by Edward T. Dunn, S.J.

    Harvard commencement theses are a rich and inadequately mined vein of information about the college’s curriculum during the colonial period. These theses were propositions from undergraduate subjects which any bachelor candidate was supposedly able to defend in syllogistic form if called upon at morning exercises on Commencement Day. Following the practice of the Scottish universities, an intimidating list of theses, divided according to subject matter, was printed on one side of a large sheet called a broadside.1 The broadside for 1722, which was representative of the period, contains seven theses in technology (the discipline which assigned boundaries to other disciplines), twenty-five in logic, eight in grammar, seven in rhetoric, twenty-two in mathematics, and fifteen in physics.

    The theses were drafted by four members of the graduating class called collectors and were submitted to the president for approval two months before commencement. Edward Augustus Holyoke, son of President Edward Holyoke (a.b., 1705) and a member of the class of 1746 noted in his diary on May 1st of his senior year, “The Thesees Collectors Carried down Theses;” and a month later he wrote, “None of all our Theses Rejected.”2 Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard’s foremost historian, has written of these theses that “many if not all of them had been the subject of undergraduate disputations.”3

    As a concession to reality, it was prearranged that designated commencers, called respondents, should defend certain theses against selected opponents. Theses chosen for disputation were asterisked or otherwise marked out on the broadsides. On the 1722 sheet, one proposition in logic was asterisked and two in physics, a typical number and distribution pattern. Rhetorical theses were never and grammatical theses hardly ever marked for disputation. It was hard to start an argument over statements like “Whatever is painful to a speaker cannot be pleasing to his listeners,” or, “Punctuation is an essential part of composition.” Over the years, stock subjects for debate were space, time, matter, ideas, soul, passions, freedom of the will, sensation, animal life, planets, gravity, reason and revelation, natural law, creation, the Deluge, and the decalogue.

    Broadsides were printed for every commencement from 1642 until 1820. Those for only seventeen years have survived from the seventeenth century, and from 1693 to 1717 only those from 1708 and 1711 have come down to us. From 1717, however, a complete series is available. All extant theses are reproduced in microprint in Early American Imprints, 1639–1800, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

    Concerning these theses, at least up to 1708, Morison has written:

    Most of the propositions are so general and vague as to afford no clue respecting the books read or the philosophical trends in the College. Some are merely definitions; and others, especially in mathematics, are very elementary. If studied in connection with surviving textbooks and other data, these theses . . . turn a little light into these dark recesses of our long-forgotten curriculum.4

    The influence of Alexander Richardson’s Ramist The Logician’s Schoolmaster (London, 1657), and of the manuscript “Compendium Logicae secundum principia D. Renati Descartes catechistice propositum,” the first edition of which was written by William Brattle (a.b., 1680), is easily discernible in many logical and technological theses in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. John Locke’s first recorded appearance on a Harvard thesis sheet was in 1719, when eight of the twenty-four theses in logic were simply Latin translations of key statements in the Eassay on Human Understanding. It was probably Henry Flynt (a.b., 1693) tutor from 1699 to 1754, who introduced the students to this giant of the English Enlightenment. For decades thereafter, Lockean statements stood out prominently among the theses logicae, where they were joined in the mid-1720s by selections from Isaac Watt’s Logick, or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth (London, 1725), a work which has been called “one of the most popular textbooks of the next hundred years.”5

    Newtonian propositions began to appear in the physics section in 1717, undoubtedly because of the influence of Thomas Robie (a.b., 1708), Fellow of the Royal Society and tutor from 1713 to 1723, whom Clifford K. Shipton has called “the most famous New Englander in science in his day.”6 More advanced mathematical theses date from the 1730s, following the installation of Isaac Greenwood (a.b., 1721) as first Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural and Experimental Science, who taught at Harvard from 1728 to 1738. Theses in calculus can be traced from 1752, during the tenure of the second Hollis Professor, John Winthrop (a.b., 1750), who held that post from 1738 to 1779. Mr. Frederick G. Kilgour of the Harvard Library composed the following evaluation of these science teachers for inclusion in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates:

    Thomas Robie was probably the first New Englander to whom science was a systematic body of knowledge and not just something “curious.” Greenwood is the logical step after Robie, and Greenwood’s pupil, Winthrop, brought the position of science in colonial New England to its greatest height.7

    Most of the time, Commencement theses bore no relation to contemporary events, but not always. In 1746, during King George’s War it was stated in a technological thesis, of all places, that “soldiers who doubt whether a war is just should not fight.” A 1753 thesis in rhetoric stigmatized an “enthusiast” as one who “causes heaven and hell to resound with his loud and disordered shouting.” Nine years before, the Harvard faculty had issued their Testimonial against the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield (Boston, 1744) in which the first charge levelled against the noted evangelist was that he was an enthusiast.8 A 1770 thesis in ethics (a category which had existed in the 1640s and had been resurrected in 1751) announced that “enslavening Africans is vehemently opposed to the natural law.” This early bit of abolitionism was marked for debate. Finally, in 1778 another classification was introduced, theses politicae. Two years after the Declaration of Independence, graduates were prepared to defend the proposition that “the condition of a man in a despotic empire is like that of wild beasts,” and that “the power or authority of the supreme civil office is founded on the people, therefore that office has no authority which has not been given to it by the people.”

