Harvard College on the Eve of the American Revolution
By Sheldon S. Cohen*
COLONIAL historians focusing on the origins of the American Revolution have displayed a propensity of late to emphasize the ideological aspects of the momentous conflict. We have already witnessed much and will undoubtedly witness further publication of scholarly works examining the influences of various polemic writings on both patriots and loyalist leaders and the general populace. Yet even with all the commendable effort in this sphere, there has been relatively little interest shown in the role of higher education in forming the Revolutionary mentality. Admittedly, the living alumni and students of colonial colleges at the time of Lexington numbered well under one percent of the total colonial population, but their role in the subsequent conflict far outweighed their small number.1 Indeed, a large percentage of leaders in both patriot and Loyalist camps were college trained. And so I think it would serve historians well to analyze more thoroughly the actual effects of the colonial college experience in the molding of pre-Revolutionary thought.
In following this particular aspect of historical inquiry, the following are some questions which researchers might explore. What was the status of individual colleges within the colonial community? Who comprised their enrollment and what were the educational offerings and objectives of the various institutions? What were the main concerns of faculty and students in the years preceding the Revolution, and how did they perceive the impending conflict? And finally, with an obvious eye on contemporary events, how serious, in fact, was student unrest during this period?
Of the nine colonial colleges, Harvard was not only the oldest but certainly the most prestigious. It had grown from its seventeeth-century origin so that by the eve of the Revolution the impressive college Yard was surrounded by six attractive brick buildings. With a president, three professors, four tutors, and a librarian, its faculty and bookshelves were the largest in the colonies and its enrollment, which averaged about 175 to 180 undergraduates during the pre-Revolutionary decade, gave it, along with Yale College, the most sizable student body.2 When compared with eighteenth-century Oxford and Cambridge Universities, such statistics seem quite insignificant, yet when viewed in the context of its colonial environment, it stood as the preeminent intellectual institution.
Scholars who enrolled at Harvard College during the pre-Revolutionary years of turmoil possessed both similar and disparate attributes. They had passed the admission hurdles which, according to the college laws of 1767, required prospective candidates to show ability to translate commonly read Greek and Latin writers, understand the rules of Grammar, write Latin sentences correctly and parenthetically, “have a good moral character.” Their average entrance age had risen from the beginning of the century to 17 years, but so had the age range disparity which in one class (1772) found freshmen of 12 and 27 years studying together.3 Similar diversity was reflected in their family’s social and economic status, which until 1769 had come to play an important part in class ranking. Some freshmen, such as Thomas Bernard (A.B. 1767), son of the Massachusetts royal governor, were obviously from the colonial elite. Others, such as charity student Silas Biglow (A.B. 1765), came from quite moderate circumstances, but the majority were sent from families of what Benjamin Franklin called “the happy mediocrity” of the English colonies. The cost of a student’s Harvard education, which Timothy Pickering (A.B. 1763) cited as “£121·18s·9¼d lawful money,” was considerable though not exorbitant. And while New England (and especially Massachusetts) provided most of its scholars, Harvard’s reputation had even attracted occasional students from other continental colonies and the West Indies.4
The academic environment in Cambridge had broadened significantly since the seventeenth century, though the atmosphere remained generally circumscribed. While some students were given permission to reside outside the Yard, all were expected to follow a specific regimen during the lengthy school day. On weekdays they arose near dawn and gathered in Holden Chapel for prayers. After a brief recess came recitation which lasted until the noontime meal. This was followed by brief recreation and lengthy study, an evening meal and further prayers and study before bed. Saturday evenings were given over to prayers, as was the Sabbath itself. The Harvard Laws and Customs enforcing this weekly regimen had moderated somewhat since the previous century though by the pre-Revolutionary era they still retained their basically rigid and authoritarian character. Scholars absent without authorization from chapel services, meals, recitations, or lectures, or those failing to return from vacations or leaves at stipulated times were to be fined, while more serious transgressions such as blasphemy, fornication, robbery, recurrent intoxication, gambling, performing in theatrical productions, or wearing “women’s Apparel” were punished by public admonition, degradation in the class list, rustication, or expulsion. Similarly stringent penalties were to be applied to students who resisted, insulted, or attacked members of the faculty.5
