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Harvard University Founded

"One of the most remarkable facts of the early history of New England is that the colonists of Massachusetts, only six years after the founding of Boston [in 1630], should have set about establishing a college. Perhaps the New England historians, however, boast somewhat too much of this. These people had come into the wilderness for the sole purpose of enjoying and perpetuating their peculiar religion, one of the most essential features of which was a learned ministry. But as the English Universities were under the control of the Episcopal Church, and the Nonconformists in England were persecuted and discouraged in every way, there was no reason to expect that England would long continue to supply the growing colonies with competent clergymen.

The colonists, therefore, were compelled to provide for this difficulty, or give up the object of their founding the colony. A nursery for the education of clergymen was one of the necessities of the situation, and the first college was founded for that purpose. Almost as soon as the colony was planted, in 1630, the people began to think of rearing clergymen, and a few young men were lodged in the families of ministers, from whom they received instruction in the languages and theology.

Harvard Gate
Harvard Gate, c.1910

But this resource being manifestly inadequate, the Legislature, in the sixth year of the colony's existence, when the country was threatened with an Indian war, and all New England contained but five thousand white families, voted four hundred pounds toward the building of a college. This sum was about as much for the Massachusetts of 1636, as [hundreds] of millions of dollars would be for the Massachusetts in [current dollars].

The next year, the Legislature appointed twelve of the leading men to superintend the work, and changed the name of the place where it was appointed to be established, from New Town to Cambridge. Many of the leading men of the colony had been students at Cambridge in old England, and they gave the town this new name in grateful recollection of the happy days of their youth.

The Pequot War ensued, which obliged the colonists to put forth all their strength, and expend far more than their revenue; so that the vote of the Legislature would have probably remained inoperative for several years, but for the beneficence of a private individual.

There was then living at Charlestown, on the other side of Charles River, an invalid clergyman named John Harvard, who had brought with him from England some property and a considerable number of books. He had been educated at Cambridge, in England, and had emigrated to Massachusetts in 1637, the very year of the Pequot War, and the year after the four hundred pounds had been voted for a college. An opinion was current at the time that the voyage across the Atlantic and a residence in New England were good for consumptives; and there is some reason to believe that John Harvard, sharing this opinion, had removed to Massachusetts for the restoration of his health.

He does not appear to have preached in America, nor, as far as we know, to have contemplated preaching. But after struggling with disease for about a year, he died of consumption. When his will was opened, it was found that he had left his whole library of two hundred and sixty volumes, and one half of his estate, to the proposed college, — his estate being worth nearly sixteen hundred pounds sterling. Provided thus with a fund of nearly twelve hundred pounds, the trustees went forward, erected a building, established the college, and conferred upon it the name of its first benefactor.

The example of John Harvard was more beneficial even than the money which he bequeathed; for it inspired a large number of other persons with generous feelings toward the infant institution. Some of the early donations were very simple and curious. A clergyman, for example, having neither money nor lands to bestow, gave the college two cows, valued at nine pounds. A gentleman presented nine shillings' worth of cotton cloth. Another contributed forty shillings a year for ten years; and a farmer, who lived in Hartford, bequeathed a hundred pounds, to be paid in corn and meal, the college to defray the cost of transportation. One of the Bahama Islands, for which at a time of famine collections had been made in New England, now, in its turn, made a collection for the college, "out of their poverty," as they said, and sent a hundred and twenty-four pounds.

The college received various gifts of land, from one acre to six hundred acres, as well as "two shops" in Boston, let by the president of the college for ten shillings a year. Among the smaller gifts, were a piece of plate valued at three guineas, a silver fruit dish, a sugar spoon, a silver-tipped jug, "one great salt and one small trencher salt," one pewter flagon worth ten shillings, a pair of globes, a bell, a silver tankard, two silver goblets, thirty ewe sheep worth thirty pounds, and some horses which brought seventy-two pounds.

A large number of books, the weighty quartos and folios of the olden time, were presented to the college. One London lawyer gave eight chests of books at one time, worth four hundred pounds; and it seems to have been a common thing for clergymen and others to bequeath their libraries to the college. Books were then high-priced, few in number, and highly valued. We have an interesting proof of this in a document which may still be read in the college records, to the effect, that a certain Henry Stevens gave to the College his Greek Dictionary, in four volumes, folio, on the following conditions, to wit: that if his son should ever have occasion to use the work, he should have free access to it, and that if "God should bless the said Joshua with any child or children that shall be students of the Greek tongue, then the said books above specified shall be unto them delivered." It so happened that the said Joshua had a son who studied Greek, to whom the Dictionary was delivered on demand accordingly.