    The earliest theses on music are those from 1717. From then until the end of the colonial period—taken here as the launching of the federal government in 1789—the music theses were as follows. The author (who was assisted by Canisius College Professors Paul J. McCarthy and Edith De Luca) has adhered as closely as possible to the wording and word order of the original Latin.


    Musica est ars tonos modulandi secundum quantitatem et qualitatem.


    Music is the art of modulating tones according to quantity and quality.


    Ut quantitas respicit tempus, ita qualitas gravitatem et actionem soni.


    As quantity looks to time, so quality looks to the pitch and timbre of sound.


    Unisoni sunt elementa musica.


    Unisons are the elements of music.


    Harmonia est convenientia sonorum bene proportionatorum.


    Harmony is the symmetry of well proportioned sounds.


    Dias et trias harmonica sunt fundamenta contrapuncti musici.


    Harmonic dyads and triads are the fundaments of musical counterpoint.


    Bassus in sede gravissimarum semper tenet basin triadis.


    The bass in the seat of the lowest is always the base of the triad.


    Coeunt melodiae motu graduali non saltatorio.


    Melodies combine in a gradual rather than an abrupt manner.


    Diades sunt consonantes simplices.


    Dyads are simple consonants.


    Partes musicae tantum sunt tres rever a distinctae.


    There are but three really distinct parts of music.


    Musica est ars quae ex congrua sonorum mixtione sonorum harmonia producitur.


    Music is the art by which harmony is produced from the congruous mixture of sounds.


    Soni sunt graves vel acuti secundum celeritatem vel tardi tatem vibrationum.


    Notes are low or high depending on the speed or slowness of vibrations.


    Partibus absque quatuor musica non est perfecta.


    Unless it has four parts, music is not complete.


    Musicae partes sunt vel euphonia vel symphonia.


    The parts of music are euphony or symphony.


    Musica materialiter in sono, formaliter vero in sonorum harmonia consistit.


    Music consists materially in notes, formally however in the harmony of sounds.


    Musica est ars sonos modulandi.


    Music is the art of modulating sounds.


    Quoties toni septem harmoniace varientur tot partes distinctas musica agnoscit.


    Whenever the seven notes are varied harmoniously, music recognizes a distinct scale.


    Qup maius coincidentia intervallum eo ingratior est dissonantia et vice versa.


    The closer the coincidence of intervals, the more unpleasant is the dissonance and vice versa.


    Musica est ars soni quantitatem, melos, et tonum in harmoniae productionem modulandi


    Music is the art of modulating the quantity of sound, melodies, and tone in order to produce harmony.


    Musica est ars soni melodiam et harmoniam apte modulandi.


    Music is the art of modulating the melody and harmony suitably.


    Nullae praeter octavam consonantiae duplicatae consonantiam efftciunt.


    Except for the octave, no double consonants produce consonance.


    Consonantiarum prima gratissimaque est octava.


    The primary and most agreeable of consonants is the octave.


    Musica est ars harmonice vocem et instrumenta modulandi.


    Music is the art of harmoniously modulating voice and instruments.


    Quanto brevior est chorda (caeteris paribus) tanto velociores sunt sius vibrationes.


    The shorter the string (other things being equal), the more rapid its vibrations.


    Ex chorda fidis primariae percussione producitur eadem alterius chordae si sut unisona vibratio.


    Striking the first string of a lyre produces the same vibration in the second if the vibration is unisonous.


    Musica est ars varias sonorum modifications docens.


    Music is the art which teaches the various modifications of sounds.


    Sonos gravis ex tardioribus acutus ex velocioribus motibus oritur.


    A low note is produced by slower motions, a high note by more rapid motions.


    Musica est ars sonos voce et instrumentis modulandi.


    Music is the art of producing pleasing sounds by voice and instruments.


    Tonus ex soni intensione non pendet.


    Tone does not depend on the intensity of sound.


    Soni nihil aliud sunt quam aeris pulsus propagati.


    Sounds are produced no other way than as pulses of air.


    Chorda quae semissa est chordae est chordae alterius (caeteris paribus) bis dum altera semel vibrat.


    A string which is one-half the length of a second string (other things being equal) vibrates twice to the other’s once.


    Quo longior chorda (caeteribus paribus) eo tardiores vibrationes eoque gravior sonus.


    The longer the string (other things being equal), the slower the vibrations and the lower the note.


    Animi et corpus affectus a musica corrigi possunt.


    States of soul and body can be improved by music.


    Aeris undulationes instrumentis musicis excitatae propriam fibris communicando motionem salutem promovent.


    Air waves set up by musical instruments promote health by communicating their motion to the nerves.


    Aeris undulationes chordis musicis excitatae corpori sunt salutiferae.


    Air waves set up by musical strings are good for the health of the body.


