A Stated Meeting of the Society was held at No. 25 Beacon Street, Boston, on Thursday, 24 February, 1910, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the President, Henry Lefavour, LL.D., in the chair.
The Records of the last Stated Meeting were read and approved.
The Corresponding Secretary reported that letters had been received from Mr. Archibald Cary Coolidge and Mr. Ezra Henry Baker accepting Resident Membership.
A communication was read from the President and Fellows of Harvard College acknowledging their obligation to all the universities and learned societies which took part, by sending delegates or messages of good will, in the ceremonies of the inauguration of Abbott Lawrence Lowell as President of Harvard University.
The Treasurer reported that the salary of the Editor of Publications for the ensuing five years had been provided for by the subscription of several of the members.
The Rev. Charles E. Park read the following paper:
Our colonial churches were gathered and organized in very strict conformity to the apostolic practice, as hinted at in various New Testament writings, and as interpreted and understood by the best intelligence of our colonial times. There was no officer in the typical colonial church who found not his prototype in the apostolic church, nor was there any function, responsibility, or duty imposed upon these church officers that had not the warrant, as it was honestly believed, of some apostolic precedent. Conversely, there was no officer in the apostolic church who does not find his lineal descendant and counterpart in the Puritan church of colonial times, endowed so far as might be with the very same functions, duties, obligations, and limitations.
It is necessary to understand that the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts and some of the Pauline Epistles, constituted the infallible text book of colonial church polity. Our fathers in New England did their utmost in all honest and painstaking diligence to reproduce here in Massachusetts the Christian church of apostolic times. If it occurs to us that they were at times fantastically literal in their understanding of New Testament words or hints or phrases, and that this literalness of their interpretation led them into practices that appear to us absurd or self-contradictory, we must remember that the New Testament was to them a wonderful book, a book to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and handled with the utmost reverence. Modern methods of New Testament interpretation, which take account of local conditions, of chronological relationships, of personal peculiarities, of oriental imagery and the love of figurative language, and which, taking all these factors into account, produce a free, vigorous, idiomatic translation of the New Testament, had no place whatever in their exegesis. To them the Holy Bible was literally true, every word, every jot and tittle. And the only way they could translate it was to translate it literally.
The Holy Bible, being the final word of God, was to them exempt from all the categories of time; it was above all the modifying arguments that play so large a part in modern exegetical science. To them it represented no chronological interdependencies whatever. It was absolute word of God. It was synchronous with his eternity. If they chose to verify a text from the Book of Acts by quoting another text from the Book of Genesis, they knew no reason why they should not do so. Or if they wished to substantiate an inference drawn from Paul’s Epistle to Timothy by a text taken from Isaiah’s prophecies, they never hesitated to do so. If we ask, Where did our forefathers find authority and justification for the church polity and usage which they inaugurated in their Puritan commonwealth? the answer is, they found that authority and justification from a wonderfully minute, searching, laborious, literal understanding of the Bible. And the wonder is, not that their understanding of the Bible occasionally led them into sundry very minor, very unimportant absurdities of doctrine, but that with such a literal understanding of the Bible, so lacking in all perspective, they managed to reproduce here in New England a church polity and practice that were so remarkably true in all essentials to that which prevailed in apostolic times. To be sure, they appear to have attached a rather fantastic importance to some features which are to-day obsolete, and which we would consider of very slight importance. But they did not make the corresponding mistake: they did not fail to attach adequate importance to those features which are essential, and which do stand the test of time. We must understand this, then, if we would hope to understand their attitude towards matters churchly: the Holy Bible, and especially the New Testament, minutely and literally interpreted, was their sole basis and authority for church government and organization.
To their way of thinking a church consisted of a body of Christian believers bound to each other and to God by the terms of a covenant. The covenant was thus the constituting factor in their idea of a church. The covenant served the church much as a hoop serves a barrel. It was as impossible to have a church without a covenant, as it is impossible to have a barrel without a hoop. That cluster of Christian believers, covenanted together and to God, was the unit, the entity, known as a church. As such, it became immediately possessed of certain rights, prerogatives, and functions that were peculiar to it. Just as your barrel with its hoops (I use this analogy in all genuine reverence), just as your barrel with its hoops can then hold its wine, so a cluster of Christians covenanted together into a church could then, as a church, become the trustee or the repository of a certain wine of life — certain spiritual rights and privileges — which were essential to the welfare of the individual soul, but which the individual soul as an individual could no more possess and enjoy than a detached and unhooped barrel stave could hold wine.
