Bill Brown bio photo

Bill Brown

A complicated man.

Twitter Github

Harvard College's Distinctive Beginnings

The sailing of the Mayflower and the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were an early portent of the eventual separation of England and its daughter colony. Though they still thought of themselves as Englishmen, the physical distance between the two became a dividing wedge that led to American independence. As best as they could, the citizens of New England sought to reproduce English society in the wilderness. They named their cities and towns using English place names. They transported English institutions. One of the first institutions to be recreated was the university since over 130 of the colonists were graduates of the two English universities—Oxford and Cambridge.1 The Puritans believed the university to be an important device in their religious arsenal.

The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony created Harvard College on November 15, 1637 by the simple invocation "The colledg is ordered to bee at Newtowne."2 With those eight words, the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere still in existence was founded. This act by the General Court did not specify the college's curriculum, its government, or even its financing. Realizing its vagueness, the General Court soon formed a committee to oversee the formation of the college:

Committee as to the colledg at New Towne: For the colledge, the Governour, Mr Winthrope, the Deputy, Mr Dudley, the Treasurer, Mr Bellingham, Mr Humfrey, Mr Herlakenden, Mr Staughton, Mr Cotton, Mr Wilson, Mr Damport, Mr Wells, Mr Sheopard, and Mr Peters, these, or the greater part of them, whereof Mr Winthrope, Mr Dudly, or Mr Bellingham, to bee alway one, to take order for a colledge at Newetowne.3

This act formed what would later come to be known as the Board of Overseers, the body that guided Harvard's infancy. This committee consisted of six magistrates—officials of the colony—and six clergymen. Of the magistrates, Winthrop and Humfrey were educated at Cambridge. Of the ministers, Davenport (listed as Damport) was educated at Oxford and the rest matriculated from Cambridge. Thus, the group that would guide the early stages of the founding of Harvard College was two-thirds composed of university men. Even the remaining third had brothers and sons who were university men.4 These committeemen wanted nothing less than a recreation of their alma mater in colonial America.

The group's only task was to "take order for a colledge at Newetowne." However, no money had been appropriated, no charter granted, and no powers enumerated. The gentlemen decided that the first step was to hire an instructor. To this end, as Harvard Treasurer Thomas Danforth recorded later, "Mr Nathaniel Eaton was chosen Professor of the sd Schoole in the yeare One thousand six hundred thirty seaven, to whose care the management of the Donations before mentioned were betrusted for the erecting of such Edifices as were meet and necessary for a Colledge: and for his own Lodgings."5

This Nathaniel Eaton that was chosen to open the college was a graduate of Cambridge and the brother of Theophilus Eaton, one of the organizers of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Many of the committee were familiar with him and his family and his educational background was as impressive as one could expect in New England. Unfortunately, his first and only year at the college was filled with scandal and rancor. He absconded with then-significant amounts of money appropriated for the school, provided subpar rations for the students, and, as Cotton Mather put it, "his cruelty was more scandalous than his avarice."6 He was dismissed by the General Court on September 9, 1639: "Mr. Nathaniel Eaton being accused for cruell and barbarous beating of Mr. Naz. Brisco, and for other neglecting and misusing of his Scholars, it was ordered that Mr. Eaton should be discharged from keeping School with use without License."7

The year prior, Eaton had accepted a 'Donation' from the recently arrived and recently deceased John Harvard. Harvard, on his death bed from consumption, bequeathed half his estate and all of his library to the fledgling college at Newtown, which was renamed Cambridge that same year. To honor his generosity, the General Court "ordered, that the colledge agreed upon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge."8 Most of the Harvard legacy is unaccounted for, due to Eaton's financial misconduct, and the library of 400 volumes must be considered his lasting gift to the college.

After the dismissal of Nathaniel Eaton, Harvard was closed down with no apparent reopening. The students were dispersed into town or back home. It seemed that the heretofore bright future of Harvard had dimmed. That is until Henry Dunster was hired by the future Board of Overseers in 1640. Henry Dunster was an unusual choice: he had less education than Eaton, had not written on weighty theological issues as Eaton had, and lacked the distinguished air of Eaton. Of course, knowing what the town had just gone through, the choice of the schoolmasterly Dunster does not seem as odd.

