by Dave Corrigan
According to the legend of the Charter Oak, on the night of October 31, 1687, Joseph Wadsworth spirited the Royal Charter of 1662 out of Sanford’s Tavern and the clutches of Sir Edmund Andros, ran across the bridge over the Little River, and deposited it in the hollow of an ancient oak tree on the grounds of Samuel Wyllys’ house in Hartford. Although historical evidence for this event is lacking, the legend has endured, and long ago became Connecticut’s defining political legend, in which Hartford residents resisted the attempt by an agent of the British crown to usurp their rights. To many 19th-century defenders of the legend, the hiding of the Charter presaged the later, more widespread, defense of colonial rights that led to the American Revolution and independence.
The Tale Served a Political Purpose
The basic story line of the legend seems to have emerged in the 1780s and 1790s, when Connecticut’s Standing Order, the nexus of long-entrenched political, theological, and educational institutions, and its traditional, aristocratic way of ruling, came under increasing attack from a more democratic, liberal faction, that demanded wider suffrage, an end to the official support of the Congregational church, elimination of the practice of returning the same men to office year after year, and the drafting of a state constitution to replace the Charter. The Charter Oak legend was apparently created as one line of defense against these democratic encroachments and was one element of the argument that Connecticut’s traditional way of governing should be maintained.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of Connecticut history will be familiar with the legend of the Charter Oak, how the tree came to be the repository of the Royal Charter of 1662, how it was revered for playing that role, how it was lamented and mourned when it fell in 1856, and how objects made from its wood extended the reverence accorded to it well into the 19th century. The legend of the Charter Oak remained popular throughout the 1800s and many images of the tree were painted, engraved, and published. In 1856, shortly after the tree fell in a storm, Charles DeWolf Brownell painted what became, and continues to be, the definitive and most recognizable image of the Charter Oak, helping to reinforce the belief that the tree was the most important element in the story.
Oak’s Starring Role Overshadows Joseph Wadsworth’s Part in Drama
If we temporarily suspend our critical faculties and posit the truth of the legend, it becomes obvious that Joseph Wadsworth’s pivotal role as the intrepid agent of a well-conceived and flawlessly-executed plan to preserve the colony’s most important legal and political document has been overshadowed by the purely passive role of a basically ordinary oak tree that his action elevated to historical prominence as the temporary repository of that document. Yet Joseph Wadsworth, described by James Hammond Trumbull in 1886 as “the hero of the Charter,” has become the Rodney Dangerfield of Connecticut history—he doesn’t get any respect—or much recognition.
But, truth be known, Wadsworth has been depicted in the act of hiding the Charter by numerous artists from the 1820s to the 1970s and there is a wider variety of visually compelling images of Wadsworth hiding the Charter in the tree than there are variations of views of the Charter Oak itself, given the definitive authority accorded Brownell’s painting. But no one image of Wadsworth hiding the Charter in the tree has achieved the iconic status of Brownell’s rendering of the tree and most, if not all of these images, created in a variety of media, remain largely unknown. While Brownell strove to create an accurate representation of an actual tree, the artists who rendered images of Wadsworth in the act of hiding the Charter were not bound by the necessity of more or less rendering the scene accurately. Whether they thought the event actually happened or it was a legend, they could let their artistic imagination roam, since there were no constraining eye-witness accounts of what Wadsworth was wearing, how he approached the tree, or how he placed the Charter inside it. They were free to interpret either a real or legendary action whatever way they chose.
Each artist’s rendering of Wadsworth hiding the Charter restores the element of human agency to the legend, perhaps counterbalancing a lingering vestige of tree-worship fostered by the overwhelming influence of Brownell’s painting. The artists depicted Wadsworth in various garbs, some actually approximating historical accuracy, although that was never their first priority. Several artists depict the hero Wadsworth looking over his shoulder, perhaps realizing that, while his compatriots at Sanford’s Tavern could claim to have no idea what happened to the Charter, he actually had it in his hand and would pay dearly if his removal of the Charter and his flight to the oak tree were detected.[SlideDeck2 id=39181 iframe=1]
Dave Corrigan is Curator for the Museum of Connecticut History
© Connecticut State Library. All rights reserved. This article is excerpted and originally appeared in The Connector, December 2012, Vol. 14, No. 4.