Harvard’s curriculum and instructional procedures had also undergone transformations since its earliest years when all four classes were taught together by individual tutors. Initially the undergraduate course of study, influenced by medieval and renaissance patterns, had centered on logic, rhetoric, ethics, metaphysics, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and classical belleslettres. By the eve of the Revolution new studies in natural philosophy (science), geography, and mathematics were introduced into the curriculum along with texts of John Locke, Isaac Watts, John Desaguliers, Willem Gravesande, Patrick Gordon, and Jean Jacques Burlamaqui. In 1767 the earlier method of general instruction was altered so that each of the four tutors was to teach specific subjects.6 Yet, by 1775 vestiges of the original curricula remained. The faculty still prepared their scholars in mastering the art of Latin orations and syllogistic disputations while bachelor’s degree candidates were expected to be “able to translate the Original of the Old and New Testament into the Latin Tongue and [have] a good Acquaintance with the Classics, [be] well instructed in the Principles of the Mathematics, of natural and moral Philosophy, of Logic and Rhetoric,” and as proof of the value of a Harvard education, “be of an unblemished Life.”7
Harvard, in the pre-Revolutionary period, was then undoubtedly the foremost institution of colonial higher education, and its alumni were deeply affected by their experiences in Cambridge. Its very existence was a justifiable symbol of intellectual pride and achievement for New England, most especially for Massachusetts. How then, were the college and its students affected by the political controversies which boiled after 1763 and finally exploded at Lexington and Concord?
In one sense, Harvard men enjoyed a greater perspective of the oncoming conflict than their contemporaries in most other colonial colleges. It was in Boston, less than three miles from the college yard, where James Otis wrote and spoke against the Sugar (Revenue) Act of 1764 and where the Sons of Liberty and other dissidents staged some of the most tumultuous riots against the Stamp Act. It was also in nearby Boston where the Massachusetts General Court adopted its Circular Letter of 1768 protesting the Townshend Duties. And it was in Boston where the “bloody massacre” occurred in March 1770, where East India tea was dumped in the harbor in December 1773, and where a plethora of polemics concerning the growing political crisis was printed. In even more immediate proximity, the students were witness to General Court meetings in Cambridge where the legislature met from 1770 to 1773. Finally, in April 1775 it was in neighboring Lexington and Concord where the first armed clashes of the Revolution occurred.8
Such prominent episodes were not ignored at the college. One reflection of the Stamp Act Crisis was recorded by an undergraduate on 18 March 1768: “This being the day of the Year the Stamp Act was repealed [Thomas] Colman went about and collected Money and they bought a quantity of Fagots and made a Vast Number of Crackers and Serpents and set them on Fire in the Evening.” The previous autumn Harvard seniors, in protest against the Townshend Duties, voted to abstain from tea drinking and wearing imported British clothing at their commencement. The theses and Quaestiones at the 1768 commencement were even printed on paper manufactured in New England. The following year the seniors repeated those actions and also gave notice of their refusal to do further business with John Mein, a bookseller and printer of the Boston Chronicle who had opposed nonimportation policies and their advocates. It was also apparently as a result of the Townshend crisis that a militia company was organized at the college in 1769 or 1770. And, on 1 March 1775, the protests of a considerable number of students caused Harvard’s administration to warn against bringing India teas into the Commons.9