Henry Dunster received his bachelor's of arts from Magdalene College, University of Cambridge in 1631.9 He received his master's degree in 1634, ranking just 115 out of 188 students in his class.10 He became a schoolmaster in his home town of Bury, England after receiving his master's and emigrated to America in 1640. Within a few weeks of his arrival in New England, a council of magistrates and elders "invited [Dunster] to accept the Place of President of the College, which he accordingly accepted; to whom was committed the Care and Trust of finishing the College Buildings and his own Lodgings, and the Custody of the College Fund, and such Donations as might further be added to the Encrease thereof."11 Dunster apparently did not realize what was expected of him, as he later complained that they had called on him "to undertake the instructing of the youth of riper years and literature after they came from grammer schools…. No further care or distraction was improsed on mee or expected from mee but to instruct."12 He would soon find out just how much he had underestimated his duties.

Dunster proved to be just what the College needed. Although he found the College bereft of students, buildings, funds, and government, he quickly turned the situation around. First he roused and convinced what students were left in Cambridge to return. He also admitted a new freshman class and established a three-year degree program so that both classes (Eaton's and his new one) would graduate at the same time.13 He then resumed active and frenetic construction of the main hall, while teaching classes in the Peyntree House that had served as Eaton's lodging and college. A charter or constitution would have to wait until 1642, when Harvard's first governing document was passed by the General Court. At that time, though, Dunster had the powers de facto and was willing to wait for the de jure grant.

Four days after the graduation of the Class of 1642, the General Court incorporated Harvard College and gave it a stable government with the following act:

Whereas through the good Hand of God upon us, there is a College founded in Cambridge in the County of Middlesex, called Harvard College; For the Encouragement whereof this Court hath given the Sum of £400 and also the Revenue of the Ferry betwixt Charlestown and Boston, and the the well-ordering and managing of the said College is of great Concernment.

It is therefore ordered by this Court and the Authority thereof, that the Governour and Deputy Governour, for Time being and all the Magistrates of this Jurisdiction, together with the teaching Elders of the six next adjoining Towns, viz. Cambridge, Watertown, Charlestown, Boston, Roxbury and Dorchester, And the President of the said College, for the Time being, shall from Time to Time Have Full Power and Authority to make and establish all such Orders, Statutes and Constitutions as they shall bee necessary for the instituting guiding and furthering of the said College, and the several Members thereof, from Time to Time, in Piety Morality and Learning: And also to Dispose, Order and Manage to the Use and Behoof of the said College, and Members thereof, all Gifts, Legacies, Bequeaths, Revenues, Lands and Donations, as either have been, are, or shall be conferred, bestowed, or any Way shall fall, or come to the said College. And whereas it may come to pass that Many of the said Magistrates and said Elders may be Absent, or otherwise Employed about other weighty Affairs, when the said College may need their present Help and Counsel, it is therefore ordered that the greater Number of Magistrates and Elders which shall be present with the President shall have the Power of the Whole; Provided that if any Constitution Order or Orders by them made shall be found hurtful unto the said College or the Members thereof or to the Weal-publick; Then upon Appeal of the Party or Parties grieved unto the Company of Overseers first mentioned, they shall repeal the said Order or Orders (if they see Cause) at their next Meeting, or Stand Accountable thereof to the Next General Court.14

Thus it formalized the Board of Overseers, which had existed since the act of 1637 without provision for filling vacancies or for powers other than "tak[ing] order for a colledge at Newetowne." This act gave the Board perpetual succession, since no specific individuals were mentioned. It also gave the Board the ability to accept donations on behalf of the college, a power that legally only rested with Nathaniel Eaton before this. Finally, it gave the Board the power to act with a quorum—an important power given the busy nature of the magistrates and clergymen. The Board consisted of the following members, in addition to Dunster: magistrates, Governor John Winthrop, Deputy Governor John Endecott, Thomas Dudley, Increase Nowell, Simon Bradstreet, John Winthrop Jr., Richard Bellingham, Israel Stoughton, Richard Saltonstall, Thomas Flint, and William Pynchon; ministers, Thomas Shepard, George Phillips, John Knowles, Zechariah Symmes, Thomas Allen, John Wilson, John Cotton, John Eliot, and Richard Mather.15 Of these, fifteen were graduates of English universities and six were not.16 This model for the Board of Overseers was so effective that it was not substantially altered until 1851.

The Board promptly named Herbert Pelham its treasurer, created and adopted the Harvard seal17, audited the donation accounts, and appointed two recent graduates to tutorships. After this business was accomplished, they began passing the bylaws necessary for college government. These nineteen 'Rules and Precepts' outlined for the student such things as entrance requirements, rules of behavior, guiding principles, and degree requirements. These bylaws were unique in several respects, which I shall discuss later, but inspiration was surely drawn on the Elizabethan statutes of the University of Cambridge, a printed copy of which was in Dunster's possession.18

While the Board of Overseers was the principal form of Harvard's government, the President exercised powers as well. The bylaws of the Board neither specified a curriculum nor defined punishments for offenses. These were the duties of the President, although Dunster was also sole instructor for the entire Class of 1642 and primary instructor throughout his tenure.

