218 Letter from a Clergyman

    [November 14 1720]

    A Letter from a Clergyman in the country to one of the Overseers of Harvard Colledge.


    At your desire I shall give you my sentiments concerning the present State of the Colledge, which indeed by my last advices from there, I look upon to be very unhappy. The Colledge which had been in an unsettled State for some years before Mr. President Leverets Settlement in it, was then, by an Act of the General Court, fixt upon the Charter of 1650 and the President and Fellows were directed to regulate themselves according to the Rules of that Charter and constitution and to exercise the powers and authorities thereby granted; for the government of the Colledge and Coll[edge] has no other foundation but that to depend upon.

    And here I will first consider the form and constitution of the Colledge Government by the Charter and Laws upon it, and then the present State of Colledge affairs.

    In the first place—It is plain and evident that by the Charter the next and immediate Government of the Colledge is put into the hands of seven persons, Viz a President five Fellows, and a Treasurer or Burser which 7 persons were all Resident at the Colledge for the good Inspection and Government of the Society, [2] And although when the Colledge was founded there were many great and worthy persons in the Vicinity, yet rather than take in any from abroad into the Corporation (who were to govern the Colledge) there were of the First Nomination, three Bachelders of Art, besides others of an advanced Character and for promoting the weal and Government of the Students in the Colledge (which was the great design of this grant of Charter) as is exprest in the preamble of it, as well as in Conformity to the usages of Colledges in the Universities abroad, it was thought necessary by the Founders of the Colledge that it should be so.

    In the said Charter it was Provided that in case of the death or removal of anyone of the said seven persons, resident at the Colledge, the Survivours should have power to elect a New one, and compleat their number. The Corporation are likewise impowered to choose under officers for the Colledge, Such I suppose as Library Keeper, Steward, Butler, Scholars of the House, Handicraftsmen &c. But I can’t imagine that any were designed under this head to be brought in to govern the Colledge. Beside the Corporation, because there are no Rules prescribed either in the Charter, or Laws, for anybody to manage the Affairs of the Colledge by but the Corporation, Whereas for them there are very good ones, and the Charter limits the Government of the College to the Corporation. The Corporation is furthermore impowered to make Such orders and By Laws for the better ordering and carrying on the work of the Colledge, as they shall think fit and to put the same into execution for the good [3] of the Colledge, and to receive and dispose of Colledge money.

    And by the Charter and English Laws all Acts and Elections of Fellows are to be allowed and confirmed by the Overseers; and all things of

    Importance in the Colledge are to be done with their Knowledge and Consent.

    The English Laws that were made in 1655 direct the President and Fellows of the Corporation to execute the Laws, either jointly or severaly as the nature of things calls for: Small things are to be managed either by the President or a single Tutor or Fellow: But such as are greater by the President and Fellows at a meeting in form: and all matters to be decided in Corporation by a Majority of Voices of President and Fellows. And from the whole its clear and evident that by the Original Form and Constitution of the College Government all affairs were managed by the President and Corporation, and in matters of importance with the knowledge and consent of the Overseers.

    I now proceed to consider the present state of Colledge Affairs and wherein in my opinion it differs from the original constitution and the immediate care and government of the College is now supposed to be with Mr. President and 4 Fellows: Three of which Fellows are not allowed to sit in Corporation: and most of the Corporation being abroad at a distance, and very seldom there. And this State of things in the Colledge is but feeble and can’t be otherwise for the Gentlemen of the Corporation that reside at Several miles distance and are seldom more than twice or thrice in a year there can’t be of great service in the government and good order of it. Even although they have the most passionate regard [4] for its welfare.

    And the Resident Fellows out of the Corporation can’t be strong in the business of the Colledge having no Interest in Elections of Officers Exhibitions of Colledge money whereby a great number of persons are continualy benefitted, and many others in expection of favours which interest in the Colledge has formerly been improved by the Fellows very much for the Service of it. And the Loss of this Interest will bring the Fellows into some Degree of Contempt in the Colledge.