Forensic disputations, and other exercises presented at the annual summer commencements, were also concerned with contemporary problems. During the period 1765–1773 an increasing number of commencement theses and Quaestiones reflected the tension between England and the colonies. Among their subjects were “Absolute Monarchy tends to destroy the happiness of the human race” (1765); “Can the new Prohibitory Duties, which make it useless for the People to engage in Commerce be evaded by them as Faithful Subjects?” (1765); “Are the People the Sole Judges of their Rights and Liberties?” (1769); “Is a Government despotic in which the People have no check on the Legislative Power?” (1776); “A noble death in the cause of Civil Liberty is much preferable to woeful slavery” (1772); “Every Action Tending to the Public ill is illegal” (1773); “To Deprive a Man of Liberty for the Sake of promoting eternal happiness is contrary to natural law” (1773).1
Some students displayed in a more personal way interest in the turbulent political situation. Stephen Peabody (A.B. 1769) wrote in his diary for 28 September 1767 that he had read “two of the smartest pieces in Edes and Gill upon Liberty that ever I saw.” Peabody was referring to two anonymous articles appearing that day in the Boston Gazette signed “Hyperion” and “Nestor” which, in Lockean terms, strongly attacked Great Britain for allegedly injuring colonial rights and liberties. On 16 December 1773 Samuel Chandler (A.B. 1775) noted, “I hear from Boston Yt [that] there was a mob this Evening, and the Vessels were borded and ye tea hove over bord—huzza—.” Nathaniel Walker Appleton, who remained in Cambridge a year after his graduation in 1773, wrote to a fellow classmate in Andover relating his concerns about political events from the dumping of the “detested Tea” in Boston harbor through the beginnings of the Revolution itself.2
Yet it would be inaccurate to infer from these reports that political considerations dominated student concerns. Despite their proximity to the center of crucial events, there was apparently no organized participation by Harvard students in episodes such as the Stamp Act riots or the Boston Tea Party. Also, while Stephen Peabody, Samuel Chandler, and Nathaniel Appleton were unquestionably aware of the crucial political occurrences surrounding them, it is interesting that the major part of their writings were concerned with nonpolitical events. Peabody, who became a Congregational minister after his graduation, wrote in his journal primarily about religion, family news, and his fellow students, while Appleton, who later became a physician, often paid little attention to political news, but was more interested in writing about the latest events at Harvard. In 1770, a Speaking Club, which Appleton joined, was formed at Harvard, followed by a Mercurian Club (1770), and a Clitonian Club (1774), but these organizations, although secret, were not revolutionary societies and concentrated primarily on debating and public speaking. Some of their topics were political: “Oppression and Tyranny,” and “An Address to the People of England,” but most of them dealt with classical orations or excerpts from popular English authors such as Addison, Pope or Shakespeare.3
And though it was true that the number of theses and Quaestiones discussing political topics had increased during this period, the preponderance of these works, usually chosen under faculty supervision, focused on nonpartisan topics such as “Polygamy is repugnant to natural law” (1768); “All bodily changes result from motion” (1766); “We are always obligated to truth” (1770); “The pressure of the atmosphere is not diminished in theory by the movement of air” (1771); “Infants are suitable for baptism” (1772); “The Diversity of color among different people arises essentially from a difference of climate” (1773).4
Even the majority of cases of pre-Revolutionary student disorder did not originate from off-campus political events. Single or group instances of personal misconduct appear to have been responsible for most cases of student disturbances according to the college records. Under the administration of three presidents during the decade from 1765 to 1775 (Edward Holyoke, Samuel Locke, and Samuel Langdon), the incidences of undergraduate mischief took some new and varied forms. Besides the usual fines, mulcts, or admonitions for such petty offenses as unexcused absences, cursing, gambling, drunkenness, and “making tumultuous or indecent Noises,” scholars were severely punished for more serious infractions. As examples of the latter offenses, one student was expelled in 1765 for defying President Holyoke in an “irreverant and ludicrous manner,” another was rusticated in March 1773 for frequently visiting a “house of ill-fame” in Charlestown, and in what hardly seems a protest on behalf of coeducation, a few students were rusticated in May 1770 for keeping women of questionable morality “in their chambers at night.” The Harvard Corporation complained to the Charlestown selectmen concerning the corrupting influences of the town’s notorious Ship Tavern, and several students formed an Association for the Suppression of Vice (1767), but these and other attempts to uphold righteousness and virtue proved unsuccessful.5 Moral laxity persisted and this condition, rather than politics, proved the principal cause of student misbehavior.