What were these indispensable spiritual rights and privileges which could not exist outside of a covenanted church? They were the sacraments — the seals, so-called. They were principally the privilege of baptism, and the privilege of participation in the Lord’s Supper. Those two sacraments were entrusted to the keeping and the administration of the church, as such. And they were essential to the welfare of the individual soul, and they might be enjoyed only by the regularly covenanted members of the church. Thus we see why it is that our fathers attached such importance to church membership, The detached Christian was excluded by his detachment from the two sacraments or privileges most essential to his spiritual welfare. Thus we see also the great importance which was attached to the officers of the church. This property, what we have called the wine of life, which was vested in a church as soon as it became a church, was the most precious thing in the world. It was a portion of God’s free grace entrusted to that particular church. It must be protected and guarded, and shielded from all waste, all misuse, all misapplication. To this end, the church found it advisable to appoint certain officers. The New Testament taught them just what officers, and just what names they must bear, and just what their several functions were to be.
These officers were the guardians, in behalf of the church, of the grace of God vested in that church. They were the protectors of the sacraments, the keepers of the seals. Their functions were various, but in general they were intended to administer the sacraments to those who had a right to partake thereof, and to protect the sacraments from waste by being applied to persons outside the church, or even to persons inside the church who by some moral or spiritual irregularity had rendered themselves unfit to receive the sacraments. Their functions were therefore in part administrative, and in part disciplinary.
As to the size of a church, John Cotton tells us that it might be of any size, though not less than seven, and not more than could conveniently listen and partake of the sacraments in one place and at one time. The minimum was set at seven probably because every church ought to have at least seven officers. A church that was too small to furnish individuals enough for its full complement of officers could hardly be a church.
What then were these officers? First there was the Pastor, whose duty it was to exhort the members to that moral rectitude and spiritual humility and receptivity which should render them fit to receive the sacrament. Then there was the Teacher, whose duty it was to expound unto them the mysteries of God’s Word, and elucidate those mysteries to their thorough understanding that they might not be come the victims of error and cunning sleights of doctrine which would incapacitate them for partaking of the sacraments. These two, Pastor and Teacher, were called Teaching Elders, and were held in absolutely equal esteem and honor. One was as important in all respects as the other. It was just that one was by nature better fitted to appeal to their will, their emotions, their hearts, while the other was by nature the better fitted to appeal to their judgment, their intellect, their reason. It was the Teaching Elders who “administered the seals,” to use the phrase: that is to say, simply, who performed the ceremony of baptism and conducted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
With these two Teaching Elders there were two Ruling Elders so-called. The Ruling Elders were chosen from the laity of the church, and were selected, it would seem, with reference not only to their education and intelligence, but with if anything more reference to their personal forcefulness, and weight, and social importance. They were solid, influential men, whom everybody trusted, whom everybody respected and some persons feared. The Ruling Elders were ordained to their office precisely as the Teaching Elders were — and in fact it would appear that the Ruling Elders were held in an esteem not much below that which was accorded to their clerical colleagues. John Cotton defines the duties and the functions of the Ruling Elders quite explicitly: “Such acts of the Spiritual Rule (or Spiritual control) as are dispensed in the preaching of the word and the administering of the sacraments, the Ruling Elders are not called upon to attend to, for that work is left unto the Pastors and Teachers. But whatsoever acts of spiritual Rule and Government Christ hath committed to his church over and above the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, all such acts of Rule are committed to the Ruling Elders — and none but such.”
Thus: (1) It is their duty to open and shut the doors of Christ’s house or church: that is, to admit and receive all members and officers into place in the church, and to keep out the unworthy. This does not mean they were literally door-tenders or ushers to the congregation. It means that they had the supervision of examining applicants for membership in the church, and that they performed the simple but very beautiful rite of formal admission of a candidate into membership. Thus we read in the Records of the First Church— in the list of admissions —
Mr. Thomas Clark, upon letters of dismission from the Church at Dorchester, having declared his spiritual condition at the Elders’ meeting.
All of which means that Mr. Thomas Clark had appeared privately before the Elders seeking admission into the church, that he had handed them his formal letter of dismission from the Dorchester church, that he had declared to them his belief and had satisfied them as to his spiritual fitness to become a member, and that upon the following Sabbath he had been formally taken into covenant membership with the church by the Ruling Elder Thomas Leverett. The Elders’ meeting at which Mr. Clark declared his spiritual condition was probably a meeting of all four Elders — both Teaching and Ruling Elders. The beautiful little ceremony of formal admission into membership was usually performed by a Ruling Elder — although there are recorded entries of its having been performed by a Teaching Elder.