These voluntary contributions being insufficient, the Government assigned for the support of the college the profits of the ferry over the Charles River, and the people were called upon to make an annual contribution to it, of at least one peck of corn. For many years, however, the college was a heavy charge upon the people, and the tutors and president were most scantily and precariously maintained.

A sad misfortune befell the institution at the start. The first president, Nathaniel Eaton, although an excellent scholar, proved to be a man of violent temper and cruel disposition. In all colleges, then, the president was authorized to inflict corporeal punishment on the students; and this Eaton, besides half starving his scholars, pummeled them so outrageously that even the stern Puritans of that severe age could not endure it.

"Among many of the instances of his cruelty," says Cotton Mather, "he gave one in causing two men to hold a young gentleman, while he so unmercifully beat him with a cudgel, that upon complaint of it unto the court, in September, 1639, he was fined a hundred marks, besides a convenient sum to be paid unto the young gentleman that had suffered by his unmercifulness; and for his inhumane severities towards the scholars, he was removed from his trust."

This was an inauspicious beginning, and it was some time apparently before the college recovered from the check which the unfortunate choice of a President gave it. Under better men, however, the institution grew and throve, and acquired so high a reputation that Puritan families in England sent over their sons to be educated in it.

The journal of a Dutch traveler, who made the tour of the American colonies when the college was forty years old, describes an unexpected scene which the author witnessed at Harvard College in 1680. The manuscript of this work was accidentally discovered, a few years ago, in a bookseller's shop at Amsterdam, by an American citizen, who caused it to be translated and published. In this strange, roundabout way, we get an interesting glimpse of old Harvard. The author records, that, being at Boston, he started one morning about six o'clock to go to Cambridge, to see the college and the printing-office, the latter a great wonder then in America. After being rowed across the Charles River, he and his companion lost their way, so that they did not reach Cambridge until eight o'clock. He describes the village as being small, the houses standing very much apart, and the college building conspicuous in the midst. Upon approaching the college, they neither heard nor saw anything remarkable, until they had got round to the back of the edifice; where, he says, "we heard noise enough in an upper room to lead my comrade to suppose they were engaged in disputation." They entered and went up-stairs, where they were met by a gentleman, who requested them to walk into the apartment whence the noise proceeded.

"We found there," our Dutchman reports, "eight or ten young fellows sitting around smoking tobacco, with the smoke of which the room was so full, that you could hardly see, and the whole house smelt so strong of it, that when I was going up stairs, I said this is certainly a tavern . . . We inquired how many professors there were, and they replied not one, as there was no money to support one. We asked how many students there were. They said, at first, thirty, and then came down to twenty: I afterwards understood there were probably not ten. They could hardly speak a word of Latin, so that my comrade could not converse with them."

It was true that, at the time of this visit, there was a vacancy in the office of the President, and that there was no one connected with the college entitled to be called Professor; the classes being instructed by tutors. Nevertheless, it shows a want of discipline that the students should smoke so as to make the whole building smell like a tavern. One of the rules expressly forbade the use of tobacco, "unless with the consent of parents or guardians, and on good reason first given by a physician, and then in a sober and private manner." But among Puritans, as among other people, "when the cat's away the mice will play."

As to their not being able to speak Latin, they probably could not understand that language as pronounced by a Dutchman. The first rule of the college was, that no student should be admitted to the Freshman class, until he could translate such Latin as that of Cicero at sight, and "speak true Latin in verse and prose." If this rule were strictly observed at the present day, every college in America would be empty. The students of Harvard were even required to speak Latin in their ordinary conversation; one of the rules being, "The scholars shall never use their mother tongue, except that, in public exercises of oratory, or such like, they be called to make them in English."

Another, curious rule was the following: "Every scholar shall be called by his surname only, till he is invested with his first degree, except he be a fellow-commoner, or knight's eldest son, or of superior nobility." Another rule reads thus: "They shall honor their parents, magistrates, elders, tutors and aged persons by being silent in their presence (except they be called on to answer), not gain-saying; showing all those laudable expressions of honor and reverence in their presence that are in use, as bowing before them, standing uncovered, or the like."

A very simple examination decided who was worthy of his Bachelor's degree. Every scholar was entitled to it who was found capable of translating the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Testament into tolerable Latin; but for the degree of Master of Arts, the student was required to possess a competent knowledge of logic, natural and moral philosophy, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Such was Harvard College during the first half-century of its existence.

Historical Location:

Harvard University 
Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA 02138

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