Harvard nevertheless did have its student “revolts” in the pre-Revolutionary era, the first occurring in the autumn of 1766. The cause of this confrontation stemmed from the bad butter served in the Commons—part of the long-standing complaints over the quality of food. Despite student grumblings, spoiled butter was recurrently served at mealtimes. At last, during breakfast on 23 September, Asa Dunbar, a senior, brought some of the offensive food to the senior tutor, and in the words of his own scripturally styled satire declared, “Behold our Butter stinketh, and we cannot eat thereof! Now give us we pray thee Butter that stinketh not.”6 Whatever the actual words of the complaint, Belcher Hancock (A.B. 1727), the senior tutor “Sirnamed Bowl, alias Beelzebub,” gave Dunbar no satisfaction, telling him to return to his classmates. Dunbar, a grandfather of Henry Thoreau, thereupon refused Hancock’s command and after his classmates supported his defiance with clapping and hissing, the entire faculty withdrew and voted to censure Dunbar and degrade him to the bottom of his class.7
The students refused to be cowed by such actions and, led by two of Dunbar’s classmates, they assembled in Holden Chapel. There the scholars passed a number of resolutions including a denunciation of Dunbar’s censure and a threat to leave the Commons in a body, “if bad and unwholesome butter was served to them on the morrow.” When the quality of food failed to improve at the next day’s breakfast, all the undergraduates, “excepting two senior Sophisters, the waiter and part of the Freshmen,” left the dining hall, gathered in the yard, gave several derisive cheers against the tutors and then breakfasted in Cambridge.8
Despite this almost unanimous revolt by the undergraduates, the resolute response of President Holyoke (nicknamed “Gutts”), with the support of the Harvard Overseers, crushed the student uprising. Although the president did first appoint a faculty committee which condemned several of the stocks of butter as inedible, at the same time he refused to accept the dissident actions of the students which he considered a direct attack on the authority of the college government. The ringleaders of the revolt were summarily called before Holyoke and ordered to sign an acknowledgment of acting in “an irregular and unconstitutional manner” and promising “to behave as becomes dutiful and Obedient Pupills for the Future.” Daniel Johnson, one of the student leaders, obstinately refused to sign such a confession, and he later returned to the president with most of the student body who supported his refusal.9 Holyoke stood by his demand for an acknowledgment of guilt, and his position was supported by the Overseers, who, on 10 October 1766, rejected a more moderate confession composed by a committee representing the students. The counter demands of the Overseers for a full confession and their unanimous support for punishment of any recalcitrant student were read by Holyoke in the chapel with the Overseers in attendance. The elderly president also read a new confession in which those involved in the disturbance were required to admit “irregular and unconstitutional actions” and “Sorrow” for acting contrary to the good order and laws of the college. Student defiance almost immediately collapsed, and the new confession was signed by all students except those who had taken no part in the rebellion.1
In the early spring of 1768 Harvard experienced its most serious pre-Revolutionary student rebellion. The revolt, which even caught the attention of Tory Governor Thomas Hutchinson, did carry political overtones, but its roots can be traced to the failing health of Edward Holyoke along with the arbitrary actions of the tactless tutors. By early 1768, President Holyoke, once an impressive figure of 230 pounds, was almost seventy-nine years old and was frequently incapacitated by a painful illness. In his absence, administrative matters were handled much more often by the professors and tutors, and there was consequently much “Deviltry carried on in College.”2 The tutors especially tried to put reins on such misbehavior, and in March 1768 they adopted a new regulation which forbade students in class to offer excuses for not reciting, unless they received permission beforehand from their respective tutors. Many undergraduates promptly compared this new rule to the arbitrary firman of a Turkish Bashaw, and Stephen Peabody described it as “so ridiculous that it is really Sickish.” With several of his classmates, Peabody agreed to proceed in their former practices, ignoring the regulation. Many other students chose to deluge their instructors with excuse requests. Tensions between the tutors and students quickly increased. Some of the tutors were hissed in class, their chamber windows broken, and their doors smeared with manure. On 30 March, Tutor Joseph Willard’s room was ransacked, and the next evening a fire of suspicious origin was discovered in Massachusetts Hall.3
On 2 April, a day described as “very cold and blustering,” the contentions exploded into an open revolt. That afternoon Thurston Whiting, one of the younger and smaller freshmen, complained to several other students that Tutor Willard had forcibly detained him in the tutor’s chambers in an apparent attempt to learn who had ransacked his room. After word of Whiting’s alleged detention spread among the undergraduates, a serious riot occurred in the yard on the evening of 2–3 April, when several students threw brickbats through Tutor Willard’s windows and threatened further damage. The tutors apprehended a sophomore who promptly implicated three of his classmates. By this time, however, fear of a general student insurrection became so great that the deputy sheriff of Middlesex County had to be prevailed upon to protect the yard.4