The students were divided into freshman, sophomore, junior sophister, and senior sophister classes, according to the years of attendance they had put in. (Naturally, this four-year distinction took effect after the Class of 1642 graduated). Much like one would expect, the freshman were expected to do menial chores for the upperclassmen at the penalty of hazing.19 The advancement between classes was based on passing an oral disputation given each year near the time of Commencement. Failure meant staying at the current class standing for another year.20

The curriculum was quite impressive. It consisted of logic, physics, Greek etymology, Greek syntax, Greek grammar, Hebrew grammar, rhetoric, divinity; and history for the freshman; ethics, politics, Greek literature, Hebrew literature, divinity, rhetoric, and botany for the sophomores; and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, Greek style, Greek composition, Hebrew literature, divinity, rhetoric, history, and botany for the upperclassmen. Before a student could receive his bachelor's of arts degree, he had to be "able to read the Originalls of the Old and New Testament into the Latine tongue, and to resolve them Logically; withall being of godly life and conversation; and at any publick Act hath the Approbation of the Overseers and Master of the Colledge."21 The course work outlined above certainly prepared him for those requirements.

Commencement must have been quite a sight. Several contemporary accounts of the commencement exercises have been recorded. New England's First Fruits describes the event best:

The Students of the first Classis that have beene these foure yeeres trained up in University-Learning (for their ripening in the knows ledge of the Tongues, and Arts) and are approved for their manner-as they have kept their publick Acts in former yeares, ourselves being present, at them; so have they lately kept two Solemne Acts for their Commencement, when the Governour, Magistrates, and the Ministers from all parts, with all sorts of Schollars, and others in great numbers were present, and did heare their Exercises; which were Latine and Greeke Orations, and Declamations, and Hebrew Analasis, Grammaticall, Logicall & Rhetoricall of the Psalms: And their Answers and Disputations in Logicall, Ethicall, Physicall and Metaphysicall Questions; and so were found worthy of the first degree, (commonly called Batchelour) pro more Academiarum in Anglia22: Being first presented by the President to the Magistrates and Ministers, and by him, upon their Approbation, solemnly admitted unto the same degree, and a Booke of Arts delivered into each of their hands, and power given them to read Lectures in the Hall upon any of the Arts, when they shall be thereunto called, and a liberty of studying in the Library.23

One can imagine that first group of nine seniors standing in front of a great crowd of their younger peers, the elected officials of the Colony, and all of the clergy while defending philosophic theses in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. It was truly an achievement that should elicit pride in Dunster and the Board of Overseers. What had once been a crushing disappointment had been rehabilitated.

This was the state of Harvard College by the time of its first graduating class. The government consisted of a twenty-one member Board of Overseers and a President. The curriculum covered the span of categories of human learning at that time. The college had officially been incorporated as a legal entity. Eight years after the first class graduated, the General Court passed the Charter of 1650 which added a new dimension to Harvard government.

This Charter incorporated Harvard College in 1650 by creating a corporation consisting of the President, Treasurer, and five Fellows. These seven members were also given the authority previously held by the Board of Overseers: the power to "purchase and acquire to themselves or take and receave uppon Free guift and donation any Lands Tenements or Heriditaments within this Jurisdiction of the Massatusetts …."24 It gave the members the right of perpetual succession and the right to sue and be sued as an entity. In short, it conferred some traditional corporate rights and privileges.

It also established the Board of Overseers as overseers of the corporation by giving it veto power on any statute or law the corporation enacted. In an appendix to the Charter of 1650 passed in 1657, the Overseer's role in relation to the corporation was more explicitly spelled out:

… the corporation shall have power from time to time to make such orders and by lawes for the better ordering and carrying on of the worke of the colledge, as they shall see cawse, without depending upon the consent of the overseers foregoing; provided, always, that the corporation shall be responsable unto, and those orders and by lawes shallbe alterable by, the overseers according to theire discretion.25

Thus, the corporation was responsible for the day-to-day business of the college, providing its actions met with the approval of the Board of Overseers. The average age of the corporation members, at that time, was only twenty-four26 and the General Court wanted to protect the Colony's interests in Harvard College. The Board of Overseers, with its considerable experience in college administration, was the perfect vehicle for so doing.

Now let's turn our attention to what was happening in higher education on the other side of the Atlantic. A brief look into the histories and practices of the University of Cambridge and Oxford University will illuminate the highly unusual beginnings of Harvard College.