    Trias harmonica est radix omnis harmoniae quae excogitare potest.


    A harmonious triad is the root of every possible harmony.


    Quanto uniones vibrationum chordarum musicarum sunt frequentiores tanto concordiae sunt perfectiores.


    The more frequent the union of vibrations of musical strings, the more perfect are their concords.


    Concordiae musicae a crebris coincidentiis duorum corporum sonorum oriuntur. Ergo.


    Musical concords are produced by the frequent coincidences of two bodies of sounds. Therefore,


    Quo frequentiores sunt coincidentiae eo perfectior erit Concordia.


    The more frequent the coincidences, the more perfect the concord.


    Omnis intervalla musica a divisione chordae in partes aequales oriuntur: quapropter,


    All musical intervals take their origin from the division of a string into equal parts. Wherefore,


    Minores majoresque toni et hemitoni dantur.


    There exist minor and major tones and half-tones.


    Toni musicae sunt plus minusve graves vel acuti in ratione vis tendentis pondere et longitudine chordae.


    Musical notes are more or less low or high in proportion to the square root of the stretching force divided by the weight and length of the string.


    Nec pauces quan 500 nec plures quan 6,000 musicae chordae vihrationes in temporis momento sonum audihilem producere possunt.


    No less than 500 nor more than 6,000 vibrations of a musical string in a minute can produce an audible sound.


    Frequentia concussum aeris pulsation(?)m harmoniam efficit; tamen,


    The frequency of impressions from air waves produces a harmony of impulses, however,


    In musica diapente saepius quam diapason usitatur.


    In music diapenta is much more common tyan diapason.


    Colores lucis prismate reflectae in partitiones chordae musicalis incidunt. Ergo,


    Colors of light reflected by a prism coincide with the divisions of a musical string. Therefore,


    Ratio communis est in compositione colorum et sonorum.


    There is a common structure involved in the composition of colors and sounds.


    Quanto uniones vibrationum chordarum musicarum sunt frequentiores tanto concordiae sunt perfectiores.


    The more frequent the unions of vibrations of musical chords, the more perfect their concords.


    Aeris undulationes chordis musicis excitatae corpori humano sunt salutifferae [sic].


    Air waves stirred up by musical strings are healthy for the human body.

    Since, save for 1711, no theses broadsides are extant from 1708 until 1717, too much significance should not be read into the first appearance of a thesis in music in 1717. Robie may have been responsible for their introduction, as he was for that of Newtonian theses. In his considerable literary remains, Flynt betrays no interest in music. From 1717 until 1730, music theses were placed in the theses mathematicae category. The reason for this may be contained in the 1722 broadside, where the general statement is made that “mathematics is the art of investigating all quantity,” which is followed by a division of the subject into theses in arithmetic, geometry, algebra, astronomy, and music. One immediately thinks of the medieval Quadrivium, which embraced music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Though music theses were first placed in the category of physics in 1731, they did not reappear until 1759, when the dubious assertion was made that “air waves set up by musical instruments promote health by communicating their motion to the body,” an idea which was repeated twice again in succeeding years. Like theses grammaticae, music theses were never marked for disputation.

    As Morison stated concerning Harvard theses in general, most of these musical theses are so general as to afford no clue about their sources. Charles Morton’s Compendium Physicae, a manuscript which has been printed as Volume XXXIII of the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, was the “textbook in science used by Harvard students during most of the forty years between 1687 and 1728,” according to Morison.9 Its treatment of music takes up three of the eleven pages of “Chapter 24, Of Hearing” in the printed version; but while expressions such as unison, single string, concord, vibration, waves, diapason, harmony, and proportion occur in both the theses and in Morton, it is clear that the latter was not a source for the former. This may have been all to the good, since, as Morison observed, “Morton’s introduction to music is not very helpful, for he appears to be in error in his description of concord and in his scale of musical notes.”10

    Theses collectors frequently used old theses sheets as a resource for new theses, since the same propositions keep recurring. Sometimes the students changed a word or two; at other times the wording remained unchanged. Theses in music were no exception to this custom. The definition of music as “the art of modulating sounds” appears under slightly different guises eight times. Moreover, since music was classified under mathematics between 1722 and 1730, it was the physical rather than the aesthetic properties of music that concerned these collectors—and presumably their teachers. When treated under physics from 1731 on, theses in music were always placed immediately after statements on the nature and characteristics of sound. Music at eighteenth-century Harvard had to do with quantified material reality.

    Errata, Volume i

    Fig. 58. Instead of “High Life below the Stairs,” this illustration should have been the dance instructions for “Haste to the Wedding” both from Select Collection of the Newest & Most Favorite Country Dances, Waltzes, Reels & Cotillions (Otsego, [New York]: H. & E. Phinney, 1808), American Antiquarian Society.

    Fig. 68. Shown is the full view, rather than a detail, from “The Procession,” an etching by Elkanah Tisdale (American, ca. 1771–1834), from Trumbull’s McFingall (New York, 1795). Department of Prints and Drawings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.