On Sunday, 3 April, the faculty met and ordered the expulsion of the four freshman culprits, but many students responded quickly by adopting protests against this action. In one of these resolves, drawn up that evening by James Mitchell Varnum, a junior class dissident, it was agreed that unless President Holyoke publicly renounced the intended punishments and set aside the regulations on recitations, all undergraduates would leave the college and not return until the faculty acquiesced to their demands. Early the next day the undergraduates met by a large elm (which they christened a “liberty tree”) and listened to several students giving emotional speeches denouncing the actions of the faculty and comparing the recent tutorial regulations to tyranny. One scholar, in a possible reference to the Townshend Duties, claimed that the new regulations tended to enslave the Scholars and “degrade them to the position of schoolboys.”5 However, when the students confronted President Holyoke outside the chapel, presented him with a petition that he delay the formal expulsion of the riotous students, and threatened to leave the college unless punishments were suspended and the new regulations on recitations were changed, the elderly pedagogue firmly rebuked them and went inside for morning prayers. Almost all the students in the three lower classes then boycotted the chapel service. Holyoke responded during the devotions by formally expelling the four sophomores implicated in breaking Tutor Willard’s chamber windows, and, shortly after the morning gathering was dismissed, “104 or 5 of the scholars went down and gave up their chambers, all ye junior classes except 40.” The episode reached its ultimate crisis later on 4 April when the entire senior class appeared before President Holyoke and threatened to request transfers to Yale College unless the underclassmen’s grievances were properly redressed.6
Again, however, the resolute actions of President Holyoke and the Overseers, aided by disunity among the undergraduates, served to extinguish the undergraduate insurrection. Thurston Whiting, the central figure in the revolt, signed a deposition on 7 April in which he denied ever having been imprisoned in Tutor Willard’s room and declared that he had been coerced into making contrary statements by certain students. Depositions signed by several other students declared that the rumors of Whiting’s detention were used by James Varnum, Stephen Peabody, and other scholars as part of a larger plot to force Tutor Willard’s resignation, and that they were coerced into approving Varnum’s petition.7 On 8 April the Overseers confirmed the sentence of expulsion against the students apprehended during the riot of 2 April and the alleged leaders of the 4 April demonstration, and they also denounced “student combinations” against the “wise and proper” regulations on recitation. The circumspect seniors, whose applications for transfers to Yale Holyoke had rejected, now petitioned the President in a more subdued tone, requesting leniency for their expelled schoolmates.8 By 11 April many of the students who had either left or been expelled from the college were petitioning for readmission and were even offering to make a public confession of guilt. On 3 May, the Overseers found the “ill-temper and disorder that lately prevailed, happily subsiding,” and eight days later the Reverend Thomas Barnard warned the students against relying solely “on the wisdom of men or the researches of human sagacity.”9
Although the faculty had rejected the expelled students’ applications for readmission, their action was overruled by the Corporation which voted to restore the ousted undergraduates “to their forfeited Places of Privilege in the College upon their humble confession.” Three of the four accused ringleaders in the demonstration by the “liberty tree” made the required public confession and were readmitted to the college.1 The principal activist in the affair, James Mitchell Varnum, refused to make any confession and transferred to the College of Rhode Island [Brown]. Following his graduation from the College in 1769 Varnum became a lawyer and served as a Major General during the Revolution. Thurston Whiting, the cause célèbre of the episode, also transferred to the College of Rhode Island but was allegedly expelled there after stealing the President’s horse. Three of the four students apprehended after the riot outside Tutor Willard’s room subsequently returned to Harvard and graduated with the class of 1771. Ironically, Joseph Willard, the object of so much student wrath, became President of the college, serving with distinction from 1781 to 1804.2
The next recorded student disorder at Harvard occurred in the autumn of 1769 at a time when a successor to the recently deceased President Holyoke had yet to be selected. On the morning of 9 October, suspended from a tree next to the chapel, an effigy was discovered bearing the name of the unpopular tutor, Stephen Scales, with a “number of scurrilous Libels affixed to it.” After the effigy had been cut down, several students, “in a riotous Manner and with tumultuous noises,” took the figure and disrespectfully deposited it at Tutor Scales’ door. Two days after the incident a faculty meeting ordered two students rusticated and three others downgraded in their class lists for their role in the event.3 Animosities against the tutors persisted, nevertheless, and they were clearly reflected in these excerpts from a contemporary student poem entitled, “A True Description of a Number of Tyrannical Pedagogues”:
If too, instead of politer grace,
The stiff logician wipes his greasy face,
Then spits his venom in sarcastick wit,
And grins in laughter at the object hit;
A frown comes tumbling from the Grecian brow.