(2) It is the duty of the Ruling Elders to cast out of the church by excommunication such as fall into scandalous offences within the church and do persist therein. Thus again we read in the records of the First Church:
4 October 1646.
Our brother William Franklin, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and with the consent of the Church, by lifting up their hands, was, by Elder Oliver, in open assembly, cast out of the Church for extortion, deceit, and lying, in and about ironwork which he made for one Mr. Jacob, a Dutchman.
(3) It is the duty of the Ruling Elders to see that none live inordinately, without a calling, or idly in a calling, but that every one be employed in a work to his Lord’s advantage.
(4) It is the duty of the Ruling Elder to suffer none to walk scandalously in the congregation.
(5) It is the Ruling Elder’s office to supervise all matters before they are brought to the notice of the congregation, and to allow nothing to come before the congregation except such matters as cannot be justly and fairly settled informally. The congregation is thus a sort of court of last appeals, which looks to its Ruling Elders to decide most things out of court.
(7) It is a part of their office to visit the sick, pray with them, and help forward their spiritual estate. This function is not peculiarly theirs, but belongs also to the Teaching Elders.
It will be seen from the foregoing that the Ruling Elders were officers of great importance in a church. The task of church discipline was entirely in their hands, just as it is in the hands of the Elders of any Presbyterian church to this day. It was theirs to examine candidates, to admit into membership, to watch and admonish those who gave signs of falling from grace, to excommunicate the unfit, to attend to all details of church business, in short to be general overseers and disciplinarians of the church, to the end that the church’s purity and fitness as a church might not be impaired. It imposes no very great burden on the imagination to understand that Ruling Elders must be men whom all might reverence and respect; men who, by the purity of their own lives, and the undeniable weight and importance of their own social and intellectual position, would be recognized and accepted for these exceedingly delicate functions, by a stiff-necked and a cantankerous generation. To say that a man was a Ruling Elder in a colonial church is to establish that man’s moral and social position, and to define his prominence in the community, beyond all doubt or cavil.
In addition to the two Teaching Elders, and the two Ruling Elders, the colonial church had Deacons, whose task it was to serve at the Lord’s table, and to receive the offerings of the church, and distribute the alms to the poor. In this latter task, they had the assistance of one or more Widows, who were women chosen to assist in these ministrations, especially in such cases as were not so fit for men to put their hands unto. Evidently there was great difficulty in filling this office, and the probabilities are that the office usually went by default. Cotton very pertinently says “we find it somewhat rare to find a woman of so great an age as the apostle describeth, to wit of threescore years, and withal to be so hearty and healthy and strong as to be fit to undertake such a service.” However, the Deacons and Widows were decidedly minor officers in the colonial church, and need not detain us further. We are especially interested in the Ruling Elders.
The First Church in Boston was organized on July 30, 1630, by John Winthrop and three others, who drew up and signed the covenant. Two days later five more names were added to the covenant. By virtue of the power which accrued to that church as soon as it became a church, four officers were then chosen and ordained — a Teaching Elder, Mr. John Wilson, who was ordained as Teacher; a Ruling Elder, Mr. Increase Nowell; and two Deacons, William Gager and William Aspinwall. In 1632, after the bulk of the settlers had moved from the Charlestown to the Shawmut side of the river and after the church found it expedient to move also, Mr. Nowell, the Ruling Elder, and a few others who decided to remain upon the Charlestown side of the river, were dismissed from the First Church and promptly covenanted themselves into the Charlestown church. These dismissions were granted October 14, 1632. On November 22, 1632, a fast was held by the Boston congregation and Mr. John Wilson was transferred from the office of Teacher to that of Pastor, and Mr. Thomas Oliver was ordained Ruling Elder.
The process was an interesting one. Before the ceremony the church had in office its Teacher, Mr. Wilson, no Ruling Elder, and two Deacons. Gager had died two years before — but no one seems to know who took his place as Deacon. Evidently the first step was to ordain a Ruling Elder. Accordingly the Teacher and the two Deacons, in the name of the congregation, imposed their hands upon Thomas Oliver and ordained him to the office of Ruling Elder. The church then had a Teacher, Wilson, a Ruling Elder, Oliver, and the two Deacons. It was now possible for the Ruling Elder and the two Deacons, without loss or waste of prestige and regularity, to impose their hands upon the Teacher, Wilson, and ordain him into a Pastor. At the conclusion of the operation the church had a Pastor, Wilson, a Ruling Elder, Oliver, and the two Deacons. It is interesting as denoting the care they took that there should be no break in the chain of apostolic succession, and no loss of apostolic virtue. It would seem to indicate that in spite of their newly assumed congregational polity, there still lingered in their minds an instinctive regard for the old notion of apostolic succession to which they had been accustomed in the Church of England.