Sixteen independent colleges comprise the University of Cambridge. They were independent in the sense that each had separate instruction, buildings, finances, and discipline. Their sovereignty was much like the sovereignty of the states in our federal republic; orders could come from higher up—such as the university government or the Crown—but never from lateral entities. So when we speak of Cambridge's government, we must keep this federalism in mind.

Cambridge's university government was spelled out in the Elizabethan Statutes. In the medieval era, Cambridge was self-governing: the guild of professors admitted new members, disbursed funds, and granted degrees. With the eviction of the Catholic Church by Henry VIII, Cambridge's papal charter was revoked and it became subject to royal oversight. The Elizabethan bylaws were the product of concerted fear of a puritan coup d'université on the part of the Cantabrigian Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. They were able to evict the fiery source of the fear, Thomas Cartwright, but at a cost of vigilant royal oversight and diminished autonomy of the professors. The regent masters (professors) complained that "nothing can pass all the whole yeare [that the heads of the colleges] mislike…."27

The Elizabethan Statutes went into great detail about nearly every aspect of the student and professor's life, from the manner and dress of students to the format of lectures and disputations. These bylaws numbered hundreds of chapters and scores of pages. The university government had "endeavored to anticipate every possible exigency, to regulate in a minute degree the daily life of their foundations, and to prescribe exact punishments for every imaginable crime and offense."28 Every official of the university and all students seeking a degree had to swear a solemn oath to uphold each and every clause of the Elizabethan Statutes.29 Like all excruciatingly crafted codes, the Elizabethan Statutes were, for the most part, ignored.

The government of the individual colleges was, essentially, the master. No actions could be undertaken and no decisions implemented without his consent. Below the master were the fellows, numbering between twelve and twenty depending on the size of the particular college.30 The group consisting of the master and his fellows constituted the governing body of the college. The governing body determined studies, discipline, and managed the college's property. As I said before, their decisions could be set aside by royal privilege or university regulation.

The curriculum varied from college to college and also from tutor to tutor. Only one of the tutor's programs has survived, Dr. Richard Holdsworth's "Directions for a Student in the Universitie." Since Dr. Holdsworth remained a tutor from 1613 to 1637 (when he was elected master of Emmanuel College), we can presume that his was probably a representative curriculum—one like that which the founders of Harvard College may have gone through. Holdsworth had the students study logic, ethics, physics, and metaphysics in the morning lectures—a concession to the requirements of the Elizabethan statutes and essentially the same course taught since the Middle Ages. In the afternoon, Holdsworth's students could revel in the thoroughly modern31 arts of rhetoric, history, oratory, and poetry. Holdsworth believed that these latter were:

Studies not less necessarie than the first, if not more usefull, especialy Latine, and Oratory, without which all the other Learning, though never so eminent, is in a manner voide and useless. Without those you will be baffled in your disputes, disgraced and vilified in Publick examinations, laught at in speeches, and Declamations, you will never dare to appear in any act of credit in your University, nor must you look for Preferment by your Learning only.32

Baccalaureate ceremonies at Cambridge were quite involved. First, the senior sophister was examined by his college's officials to determine if he was ready to be presented to the Vice-Chancellor of the university as a candidate. If he was ready, he was then given his oral examination by examiners and other regent masters. If they were satisfied of his abilities, he had to swear an oath to three articles of the Elizabethan statutes and face the University Senate. Once the Senate voted positively on his worthiness, he was admitted 'to the Question' and became a 'Questionist.' This meant that he had to formulate a response to a question from one of Aristotle's Prior Analytics. After this, he must be ready during the period of Lent to dispute with any regent master, other questionist, or sophister sent to take him on. Finally, there was the bachelors' Commencement—one last formal, lengthy, and public disputation.33 Then, the presiding proctor addressed the prospective bachelors in Latin and conferred the degree.

This was the university environment with which 100 of the 130 New England university men before 1646 were most familiar. The remaining university men matriculated from Oxford University. Though Oxford was a royalist stronghold while Cambridge fell to the parliamentarians during the great rebellion, their differences were minimal.34 Both were governed by the Elizabethan Statutes. Oxford tended to focus on mathematics more so than did Cambridge, but both dealt almost exclusively with theology and its ramifications.

The curricula of Harvard and Cambridge were also very similar. Both focus on the medieval mode of learning, which emphasizes the teachings of the ancient scholars and philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. This model of education also concentrates on Latin and the Oriental languages like Hebrew. That said, though, each contains elements of Renaissance humanism, which was a reaction to scholasticism. For example, each university taught Greek, history, rhetoric, and poetry—all disciplines regarded as essential to a liberal education. In the Elizabethan Statutes quoted by Dunster in his Quadriennium Memoir, it says that baccalaureates "shall be assiduous auditors … of such lectures of Philosophy, Astronomy, Perspective, or Mathematics, as shall be read in the Schools, and of the Greek tongue too…."35 Given that President Dunster and most of the Overseers were recent graduates of Cambridge, it is unsurprising that the Harvard curriculum should reflect their education. In fact, Dunster even used his Cantabrigian textbooks for lecture materials.