    And a Fellow that is not of the Corporation in this account cannot have the same Credit and Authority in the Colledge with one that is of it; It not being agreable with humane Nature for persons to love or fear very much such as they have no dependance upon, or to have any great regard to those that can neither do them good or hurt, which is very much the case of Titular Fellows in the Colledge. vid.* fin. And furthermore this state of the Colledge is very perplext and difficult by reason of the uncertainty those of the Fellows are under who are out of the Corporation [5] about what is their proper business, and how to manage it. They have Pupils committed to their Tuition which they take care of, but as for Executing the Laws and governing the Colledge that seems to them by the Charter and Laws to be the Business of the Corporation but they are forced to pretend to all those things, for otherwise the Government of the house is immediately dissolved (The Corporation being absent). But then, how and by what Rules they shall manage affairs is another difficulty: there are indeed very good Rules prescribed to the Corporation in the Charter to manage all affairs by, but none for Fellows that are out of it. And thus the Colledge dos in a great Degree loose the benefit of the Charter, under these Circumstances, and is reduct to a state of Nature, and the Gentlemen immediately concerned in the business of the Colledge, having no certain rules to go by, cant often without difficulty get through the smallest matters. And its become a general Observation of all persons there, both Graduates and Undergraduates that the Interest and Authority of the Fellows are under Visible decays, and indeed I think it impossible for them under their present Circumstances to keep up their Characters in the Colledge, as the Fellows formerly have done, and ought still to do, for the Service of the Colledge. [6] And thus in my Opinion the present state of the Colledge differs from its antient Constitution.

    And in this Situation of Colledge afairs, the government of the Society has laboured for two or 3 years past: and the Fellows find themselves under difficulties to keep the Colledge in order, and govern their Pupils. I shall mention what I’ve heard in objection to the Resident Fellows being of the Corporation. And first it’s said that the Corporation grants Salaries, that therefore if they were of the Corporation they might give themselves and one another the Colledge money. But in Answer to that In all the Colledges in England the Fellows Salaries are Stated and fixt and they might easily be so here, by the Overseers of the Colledge and undoubtedly twould be best upon more accounts than one to have it so—and the Overseers must be allowed to be sufficient guard upon the Colledge in that case and in all others. Again it has been said that the Corporation at a distance is of Terrour to the schollars. But in answer to that in my Opinion the Loss of the Resident Fellows Characters and Interest in the Colledge by their being left out of the Corporation who, with Mr. President have the constant care and management of the College affairs upon them has been and will be a greater detriment to the Colledge than that Terrour of the Corporation (at a distance) is, or can be, of Service to it. And if the Corporation were [7] in the Colledge the Charter and Laws direct to carry things of great Importance before the Overseers: and Surely the thoughts of the Scholars being brought to appear before that great and awful assembly to answer for their crimes, must needs strike them with a far greater dread and horrour.

    Morever It has been argued that it will be necessary to have other persons admitted into the business of the College besides the Corporation in its growth and increase, Because so small a Number will not be sufficient. But in answer to this I suppose that Seven persons in the College may be sufficient for the affairs of its government, decision of Controversies, and Suppressing disorders, even untill it shall increase to five hundred. And if more persons are wanting for the business of Tuition, I don’t know why they may not be admitted to it, upon this foundation: while the Corporation carry on the affairs of government in the Colledge according to the Rules of the Charter. But if it might not be so upon this foundation; Yet if the Corporation were in the Colledge, at present they are enough to manage all its affairs. And when a greater Number shall be wanting, It will then be time to have some further provision made, as is common in the Universities.

    I have of late carefully read over the Colledge Charter, and formerly have seen the Lawes. My Affection to the Colledge has lead me to acquaint myself with these affairs. And since you importune me so much, I will impart to you my thoughts about what seems to be needful to be done for the Service of the Colledge in this Juncture.

    [8] And if the feebleness of the government of the Colledge arises from the depressed circumstances of the Resident Fellowes (as upon the whole in my opinion it do’s very much) Then to advance their Characters, as formerly, will be a Remedy. And if the Resident Fellows were admitted to the Corporation, that the Colledge might be governed immediately by them, as formerly, in Corporation, It would be a great Strengthening. They would then have a greater reputation and Authority in the house, and they would have certain Rules to manage all affairs by. And Mr. President and Fellows must be together in all affairs of importance according to Charter. And no one member of that little Body Politique must say to another I have no need of Thee. And under these circumstances Mr. President and Fellows will have strength in the business of the Colledge, (which they can’t have in their present state) and the Corporation being in the Colledge will put an End to many disputes and difficulties that have Arose about what matters are to be determined by the Corporation and what by the President, and Resident Fellows, and Something of this Nature I look upon as necessary for the good order of the Colledge; For Surely no President can govern that numerous Society alone, and without the help of Fellows.

    Neither can Fellows that are at Several [9] Miles distance do much for the keeping good order in the Colledge.

    Neither can resident Fellows (who are divested of that authority which the Charter and Laws give Fellows, and who have left them only a Name and Title) be of any great significancy with the Scholars.