The church still lacked a Teacher, and another Ruling Elder, in order to fill out its proper complement of officers. This lack was repaired about a year later when on October 10, or 17, or 22, according to the authority one follows, 1633, another fast was kept and Thomas Leverett was ordained a Ruling Elder, Giles Firmin was chosen a Deacon — whether a third one, or to replace one of those who may have died, or whether Winthrop is wrong, and there had been but one deacon ever since Gager’s death in 1630, I cannot say. And then the Pastor and the two Ruling Elders together ordained the Rev. John Cotton to the office of Teacher. Now for the first time, in October, 1633, we find the church with its full complement of officers. Wilson was Pastor, Cotton was Teacher, Oliver and Leverett were Ruling Elders, and Firmin and Aspinwall were Deacons.
We get a hint of the universal esteem in which the Ruling Elders of the church were held in the fact that the next year, 1634, the town of Boston seems to have inaugurated the plan of committing all town affairs into the hands of a board or commission of nine or ten men, and the Governor and the two Ruling Elders were named upon this board ex officio. This board was reappointed every six months, and was known at first as the townsmen, or the nine men, or the ten men, and in the year 1647, if I am not mistaken, was called for the first time the Selectmen. However that may be, the Governor and the two Ruling Elders appear to have been, ex officio, members of that board, being steadily re-elected from 1634 to the end of 1639. It would be immensely interesting to know why they were dropped from the board at that time. Perhaps they were too elderly. This objection would apply rather to Oliver than to Leverett. Perhaps by the year 1639 the office of selectman had grown into such importance as to partake almost of the nature of a civil magistracy, and the Boston church had decided, way back in 1632, that one person could not be both civil magistrate and Ruling Elder at the same time. At all events the Ruling Elders ceased to serve as selectmen after 1639.
There are, however, other hints of the honor in which they were held. In 1635 they were allotted large portions of farming land, and again in 1637. On November 30, 1635, they were asked to serve with Sir Henry Vane as a sort of crude board of conciliation; thus “none of the members of the congregation or inhabitants among us shall sue each other at the lawe before that Mr Henry Vane and the two Elders Mr. Thomas Ollyver and Thomas Leveritt have had the hearing and desyding of the cause if they cann.”237 It would be extremely interesting to know more of the conditions, the local jealousies and bickerings, which rendered such a board of conciliation desirable, and also why it is that we have no further mention of the board. It was never reappointed, and, so far as the humble student of local antiquities can discover, it never amounted to anything any way. True, the attempt was repeated in the case of the church proper. Under date of February 22, 1649–50, we have the following item in the church records:
It was agreed upon by the church then met together that none of the members either of our own church, or recommended or dismissed to the church from any other, should go to law one with another without the consent of our brethren Major Gibbon, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Stoddar, James Penn and Thomas Marshall, but they shall answer for it unto the church as an offense against it.
Such hints as these lead us to harbor grave misgivings as to the neighborly peacefulness and amity of our infant town. At all events, Vane and the Ruling Elders were a board of conciliation in 1635, and doubtless did their best to compromise local quarrels, and placate local feuds and jealousies.
The Ruling Elders were also appointed as members of a special commission, in 1636, to consider affairs at Mount Wollaston, and how to organize a town and a church there. And again, in 1641, the General Court passed a vote requiring the Ruling Elders to draw up a catechism for the instruction of youth in the grounds of religion.
These few unsatisfactory references are all the hints we have as to the part these two notable Ruling Elders played in the formation of our town — and yet they are enough to suggest that the two worthy men were among the few weightier spirits of the time, hopeful of the colony’s future, responsible, exceedingly faithful in the discharge of such duties as were committed to their care, wise above the ordinary, thoroughly respected and trusted by their fellow-citizens, and looked upon as among the mainstays and leading men of their generation.
It remains for us very briefly to examine the men themselves in their personal histories and estates. Sad to say, the data are pitifully scant.
The theory which identifies Elder Thomas Oliver with the Thomas Oliver who was born in Bristol in 1582 is, I think, untenable. He was born probably in 1568. Just where, we cannot say. His English home was apparently Lewes, in Sussex. In the Rolls Office in London, is a large vellum-bound book containing the names of a few of those who migrated to New England. The label of the book is as follows: “A Booke of Entrie for Passengers by ye Commission, & Souldiers, according to the Statute, passing beyond the seas.” In the book under date of March 7, 1631, is the following entry: “The names of such Men as are to be transported to New-England to be resident there upon a plantac̄on have tendred & taken the oath of allegeance according to the Statute” — and then among the names “Thomas Olliver” and “John Olliver.”238 All of which means simply that Thomas Oliver and his young son John applied for the necessary license to migrate in March, 1631, and took the oath of allegiance in order to procure the license.