Another of the many similarities between the two academic institutions is their organization. Each college, subsequent to Harvard's Class of 1642, divided the bachelor's degree into four years. Each year is referred to using the same terms: freshman, sophomore, junior sophister, and senior sophister. Cambridge used the same system, but added to it another level of organization: the distinctions of status. With the multitude of colleges, tutors, and study programs at Cambridge, what year you were was often not a good indicator of your seniority.36 The American conception of class (as in Class of 1642) took on new meaning in the English schools—where it indicated one's economic class. These distinctions ranged from 'fellow-commoner' (students who paid double fees and ate meals with the university's fellows) to the sizars (indigent students who paid reduced fees and performed menial tasks for the difference).37 In the highly aristocratic English society, what level you were was secondary to what your status was.

The two colleges also shared a similar philosophy on student life and extracurricular activity. Universities on the European continent at the time frequently allowed their students to board in town and attend classes on the campus. Teachers and administrators were similarly situated. Dunster, remembering with affinity his college days at the University of Cambridge, sought to have the "…Students brought up in a more Collegiate Way of Living.'38 For Dunster as well as for the English, it was not just book learning that gave a student his education. Disputing and engaging other students and faculty was very beneficial and crucial to a well-rounded education, as was eating with, drinking with, and praying with other students and their elders. As the Governing Boards said to some university men in 1671, "It is wel known to your selves what advantage to Learning accrue's by the multitude of persons cohabiting for Scholasticall communion, whereby to actuate the minds of one another, and other waies to promove the ends of a Colledge-Society."39 For the same reason, Dunster personally trained all of his future tutors, who then lived in the Old College building with the students. It was a close and tightly-knit group.

While their similarities show that the Puritans sought to duplicate the English university model, their differences illustrate the Puritans independent spirit and sense of right action. The college they created differed from its English counterparts in its government, its religious toleration, and its charter.

In the area of governmental differences, the office of President stands out. The President of Harvard College has no exact equivalent in an English university. At Magdalene College, Dunster's alma mater, the President was akin to what we would call the Dean of Faculty.40 It was below the head of the college, who was called the Master. But even the term for the head of a Cantabrigian college varied: some were called Masters, some Presidents, and others Provosts. Whatever the college head was called, his powers were still checked by the Vice-Chancellor of the university and the Crown's representatives. The position is close in nature to the Harvard President, but not quite.

The nominal head of the University of Cambridge is the Chancellor. At one time, his power was supreme within the institution. He held the position of archdeacon within the Catholic Church and reigned over an ecclesiastical court.41 After Henry VIII's usurpation of papal authority in England, though, the Chancellor's power was effectively curtailed. After the Elizabethan Statutes vested the Vice-Chancellor and sixteen college heads with power, the emasculated Chancellor became a ceremonial figurehead. The Harvard President fell somewhere between the former two, with less power than the Vice-Chancellor but more than a college head. Naturally, the role of the Harvard President varied considerably; Henry Dunster was very assertive though later Presidents chose to be more pliant.

The nature of the Harvard College Corporation also differed from the University of Cambridge model. The Harvard College Corporation consisted of the President, Treasurer, and Fellows of Harvard whereas Cambridge's corporation consisted on the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Fellows, and Scholars of the university. The individual college's corporation consisted of the head of the college and between six and sixty fellows, depending on the size of the particular college. Fellows, in the Cantabrigian sense, received a small stipend, with free room and board plus a fixed allowance for sundries as well as a dividend if the college declared any profits. If they did any tutoring and that was optional, they received their pupils' tuition fees. Finally, fellows were required to become ordained and could remain fellows for life once elected.42 The corporation so constituted was the governing body of the college and could only be second-guessed by the King and any university regulations.

As noted before, Harvard's corporation was overshadowed by the Board of Overseers. Its fellows were transient, with eight fellowship appointments by 1653. Dunster complained that the fellows "being so unsetled and so often changed, that ever and anon all the work committed unto them falleth agen on my shoulders."43 Also, the fellows were ostensibly engaged in teaching or researching, though only two of the five were so doing in 1653. The fellows were very young; the average age in 1650 being just twenty-four.44 Within a few months of the charter's approval, all but one had left making Samuel Eaton at twenty the sole and senior teaching fellow!45 Furthermore, its edicts and orders could be overruled by the Overseers. In short, even though the Charter of 1650 established the corporation as an autonomous entity which operated the College and acted except where overruled, it quickly devolved into an ineffectual sibling of the Board of Overseers. Where Cambridge's corporations were powerful, Harvard's was weak—at least during the 17th century.