Soon as you enter his imperiod dome,
Or dare approach the monarch on his throne . . .
But if their Mulcts grow wider every Hour,
Wider their struts and arbitrare their Power,
I would advise you Sons of Harvard then
To Let them know that you are sons of men.4
Disorders against the tutors lessened somewhat after Samuel Locke (A.B. 1755) was installed as Holyoke’s successor in March 1770. But the promising beginning made under the new young President came to an end on 1 December 1773 when Locke resigned after it was learned that he had impregnated his household’s maid.5 Existent student writings reflect the more relaxed campus atmosphere under Locke’s administration, and about the only example of organized disruption came on the evening of his inauguration, when unidentified students burned the college privy. The relaxation of discipline under President Locke also resulted in increased student boldness, and one scholar even recorded an incident in 1774 when a tutor was unable to convince his students to return to their Greek studies by the usual “tyrannical authority,” but was forced to use “calm and mild arguments.”6
The next president, Samuel Langdon (A.B. 1740) was finally selected in July 1774 and was installed the following October. Langdon, who was obliged to resign in 1780, proved to be an inept administrator and became unpopular with most students, but, partly because of his vigorous patriot sentiments, he was able to handle Harvard’s last student disturbance prior to the American Revolution. It occurred on 1 March 1775 when a free-for-all broke out in the dining hall after some Loyalistminded students had persisted in bringing India teas into the Commons. Fearing greater disruption, the faculty met the same day, criticized both sides, upheld the college’s supremacy in the dining hall, and then resolved:
Since the carrying of India Teas into the Hall is found to be a Source of uneasiness and grief to many of the Students, and as the use of it is disagreeable to the People of this Country in general, and as those who have carried Tea into the Hall declare that the drinking of it in the Hall is a matter of trifling consequence with them; that they be advised not to carry it in for the future, and in this way that they, as well as other Students in all ways, discover a disposition to promote harmony, mutual affection and confidence, so well becoming Members of the same Society: that so peace and happiness may be preserved within the Walls of the College whatever convulsions may unhappily distract the State abroad.7
When the American Revolution commenced the following month, it had immediate and extensive effects at Harvard. At least a half dozen students went off with the Minutemen to Lexington and, after the fighting, a column of British reinforcements under Lord Percy was directed from Cambridge to Lexington by Tutor Isaac Smith. British troops did not pass through Cambridge on their retreat to Boston, but the college was not left undisturbed during the subsequent siege. On 18 May 1775 President Langdon, following orders of the Committee of Safety, dismissed the students early for vacation, and a few days later the Provincial Congress commandeered the college buildings. They also directed that the library books and scientific apparatus be removed to safety. In July and August, faculty meetings in the President’s home remitted recent student punishments but insisted that “Quarter Bills” be paid. A new freshman class was admitted in August, but although comparatively few students had entered military service, the public commencement was canceled in 1775 as it had been the previous year. (The fact that of the 190 entering freshmen in the classes from 1775 through 1778 only 30 left Harvard prior to their graduation, indicates that the immediate stages of the conflict had only a moderate effect on student enrollment.) Finally, in September, the Overseers directed that the college be reopened in Concord, and there it remained until its return to Cambridge in June 1776.8