It seems that the family waited another year before actually sailing. They arrived in Boston on June 5, 1632, in the ship “Mary & Francis,” or “William and Francis.” There were in the family the father Thomas Oliver, already an old man, the wife Anne, and eight children. They took up their abode at what is now the northerly corner of Washington Street and Water Street. As we have seen, in November of 1632 Oliver was ordained a Ruling Elder in the church. His occupation was that of chirurgeon, and while he was not the only chirurgeon in the colony, he appears to have been the first one and the most prominent, unless one excepts the case of the Plymouth physician, who visited the Massachusetts Bay a year or two before Oliver’s arrival.
Winthrop has a touching little reference to Oliver in his Journal under date of January 9, 1633:
Mr. Oliver, a right godly man, and elder of the Church of Boston, having three or four of his sons, all very young, cutting down wood upon the neck, one of them [Nathaniel] being about 15 years old, had his brains beaten out with the fall of a tree which he had felled. The good old father, (having the news of it in as fearful a manner as might be, by another boy, his brother) called his wife, being also a very godly woman, and went to prayer, and bare it with much patience and honor.
Early in 1634, Elder Oliver began his six years’ service upon the board of selectmen. Early in 1635 his wife Anne died. He shortly married his second wife, Anne, the widow of Oliver Purchase, who survived him by four years.
When the Antinomian heresy appeared in the church, the old Elder was one of the few who had the courage of his convictions. About twenty prominent citizens signed a petition protesting against the banishment of the Rev. John Wheelwright by the General Court. Elder Oliver’s name was among the signers of this petition. In this protest he truly represented the church, whose sympathies were very generally with Wheelwright, and who could not be got to excommunicate him, but merely granted him an honorable dismission from the church to found a church in Exeter. The town authorities, however, seemed to be quite apprehensive on account of this petition, and ordered that all the signers thereof should be disarmed. Accordingly in November, 1637, Elder Oliver and the rest of the remonstrants peacefully suffered the indignity of being disarmed for having openly avowed their sympathy with Wheelwright.
In July, 1644, we have an entry in the court records authorizing the constables to pay Elder Oliver £9 for seven months’ attendance, of a professional nature, upon Richard Berry, a hired servant of Thomas Hawkins. This would almost seem as though the chirurgeon were a town officer whose services were available by all at the expense of the town. One might almost fancy that we have here the beginnings of a free city hospital.
We should like very much to know the meaning of a town vote that was passed May 18, 1646 as follows: “It is ordered that ther shalbe no dry cattell, yong Cattell, or horse [but only 70 milch kine] shalbe free to goe on the Common this year: but on horse for Elder Oliver.” Why this exception in favor of Elder Oliver’s horse? Was it that Elder Oliver, being a chirurgeon, might have his horse readily at hand when he was summoned to some distant case of illness?
In general, Elder Oliver appears to have been a much beloved and highly respected member of his community. He was the older, but the less energetic and prominent of the two Elders. Among his descendants we find many notable names. He was a staunch Royalist, if we may judge him by the political leanings of his descendants. At all events, he was the ancestor of a line of staunch Tories, who during the Revolution suffered persecution because of their political views. He died January 1, 1657–58. In Hull’s diary there is this entry regarding him.
The first of the eleventh month, Mr. Thomas Oliver, one of the ruling elders of this church, died, being 90 years old, — a man by his outward profession a chirurgeon. He kept his house, or went very little abroad, for the space of three years before he died, and was a lively pattern of old age spoken of in Eccles. xii; though in his former years a man very serviceable (p. 182).
We know just nothing about the early fortunes of the family who gave to New England “the best elder of her church, the most popular governor of her Colony, and the most useful president of her College.” There was a Norman, De Levery, who came over with William the Conqueror. Whether or not he was the original ancestor of the family is a question.
Thomas Leverett was probably born about 1585, and probably in Old Boston. He was married in 1610 in St. Botolph’s Church, Old Boston. He had a large family, sixteen children, thirteen of whom died in Old Boston. He was doubtless a man of good education. We have no indication that he had a college training. It is quite likely that he was educated for the bar. He was an alderman of the borough of Old Boston, and on one occasion, at least, in 1620, was employed by the town to journey to London and conduct some law business for the town. When John Cotton was convicted for nonconformity by the Bishop of Lincoln, he appealed to a higher court, and employed Thomas Leverett, then a member of his parish, as his attorney. Leverett had the satisfaction of restoring the worthy divine to his pulpit.