The Board of Overseers was seen by the General Court as a check on the youthful and inexperienced corporation. Since it had already been running the College since 1642 and doing a fine job, the Board of Overseers allayed the General Court's fears of another scandal on the order of Nathaniel Eaton. Its role was like that of Visitor at Cambridge, since its official function was to keep a watchful eye on the actions of the college officers. At Cambridge, though, the Visitor was an umpire in disputes only.46 The Board had great powers under the Charter of 1650, far more than a Visitor would. The General Court, then, obviously viewed the Board of Overseers not as a Visitor, but as a second governing entity. The Visitor, properly understood, was the General Court: "Such a State of Dependency, for the Continuance of their Being on the Court, does not seem to imply that the Overseers of said College were, in and by their Constitution, the Visitors of said College; For Visitors, as such, have not a dependent precarious Existence."47 The corporation initiated statutes and elections, but the Board had to ratify its decisions. The Board of Overseers could then protect the Commonwealth's interests.

Sometimes, though, the Board of Overseers completely sidestepped the corporation. The Overseers elected Presidents Chauncy and Hoar, Dunster's successors. The Overseers also directed teaching fellows' stipends and payments by the Treasurer.48 These actions were the province of the corporation as dictated by the Charter of 1650. But, after Dunster's resignation, the corporation became leaderless and disorganized. The Board of Overseers, then, was acting in its capacity as protector of the public trust.

The final aspect of college government in which Harvard and the English universities differed was college statutes. The Elizabethan Statutes, or more properly called the Code of Statutes of 12 Elizabeth, were onerous and comprehensive. The same can be said of Oxford's implementation of the Elizabethan Statutes called the Laudian Code of Statutes. These codes of statutes ran to dozens of pages and spelled out student and faculty's conduct to such a degree that few followed them.

Harvard's bylaws, by contrast, outlined general principles of conduct. They left specific judgment of conduct to the President as well as specific punishment. In the first code of 'Rules and Precepts' printed in 1646, there is a rule against missing classes and prayers that is a good example of the nature of Harvard's bylaws. It reads: "If any Scholar beeing in health shall bee absent from prayer or Lectures, except in case of urgent necessity or by the Leave of his tutour, hee shall bee liable to admonition (or such punishment as the president shall thinke meet) if hee offend above once a weeke."49 They followed Overseer Thomas Shepard's advice: "the consequences will be very sad … to make more sins then (as yet is seene) God himselfe hath made."50

The difference in intent and execution will be clear when two similar statutes are contrasted. Both of these statutes sought to protect students from the temptations of neglecting their school work that recreational events and fairs represented. Here is Harvard's version:

No Schollar whatever without the fore acquaintance and leave of the President and his Tutor, or in the absence of either of them two of the Fellowes shal bee present at or in any of the Publike Civil meetings or Concourse of people as Courts of justice, elections, fayres, or at military exercise in the time or howers of the Colledge exercise Publike or private neither shal any schollar exercise himself in any Military band, unlesse of knowne gravity and of approoved, sober and vertuous conversation and that with leave of the President and his Tutor.51

Oxford's statute, and a similar prohibition at Cambridge, was considerably more specific:

Undergraduates, under pain of whipping, are required to abstain from the use of dice and playing-cards; from the ludum pilæ pedalis (football), the lusus Globorum (tennis?), cudgel-play, and other 'vain sports' of this kind; from hunting and keeping hounds, hawks, ferrets, gins, and nets; from discharging guns or cross-bows; and from attending exhibitions of strolling players, rope-dancers, and prize-fighters.52

From these two statutes, we can see that Harvard's gave the student the potential to attend the prohibited events if he could get the President's permission. It also did not specify the mandatory punishment if the rule was violated, giving the President discretion where his students were concerned.