    Neither is it possible by any New laws, to make the resident Fellows of equal authority with the Fellows of the Corporation, unless they have powers to do the same business.

    And methinks all the Authorities which were granted to the Fellows in the Infant state of the Colledge, (when their Number seldom exceeded Twenty or 30) are needful for them now, when their Numbers are increast to above an hundred and fifty. And surely upon many Accounts It is a most reasonable thing that it should be as I have proposed.

    Elections and Exhibitions are now two principal things that are managed by the Corporation. Now by reason of their absence It can’t be supposed that they should know perfectly, who are best accomplisht and qualified for Offices and business in the Colledge; who are the most suitable objects for the Colledge Bounty; and so in their affairs they can’t but act very much in the dark. [10] Whereas the Gentlemen that reside at the Colledge are well acquainted with the Character and Circumstances of all persons.

    If the Corporation were in the Colledge, they might have a meeting in Form, upon every exigence (which is often wanted) and a quick dispatch of business might be made, which is the Life of all such affairs. Whereas now by reason of the distance of so many of the Fellows, and who have a multiplicity of business upon their hands at home, It is difficult to obtain a Meeting in season, upon any occasion that requires it. And so business is delayed from time to time. The President of Harvard Colledge is worthy of an honourable subsistence. The Fellows formerly had a more plentiful allowance by far, than now. They are honest gentlemen and stand in publick places; and an hospitable living will give them, and the Colledge a reputation, both at home and abroad, whereas straitness in their circumstances will be hurtful.

    I must mention one thing more and that is, an Act of the Corporation limiting the election of Fellows to three years, [11] contrary to the usual form of Elections, (there formerly, and in all Colledges abroad) which is, in perpetuum. Now this will probably raise many needless, hurtfull disputes in the Colledge, about the continuance of Fellows, if the Fellows business is to secure their Posts, They may in my Opinion easily do it at the expence of the Colledge.

    This Act makes their Circumstances precarious (which were more so before) than the Fellows in any Colledge in England and too much so. This Act is not yet confirmed by the Overseers, and you will serve the Colledge, if you use your Interest that it never may.

    It will be allowed by all that the present great Increase of their numbers at Colledge requires a greater Strength for the keeping good order there, but to divest the fellows of their Authority in the Colledge, by throwing them out of the Corporation, and to straiten them in their Allowances, and to make their circumstances more precarious, by a limitation in their Elections, are in my opinion very odd steps in policy for that Purpose. A Fellow must needs have a very sensible feeling of any one of these alone, but all of them together will render the best man, in a great degree feeble and useless in that business. [12] I have thought a pretty while that the Fellows of the Colledge were under difficulties, and the Society would be ill affected thereby. And it has been beyond my expectation, that they have got along thus far so well. It must be owing to the caution, prudence, and steadiness of their conduct, in their places and with the good influences of some persons of distinction, and worth, which now are gone. And now in the growing state of the Colledge, all the authorities and advantages (I have mentioned) are little enough for the Service of it. And after all, it may be feared that as their numbers increase, disorders may in some measure prevail upon them too.

    I might have said many things more concerning the difficulties at Colledge but I determined before I began, not to touch any Character, or offend any body, having the greatest esteem and veneration for all concerned in these affairs.

    The Colledge is a valuable Interest, and the Countreys Glory, I know Your Zeal and affection for it, and that has induced me to use this freedom with you [13] which I hope You will not take amiss; for I have no other View but the Service of that great Interest, and I would incourage myself that these broken and imperfect thoughts of mine, may be improved by your great Genius for some good purposes.

    And when with the Advantages I have mentioned, if they may be obtained, Mr. President and the Fellows, shall with [14] vigour pursue the Business of the Colledge, in their several Spheres, and under the countenance and support of His Excellency the Governour, and the Honourable and Reverend the Rest of the Overseers of the Colledge, I would hope that the Society under these means, may, (by the Blessing of God) thrive, and flourish, even to the End of Time. And I am,


    Your most Obedient

    Ex Musaeo

    Humble Servant

    [Philanthrottas] [In Greek]


    College Papers, i. 53 (No. 116). Another of the documents relating to the Fellows’ controversy. The composer of the letter was undoubtedly Sever, and the person addressed was probably Judge Sewall. There are copies, with slight variations, in College Papers, Supplement, i. 42, 43. The letter is printed in J. E. Kirkpatrick, Academic Organization and Control, pp. 220–226.