The noble ship Griffin, of 300 tons burden, dropped anchor in Boston, New England, on September 4, 1633, after an eight weeks’ passage. She brought a company of two hundred passengers, some of whom were very distinguished. There were the reverend gentlemen, John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, and Samuel Stone, and there were two of the aldermen of Old Boston — Mr. Atherton Haugh (mayor), and Mr. Thomas Leverett. Leverett’s immediate company consisted of himself, his wife Anne, and three children — Jane, John, and Anne. The son John was destined to be Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in later years.
Leverett joined the church early in October, 1633. On the 10th of the same month he was ordained as Ruling Elder —on the same day, as we have seen, which witnessed the ordination of his old friend and spiritual guide, John Cotton, to the office of Teacher. He was a man of tried and known ability in civil and religious matters, and possessed a singular gift for discipline, which was a most happy equipment for his function as Ruling Elder of the church. The church records from 1634 to 1649–50 are in his handwriting, and whenever the first personal pronoun is used during that time in the records it refers undoubtedly to Leverett. In the list of admissions we read “The 4th day of October, 1645, by myself” — and then there follow eight names of men and women admitted. From the fact that we find the town records for five or six years in the same handwriting, it seems probable that Leverett served not only on the selectmen with Oliver his colleague, but that he was the scribe or clerk of the board.
Leverett’s house occupied the land just east of the meeting-house: what is now the easterly corner of State and Congress Streets. Our present Congress Street runs right over his garden. In fact Congress Street is merely the descendant of a little footpath or lane that was cut through Leverett’s land, and that originally bore the name of Leverett’s Lane.
He died April 3, 1650, probably about sixty-five years of age. That is about all we know of the ancestor of one of our most illustrious New England families.
Both Oliver and Leverett were counted rich men — both were of the solid, respected, influential caste that forms the nucleus of every durable community and the backbone of every strong church. Both were typical Ruling Elders of the old colonial churches.
In the discussion which followed the reading of this paper, Mr. Henry E. Woods stated that Atherton Haugh had been mayor of Boston, England, and subsequently an alderman, in which capacity he opposed the levy of ship-money and in consequence was obliged to flee to New England; and Mr. George L. Kittredge mentioned a certificate (dated 1650) recorded in the Aspinwall Notarial Records239 in which George Stirk, of the Harvard Class of 1646, is associated with Thomas Oliver.
Mr. Albert Matthews made the following remarks:
Four years ago it was shown that Washington’s birthday was celebrated in Boston in 1785 and at Milton in 1782. “It is possible,” I then said, “that this is a belated date, for I have made no attempt to make a special investigation.”240 This proved to be the case, for at a subsequent meeting241 Dr. Franklin B. Dexter called attention to what President Stiles wrote on March 3, 1779: “Gen. Washington’s Birthday celebrated 11th ult. at Milton.”242 Having recently had occasion to examine the newspapers published in Boston during the Revolutionary War, I found several accounts of the celebrations at Milton previous to 1782. As there is a popular impression abroad to the effect that Washington’s birthday was first celebrated at New York in 1783,243 it will perhaps be worth while to set forth the known facts and to give in full the two earliest accounts of the celebrations at Milton. The New York Gazetteer of February 11, 1784, contained a long communication signed “Civis,” in which the writer said:
He is now retired from public service with, I trust, the approbation of God, his country, and his own heart. But shall we forget him? No: rather let our hearts cease to beat, than an ungratefulness should sully the part any of us have taken in the redemption of our country. On this day, the hero enters into the fifty-third year of his age: shall such a day pass unnoticed? No: let a temperate, manly joy express the sense we have of the blessings that arose upon America, on the day which gave birth to Washington.…
To contribute to the hilarity of a day which, I hope, will be annually observed, I herewith send you a song, made in this city for the entertainment of a select Club of Whigs, who had assembled (and mean again to assemble this evening) according to their annual custom, to celebrate the birth day of General Washington, February the eleventh, 1784.
Then follows a poem in six stanzas. An account of the New York celebration was printed in the Pennsylvania Packet of February 17, 1784; and the same paper of February 24, 1784, contained an account of a similar celebration on February 11 at Richmond, Virginia.244 The latter, however, was not the earliest celebration in the Old Dominion; for in a letter vaguely dated “Virginia, February 11, 1782,” Edmund Pendleton said that “We are just going to celebrate this anniversary of the General’s birth.”245
The account of the celebration at Milton in 1779 is as follows:
Thursday the 11th instant, the glorious anniversary birthday of his Excellency General WASHINGTON, was celebrated at Milton, by a large number of gentlemen, with an elegant festival. After dinner the following Toasts were drank:
- 1. The glorious and auspicious 11th of February, 1732.*
- 2. May this anniversary be celebrated to the honor of our illustrious Chief, till time shall be no more.