The most surprising difference between Harvard and the English universities—and the rest of the colony to boot—was Harvard's lack of a religious test for students, graduates, and officers of the college. Religious oaths were prevalent throughout the colony and in most other colonies save Quaker Pennsylvania. In fact, in 1640 there was no university in the Christian world where some form of religious test or oath was not used.53 The Elizabethan and Laudian Statutes of Cambridge and Oxford were suffused with religious provisions to which students and administrators must affirm. In fact, every student who was a candidate for a degree had to subscribe to the Three Articles of James I:

I. That the king's majesty, under God, is the only supreme governor of this realm … as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes, as temporal…. II. That the Book of Common Prayer … containeth in it nothing contrary to the word of God … and that he himself will use the form in the said book prescribed, in public prayer, and administration of the sacraments, and none other …. III. … That he acknowledgeth the Thirty-nine Articles … to be agreeable to the word of God.54

The closest the Harvard bylaws come to a religious test is the following articles from the 'Rules and Precepts':

2. Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Joh. 17. 3. and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him Prov 2, 3.55

4. Every one shall so exercise himself in reading the Scriptures twice a day that they bee ready to give an account of their proficiency theerein, both in theoreticall observations of Language and Logicke, and in practicall and spirituall truthes as their tutour shall require according to their severall abilities respectively, seeing the Entrance of the word giveth light, etc. psal. 119. 130.56

Similarly, the Charters of 1642 and 1650 do not give any religious requirements or tests. It is very hard to believe that a college so obviously important to the Puritans would escape their quest for dogmatic orthodoxy.

The reason for this omission has not been recorded for posterity, but there are some likely causes. First among them is the fact that most of the Overseers and important founders of Harvard were alumni of the University of Cambridge. Having seen, in their own minds, the impotence of such oaths as required by the Elizabethan Statutes, they probably thought tests to be a tradition best left on the other side of the Atlantic. Another possible justification is the utter homogeneity of religion in the colony. When dissent is not tolerated within the colony proper, there is little to fear by the college. This reason doesn't stand up, though, since the colony at this time was still recovering from the Anne Hutchinson heresy. Whatever the reason, it was definitely not religious toleration that motivated the failure to create religious oaths and tests.

By now, it should be obvious that the founders of Harvard College had the University of Cambridge as their model. It should also be obvious that they sought to improve on that model by adopting a system of government more modest and suited to a small college and dropping ineffectual traditions. They kept the curriculum that had made them educated men as well as the student life that complemented their education. Like many other institutions, Harvard was the product of the Puritan's desire to reproduce English society with the wicked or imperfect aspects removed.

Unfortunately, the Puritans did not have the legal right to do so. The colony's charter contained no transfer of authority to create corporations from the King. In English law at the time, only the Crown was vested with the power to incorporate. Corporations could create other corporations only if specifically granted that right. That is why the Board of Overseers was set up as a trust. The 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses made it possible to establish an educational trust and avoid the time and expense of seeking a royal charter.57 This allowed the General Court a means of creating the college that would not arouse royal perjoration.

On the other hand, the corporation created by the Charter of 1650 was blatant overstepping of power. The General Court had no right to incorporate anything and it knew it. In the General Laws and Liberties editions of 1660 and 1672, the General Court recorded the act of 1642 that established the unincorporated Board but never mentioned the corporation or the Charter of 1650.58 Since this publication was the official record of laws in the Colony and was sent to England, it is not an unreasonable supposition that the General Court did not want to publicize its transgression and invite royal investigation. Subsequent charters show a similar penchant for assuming royal authority.

As if that were not enough, President Dunster and the Overseers also overreached their authority when they granted the first set of degrees. S.E. Morison, the foremost historian of Harvard, called Dunster's conferring of degrees "the boldest thing [they] did; it was almost a declaration of independence from King Charles."59 In England, there were only two academic institutions that could legally grant degrees: Oxford and Cambridge. Neither of Harvard's charters mentioned the authority to confer degrees. That the Overseers and Harvard administrators were aware of their lack of authority is evident from the actions of Increase Mather, Harvard President from 1685 to 1707. His Charter of 1692 contains the following provision:

And whereas it is a laudable Custome in Universities whereby Learning has been Encouraged and Advanced to confer Academical Degrees or Titles on those who by their Proficiency as to Knowledge in Theology, Law, Physick, Mathematicks or Philosophy have been Judged Worthy thereof. … the President and Fellowes of the said Colledge shall have power from time to time, to grant and admit to Academical Degrees, as in the Universities in England, such as in respect of Learning and Good Manners, they shall find worthy to be promoted thereunto.60

Thus, until 1692, Harvard degrees were not officially sanctioned by any government. Of course, the government that sanctioned Harvard's ability to grant degrees was itself acting without authority. In reality, Harvard's authority to grant degrees was acquired through the legal process of prescription. In other words, Harvard acquired the power to confer degrees because no one challenged its authority to do so.61

Whether the General Court had the authority to incorporate Harvard or Dunster had the power to confer degrees, Harvard is easily the oldest corporation in the United States still operating under its original grant or charter.62 It has existed more or less in its original form and conception for over three hundred and fifty years. It could not have become the most prominent American university without the hard work and effort of its founders. These founders created an academic institution unlike any that existed in its time.

