect position before the emissaries of the royal government. The culture of the students was in great part classical, and in the last century the classics were the textbooks of all lovers of freedom. A sceptic al criticism had not then cast doubt on any of the stories of ancient heroism, nor had a minute analysis laid bare the excesses and defects of the early republics, whose statesmen and warriors were deemed the peerless models of patriotic virtue, and whose orators thrilled the hearts of their New England readers, as they had the Athenian denote, the senate in the capitol, or the dense masses of Roman citizens in the forum.

Almost all the Massachusetts clergy, perhaps the major part of those of New England, had been educated here. The Tories among them were very few, and nearly the whole of their number were ardent patriots. The pulpit then sustained in affairs of public moment the part which is now borne by the daily press; its utterances during the eventful years of our life-struggle had no uncertain sound; and the champions, deeds of prowess, and war-lyrics of the Hebrew Scriptures gave the frequent keynote to sermon, prayer, and sacred song.

Among the pioneers and guiding spirits of the Revolution, who were graduates of the college, when I have named the Adamses, Otises, Quincys, Warrens, Pickering, Hancock, Trumbull, Ward, Cushing, Bowdoin, Phillips, I have but given you specimens of the type and temper of those who for many years had gone from Cambridge to fill the foremost places of trust and influence throughout and beyond our Commonwealth. That they carried with them hence their liberal views of government and of the rights of man, we well know in the case of those of whose lives we have the record. Thus we find John Adams, just after graduating here, more than twenty years before the declaration of independence, writing to a friend his anticipations for America, not only of her freedom from , European sway, but of her becoming the chief seat of empire for the, world. Year after year, on the commencement platform in the old parish church, had successive ranks of earnest young men rehearsed to greedy ears the dream of liberty which they pledged faith and life to realize.

In the successive stages of the conflict of the Colonies with the mother country, the college uniformly committed itself unequivocally on the patriotic side. When the restrictions on the colonial trade called forth warm expressions of resentment, the senior class unanimously resolved to take their degrees in what must then have been exceedingly rude apparel, – homespun and home-made cloth. When tea was proscribed by public sentiment, and some few students persisted in bringing it into commons, the faculty forbade its use, alleging that it was a source of grief and uneasiness to many of the students, and that banishing it was essential to harmony and peace within the college walls. After the day of Lexington and Concord, all four of the then existing college buildings were given up for barracks, and the president’s house for officers’ quarters. When the Commander-in-chief was expected, this house was designated for his use, with the reservation of a single room for President Langdon’s own occupancy. Though the few remaining students were removed to Concord, the President, an ardent patriot, seems to have still resided here, or at least to have spent a large portion of his time near the troops; for we find frequent traces of his presence among them, and on the eve of the battle of Bunker Hill he officiated as their chaplain. In connection with the prevailing spirit of the university, it is worthy of emphatic statement that the Commander-in-chief was the first person who here received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

To Harvard graduates the country was indebted for the choice of the illustrious chieftain. The earliest mention that we can find of Washington’s name in this connection is in a letter of James Warren to John Adams bearing date the 7th of May. Adams seems at once to have regarded him as the only man fitted for this momentous service. Though the formal nomination was made by Mr. Johnson of Maryland, Mr. Adams on a previous day first designated Washington as ” a gentleman whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents, and excellent universal character would command the approbation of all America, and unite the cordial exertions of all the Colonies better than any other person in the Union.” There were, however, objections on sectional grounds and personal ambitions that required the most delicate treatment, and it was mainly in consequence of Mr. Adams’s strong will, untiring effort, and skilful handling of opposing wishes and claims, that the final ballot was unanimous. On the 5th of June the election was made. It was formally announced to Washington by Hancock, the President of Congress, and was accepted on the spot.

The commander, impressed with the imminence of the crisis, denied himself the sad privilege of a farewell in person to his own household, took leave of his wife in a letter equally brave and tender, and on the 21st commenced his northward journey. Twenty miles from Philadelphia he met a courier with tidings of the battle of Bunker Hill. Eagerly inquiring as to the details of the transaction, and learning the promptness, skill, and courage that had made the day forever memorable, he exclaimed, ” The liberties of the country are safe ! ” A deputation from the Provincial Congress met him at Springfield, and volunteer cavalcades gave him honorable attendance from town to town, till, on the 2d of July, he arrived at Watertown, received and returned the congratulatory address of the Congress there assembled, and was then escorted by a company of horse and a goodly body of mounted civilians to the president’s house, now known as Wadsworth House. The rapid journey on horseback from Philadelphia to Cambridge, and that in part over rough roads, – an enterprise beyond the easy conception of our time, – must have rendered the brief repose of that midsummer night essential to the prestige of the morrow, when on the first impressions of the hour may have been poised the destiny of the nation.

graveyard Inevitably have been ill received, had he not been made to win men’s confidence and love. Several of the officers already on the ground had shown their capacity for great things, and had their respective circles of admirers, who were reluctant to see them superseded by a stranger; and had not the officers themselves manifested a magnanimity equal to their courage, the camp would have been already distracted by hostile factions. Then, too, the Virginian and New England character, manners, style of speech, modes of living, tastes, aptitudes, had much less in common at that time of infrequent intercourse than half a century later, when, as we well know, apart from political divergence, mere social differences were sufficient to create no little mutual repugnancy. Washington was also well known to be an Episcopalian, and Episcopacy, from the first offensive on Puritan soil, was never more abhorred than now, when its Northern professors, with hardly an exception, were openly hostile to the cause of the people, – when in Cambridge almost every conspicuous dwelling from Fresh Pond to the Inman House in Cambridgeport had been the residence of a refugee royalist member of the English Church.

The morning of the 3rd of July witnessed on the Cambridge Common, and at every point of view in and upon the few surrounding houses, such a multitude of men, women, and children as had never been gathered here before, and perhaps never afterwards assembled until its hundredth anniversary was celebrated. Never was the advent or presence of mortal man a more complete and transcendent triumph. Majestic grace and sweet benignity were blended in countenance and mien. He looked at once the hero, patriot, sage. With equal dignity and modesty he received the thunders of acclamation, in which every voice bore part. His first victory, the prestige of which forsook him not for a moment during the weary years that followed, was already gained when under the ancient elm he drew his sword as commander-in-chief. He had conquered thousands of hearts, that remained true to him to their last throb. The wife of John Adams writes of his appearance at that moment, ” Those lines of Dryden instantly occurred to me, –

Mark his majestic fabric! He ‘s a temple

Sacred by birth, and built by hands divine;

His soul ‘s the deity that lodges there;

Nor is the pile unworthy of the God.’ ”


From Theatrum majorum: the Cambridge of 1776, wherein is set forth an account of the town, and of the events it witnessed; with which is incorporated the diary of Dorothy Dudley, now first published by Arthur Gilman, Dorothy Dudley, and William Dean Howells, The Ladies’ Centennial Committee, Lockwood, Brooks & Co. 381 Washington Street, New York, Nurd & Houghton, 1876.

Back To Top