Among both faculty and graduates of Harvard during the period from 1765 to 1775, a clear majority openly supported the patriot cause. President Holyoke, perhaps weakened by age and his many infirmities, expended his failing strength on collegiate matters and appeared generally indifferent to politics. Both his successors, Samuel Locke and Samuel Langdon, while failing as administrators, were nevertheless ardent patriots. John Wadsworth (A.B. 1762) and Isaac Smith (A.B. 1767) were the only two of nineteen college tutors employed during this decade who manifestly espoused Loyalism, while Edward Wigglesworth (A.B. 1749) was the only professor who was extremely cool to the patriot cause. There were, of course, Loyalists among the graduates of this decade such as Samuel Rogers (A.B. 1765), William Pepperell (A.B. 1766) and Thomas Bernard (A.B. 1767), but they were in a definite minority. Using Dr. Clifford Shipton’s fascinating Harvard Graduate series, my own count of the graduates in the classes of 1765, 1766, and 1767 showed 70 patriots and 31 Loyalists among those who were cited as taking sides in the conflict. (There were also a significant minority that apparently remained uninvolved in the conflict.) And though Harvard, unlike her New Haven counterpart, did not produce patriots having the notoriety of Nathan Hale, who died in the patriot service, it nonetheless had its own sons such as Silvanus Ames (A.B. 1767), Alexander Scammell (A.B. 1769), and Nathaniel MacClintock (A.B. 1775) who gallantly sacrificed their lives in the cause of independence.9
* * * * * *
The preceding paragraphs have sketched details of the atmosphere and events at pre-Revolutionary Harvard College. But beyond such details can any generalizations be drawn concerning these collegians within the political and ideological controversies rending the colonies? Admittedly, the evidence concerning individual academic careers of these scholars is limited, and yet while it might seem to be “looking through a glass darkly,” I would like to offer my own assessments.
In one sense, I believe the prevailing mood of the Cambridge Yard was mainly apolitical during the pre-Revolutionary era. From existent records and personal accounts, it would appear that the principal aim of faculty and scholars was giving and receiving the intellectual training requisite for filling specific roles in New England’s social and religious order. This aim of course reflected the old Puritan concept of the “calling” or vocation, and it remained preeminent at Harvard in 1775, as it had in 1675. There was also, as Dr. Shipton has noted, a considerable degree of intellectual freedom and individualism at the college, and unlike President John Witherspoon’s teachings at Princeton, there appears to have been little political indoctrination within the college classrooms.1 Existent student writings, as I have noted, were concerned largely with trivial matters, and although a growing number of political problems were topics of student theses or Quaestiones, most of these works remained nonpartisan. Similarly, despite the proximity of radical groups in Boston, there were no “off-campus agitators” stirring organized protests against actions of the royal government. The student militia company apparently operated largely for show and took no part in episodes such as the Boston Tea Party or the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. As for the college speaking clubs, it would be quite erroneous to compare them to groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society or Young Socialist Alliance.
Furthermore, it would also be erroneous to overestimate the nature and degree of student rebelliousness for the period. During the decade from 1765 to 1775 the instances of organized student dissidence were not numerous. Minor and major punishments, as previously noted, stemmed largely from personal misconduct. Concerns of the stomach, not of politics, sparked the brief Butter Rebellion of 1766, while even the most notable organized pre-Revolutionary disorder in 1768 proved to be neither overly destructive nor protracted.