They took the best parts of the English universities—their curricula, student life, and academic standards—and avoided the problems—bureaucracy, religious persecution, and overzealous statutes. The founders succeeded in their goal of "advanc[ing] Learning and perpetuat[ing] it to Posterity."63 Their actions constituted independence, for they serenely assumed powers that they knew they did not have. The founding of Harvard College is an interesting and inspiring story. Interesting, because it is virtually unknown; inspiring, because the principals persevered and confidently asserted their independence. Increase Mather, an important minister and Harvard president, had this to say about the college:

The Colledge by Ingenuous and Civil Education hath had its proper influence. The Colledge which we say was a Noble and Necessary Work, and therefore deserves all Encouragement and Promotion. Noble; for where is the like in all the English America? Where, even among those that in wealth do far Exceed the poor Laborious New-Englanders, is there are such thing? And Necessary too; for else the Rising Generations would have soon become barbarous; because neither would their Estates reach to seek Education in England; neither would any person of worth goe from hence (unless driven by Persecution) so far off to seek Employment when he might have it nearer home. 'T was therefore a brave and happy thought that first pitched upon this Colledge.64

1 Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Founding of Harvard College. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), 359.

2 Prince, Nathan. The Constitution and Government of Harvard-College. (Boston: 1743), 4.

3 Morison, Founding, 193.

4 Morison, Founding, 194

5 "College Book No. 3." Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. vol. XV (1910), 172.

6 Mather, Cotton. Magnalia Christi Americana: or, the Ecclesiastical History of New-England. Book IV. (London, 1702), 10.

7 Prince, 4.

8 Morison, Founding, 221.

9 Ibid., 376.

10 Ibid., 242.

11 Prince, 5.

12 Dunster, Henry. "Memorandum of December, 1653." reprinted in Morison, Founding, 448.

13 Morison, Founding, 246.

14 Prince, 6. Emphases omitted.

15 Morison, Founding, 327.

16 Ibid., 328n.

17 The seal consisted of three open books on a shield. Each book displayed a portion of the Harvard motto, Veritas. This seal has been in constant use by Harvard since then.

18 "President Dunster's Quadriennium Memoir." Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, XXXI (1926): 293.

19 Morison, Samuel Eliot. Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1936), 82.

20 Ibid., 67.

21 New England's First Fruits. (London, 1643), 15-6, reprinted in its entirety in Morison, Founding, 420-47.

22 "according to the custom of the Universities in England." This is a quote from the Latin address given by the President to the Board of Overseers attesting to the students' desert.

23 First Fruits, 16-7. Emphasis in original.

24 Morison, H.C.S.C., 6.

25 Ibid., 12.

26 Morison, H.C.S.C., 15.

27 Morison, Founding, 47.

28 Ibid., 337-8.

29 Ibid. 47.

30 Ibid., 82.

31 This period under consideration was at the height of the Renaissance.

32 Holdsworth, Richard. "Directions for a Student in the Universitie." ms., Emmanuel College Library, quoted in Morison, Founding, 65.

33 Morison, Founding, 73.

34 Ibid., 117-8.

35 Dunster, Quadriennium Memoir, 297.

36 Morison, H.C.S.C., 64-5.

37 Morison, Founding, 83.

38 Mather, Magnalia, 9-10.

39 Morison, H.C.S.C., 49.

40 Morison, Founding, 243.

41 Hackett, M.B. The Original Statutes of Cambridge University: The Text and Its History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 104-6.

42 Morison, Founding, 82-3.

43 Dunster, "Memorandum of December, 1653," 449.

44 Morison, H.C.S.C., 15.

45 Ibid., 17.

46 Ibid., 10.

47 Prince, 9.

48 Morison, H.C.S.C., 13n.

49 Morison, Founding, 336.

50 Ibid., 338.

51 Ibid., 339.

52 Ibid., 338. Note: this is a translation from the Laudian Code of Statutes, which was published in Latin.

53 Ibid., 339.

54 Ibid., 47.

55 First Fruits, 22. Emphasis in original.

56 Morison, Founding, 333.

57 Herbst, Jurgen. From Crisis to Crisis: American College Government from 1636-1819. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 8.

58 Ibid., 14.

59 Morison, H.C.S.C., 70.

60 Ibid., 491.

61 Morison, H.C.S.C., 70n.

62 Ibid., 9.

63 First Fruits, 12.

64 Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard: 1636-1936. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946), 35-6. Emphases in the original.