If comparisons between eighteenth-century and contemporary campus upheavals are sought, the disruptions of the 1780’s would provide more appropriate parallels in their frequency and intensity. Although additional punishment powers were given to the faculty in 1783, there were at least four serious disorders, including one in which knives as well as stones were thrown at the tutors.2
Yet despite these mollifying facts, I think it would be equally erroneous to negate the influences which political events and political ideology had on the college. Besides the aforementioned increase of partisan commencement works, the patriot sympathy measures adopted by various classes, and the personal political motivations of the students themselves, there was testimony by observers off the Cambridge Yard that Harvard men during the pre-Revolutionary period besides being older were also more aware than their turn-of-the-century predecessors. Elizabeth Smith, one such witness, wrote to her student cousin that she believed “A glorious spirit of Liberty prevails among you.” The Reverend John Eliot noted to one Harvard benefactor in December 1769, “The young gentlemen are already taken up with politics. They have caught the spirit of the times. Their declamations and forensic disputes breathe spirit of liberty. . . .” And Governor Thomas Hutchinson, subsequently recounting the Harvard rebellion of 1768, begrudgingly admitted, “The spirit of Liberty had spread where it was not intended.”3
Similarly, while the actual instances of organized student dissent at Harvard were few during the pre-Revolutionary decade, they do represent, I believe, a carry-over from developments outside the college. Like many colonial dissidents, the rebellious Harvard students were displaying to a considerable extent a resentment against their traditionally arbitrary treatment as “precocious children.” Influenced by the agitated atmosphere outside the Yard, many students were now reacting vigorously against outmoded authoritarianism, even at the risk of losing their highly prized diplomas. The increasing acts of personal misconduct, the defiance of unpopular faculty members, and even the refusal to accept the serving of bad butter, were all reflections of an insurgent mood within the colonies. The best example, however, was the rebellion of April 1768 which one student many years later recalled “was a time when Liberty was the universal cry.” It was also during this episode that the seniors stated that their dissident lower classmen were overly “excited by a National Sympathy,” an apparent reference to the Townshend Act protests. And perhaps most significantly, the dissidents themselves referred to the new regulations or classroom recitations which had helped ignite the incident as the “Turkish Tyranny.” Notwithstanding the fact that Harvard’s faculty was quite dissimilar from arbitrary Turkish Bashaws, the employment of this metaphor, often used by patriot leaders, perhaps best illustrates the pervasiveness of this libertarian sentiment in the colonies.4
Lastly, this pre-Revolutionary spirit of liberty among colonial students also existed in another more latent manner. Although there was apparently little, if any, attempt to radicalize the students, the curriculum itself helped serve this function. From the classic words of Cicero, Demosthenes, Plato and Tacitus to the more contemporary writings of Locke, Burlamaqui, Pufendorf and Montesquieu, students could and did draw numerous analogies on democracy, freedom, and natural rights which helped confirm a devotion to the patriot cause.5 Conversely, I believe that even those pre-Revolutionary graduates who remained loyal to the crown used their own interpretations of many of these same classical or Enlightenment authors to defend their particular Loyalist sentiments.
For all of this, I am reminded of Judge Mellen Chamberlain, who while addressing a Sons of the American Revolution dinner in April 1894, recalled an interview that he had had over a half century before with Captain Levi Preston, a ninety-one year old veteran of the Battle of Concord. As the elderly judge recalled it, the conversation went as follows:
“Captain Preston, why did you go to the Concord Fight, the 19th of April, 1775?” The old man, bowed beneath the weight of years, raised himself upright, and turning to me said: “Why did I go?” “Yes,” I replied; “my histories tell me that you men of the Revolution took up arms against ‘intolerable oppressions.’ What were they?” “Oppressions? I didn’t feel them.” “What, were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?” “I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them.” “Well, what then about the tea-tax?” “Tea-tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.” “Then I suppose you had been reading Harrington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty.” “Never heard of ’em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.” “Well, then, what was the matter? and what did you mean in going to the fight?” “Young man, what we meant in going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”6
Most Harvard students of this decade had undoubtedly read John Locke, and possibly James Harrington and Algernon Sidney, and yet I feel that their broadened collegiate readings had brought those patriot students to the same matter-of-fact conclusion of Captain Preston: “We always meant to govern ourselves.”
The ultimate decision of the graduates who supported the patriot cause of course was greatly influenced by family or personal ties. But again, I do not feel that we can state that their higher educational careers had only a minimal influence on the ultimate decision of those who did side with the patriot cause. On the surface, most of their writings concerned routine schoolday matters, religious or moral concerns, and family or financial affairs—all of which were really not that dissimilar from those of present day collegians. Beneath this seemingly commonplace and casual veneer, however, they had formed deeply rooted concepts of freedom and human dignity. Such concepts had been acquired not only in their readings, but in some cases during their struggles for greater respect from the faculty. When the news of the clashes at Lexington and Concord became known, I think it was this result of their Harvard experiences which, almost immediately, helped draw brave young men such as Silvanus Ames, Alexander Scammell, and Nathaniel MacClintock to the American cause. And perhaps some of them might have entered the conflict thinking in the same vein as the self-evident pronouncement made by attorney Andrew Hamilton before the John Zenger jury, forty years before Lexington: “It is the best cause: It is the cause of Liberty!”7