- 3. May the wisdom and integrity of Congress frustrate all the arts and stratagems devised to darken and divide their counsels.
- 4. Perpetual union and freedom to the American States.
- 5. His Most Christian Majesty.246
- 6. American Ministers at foreign Courts.
- 7. The honorable Sieur Gerard.247
- 8. The American Army and Navy.
- 9. The Army and Navy of our great Ally.
- 10. May the names of Warren, Montgomery, and all the heroes who have fell in our glorious cause, be immortalized in the annals of America.
- 11. May the United American States ever prove a happy asylum to the oppressed of all nations.
- 12. May the genial rays of true religion and science dispell the mist of ignorance and error from all quarters of the globe.
- 13. Speedy liberation to all friends in captivity.
* General Washington was born in Virginia, in the county of Westmoreland, the 11th February, 1732.248
The account of the celebration in 1780 is as follows:
Milton, Feb. 14, 1780.
FRIDAY last a large number of Gentlemen met at Mr. Robinson’s,249 by Milton Bridge, to celebrate the anniversary Birth Day of his Excellency General Washington — Every breast was filled with pious joy to Heaven for preserving the invaluable Life of our illustrious General. — After an elegant Dinner, the following Toasts were given out:
- 1. The illustrious Hero of the day.
- 2. Wisdom and Integrity to the Congress.
- 3. The American Army and Navy.
- 4. The combined Fleets of France and Spain.
- 5. Poverty to Extortioners, and Bread to the Poor.
- 6. Condign punishment to all Peculators.
- 7. The advocates for civil and religious Liberty.
- 8. May America flourish, ’till time shall be no more.
- 9. Agriculture and Navigation.
- 10. Our Friends in captivity.
- 11. Our Friends at Foreign Courts.
- 12. May the dictates of Reason and Conscience govern mankind.
- 13. Peace and good Government to all Nations. Huzza!250
In a paper read before this Society six years ago on Some Sobriquets applied to Washington, the terms American Fabius, Virginian Cincinnatus, and Father of his Country, and the expression First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, were considered.251 It was then stated that the sobriquet Father of his Country was, so far as I was aware, first applied to Washington in a letter written by General Henry Knox on March 19, 1787. I have since encountered what is perhaps an adumbration of the familiar expression. In the New Jersey Gazette of April 1, 1778, was printed a communication dated Princeton, March 7, 1778, and signed “A Citizen.” This consists chiefly of a panegyric on Washington. Beginning in prose, the author — perhaps President John Witherspoon — ends in verse, of which a few lines are quoted:
Go on illustrious Chief! to lead thy chosen bands,
With increas’d numbers, to the field of Mars;
There, snatching victry from the British foe,
Give peace and plenty to a bleeding land.
Then — heaven approving thy exalted deeds,
While grateful millions hail thee father, friend —
Return with laurels to thy happy mount,
And taste a-new the sweets of private life.252
To-day I wish to call attention to another famous sobriquet — one not previously known, so far as I am aware, to have been associated with Washington, and which as applied to others has somewhat fallen into disrepute. The term “favorite son” apparently escaped the attention of all writers on the subject of Americanisms until 1885, when Charles L. Norton wrote:
Favorite Son. — This term became so common, used in reference to local or State politicians that the Nation at last made it the text for an editorial article so severely satirical that “favorite sons” have not been so numerous since its publication.253
And even now the only example of the sobriquet known to lexicographers is from a well-known work by the present distinguished British Ambassador at Washington. In 1888 Mr. Bryce wrote this discriminating passage:
A Favourite Son is a politician respected or admired in his own State, but little regarded beyond it. He may not be, like the Dark Horse, little known to the nation at large, but he has not fixed its eye or filled its ear. He is usually a man who has sat in the State legislature; filled with credit the post of State governor; perhaps gone as senator or representative to Washington, and there approved himself an active promoter of local interests. Probably he possesses the qualities which gain local popularity — geniality, activity, sympathy with the dominant sentiments and habits of his State; or while endowed with gifts excellent in their way, he has lacked the audacity and tenacity which push a man to the front through a jostling crowd. More rarely he is a demagogue who has raised himself by flattering the masses of his State on some local questions, or a skilful handler of party organizations who has made local bosses and spoilsmen believe that their interests are safe in his hands. Anyhow, his personality is such as to be more effective with neighbours than with the nation, as a lamp whose glow fills the side chapel of a cathedral sinks to a spark of light when carried into the nave.254
For the honor of American lexicography, if for no other reason, it is fitting that this neglect on its part should be repaired by giving an outline of the history of the sobriquet. On December 17, 1825, John Randolph of Roanoke was elected to the United States Senate, one of the four candidates being Judge Henry St. George Tucker, Randolph’s half-brother. On being informed of this election, through a letter from Dr. Brockenbrough, Judge Tucker thus responded:
I have barely time before the closing of the mail to acknowledge the receipt of your friendly letter, and to express my hearty concurrence in the gratification you feel at the election of my brother. I could wish indeed that my name had been withheld, yet hope that its withdrawal even at the time it took place, was not too late to manifest my deference to him. God preserve him long as an honor to his station and the Old Dominion. I cannot but think that this occurrence will reanimate his spirit, and restore him to that activity in the public councils for which he was always remarkable, until he thought himself unkindly treated by his native State. He will now, I trust, see in himself her favorite son.255
From an “Address of the Democratic Members of the Legislature of New York to the Electors of the State,” drawn up in 1840, is taken this extract:
Democratic candidate for the presidency. Though principles should be the reason of the democrat in all his political controversies, the New York democrat has an additional incentive to action in the man whom he is called on to support as the representative of his principles at the head of the government. In singleness of character and uprightness of life, he has no superior. In devotion to principle and firmness of purpose, he has shown himself equal to the true hero256 whom he has succeeded. — Alike unmoved by corruption and terror, he pursues his public career with the calmness of conscious integrity, determined to preserve the purity of the government, and maintain in its administration the principles of Jefferson and Jackson, at whatever hazard to himself. He has shown himself a worthy son of New York.
And shall New York abandon her able, honest, frank and devoted son? For whom shall she give up one who does honor by his principles, his talents, his virtues and his firmness? For a man whose talents are below mediocrity, whose judgment is weak and vacillating, whose vanity is excessive, whose opinions are equivocal, who insults the people whose suffrages he asks, by denying them access to him, and refusing to answer their reasonable inquiries, who places himself behind a committee, not that they may announce his principles, but that he may conceal them! What motive has this great state to abandon her favorite son for such a person? — not principle — for she knows not, nor is she permitted to know, the principles of the person who is attempted to be imposed upon her?257
In this passage, it will be observed, the sobriquet is applied to Martin Van Buren. But if employed in reference to the man who was actually then President, in the same famous “log cabin,” “hard cider,” and “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” campaign it was also applied to others whose reputation has since somewhat faded. Later in the year we have this account of another convention:
The Auburn conservative convention. We have just returned from this glorious gathering of the unchanged and unterrified democratic republicans of the state of New York, and language cannot convey to our readers an adequate sense of the intense interest, and deep and grateful emotions excited by this great congregation of the people.… The hon. William C. Rives258 and the hon. Hugh S. Legare,259 accompanied the New York delegation, and their passage was marked at every point with the most enthusiastic demonstrations of popular respect and esteem, making the trip to Auburn little less than a triumphal progress. Notwithstanding the heavy rain … at every stopping place the cars were immediately surrounded by the people, anxious to see, and express their gratitude to, the noble and independent son of Virginia, who had offered himself up as a sacrifice for the country, should the power of the president and the intolerance of party tyranny prove too strong for the popular will. It must have gladened the heart of old Virginia’s “favorite son,” to receive these unbought and unpurchasable testimonials of grateful esteem from the democracy of New York.260
From the New York Herald of October 3, 1840, is taken the following:
The great meeting of conservatives at Auburn on Thursday last will long be remembered in the annals of the political history of this state. It was a glorious affair from its commencement to its close, and was attended by about 6,000 of the most intelligent persons in the state, of whom about 300 were of the fairer and better portion of our nature.…
The hon. Wm. C. Rives then came forward, and was received with tumultuous shouts of welcome. He spoke as follows: …
I appeal to all, without distinction of party, to say whether the measures of Mr. Van Buren’s administration have not been, from beginning to end, one continued struggle, to build up executive power; and to build up executive patronage; to use his own language in the better days of his history, for his own condemnation, “to absorb all power from its legitimate purposes, and to condense it under one single head — and that the executive.” And this has been done, gentlemen, by a son of the state of New York. I will not call him her favorite son, for you disown him. [A voice in the crowd called out— “we wont own him for a son.”]261
It will perhaps be interesting to us of the present day to note that Mr. Rives spoke for over three hours and a half — or from ten minutes after two o’clock until thirteen minutes before six, after which Mr. Legaré, though from the lateness of the hour he feared that “I shall not do myself justice,” held forth from six until half past eight.
The campaign of 1844 gives us glimpses of two “favorite sons,” one of whom later attained the presidency, while the reputation of the other, like that of Mr. Rives, has suffered a sea change. We are told that in the autumn of 1843 —
The democratic conferrees of the fourteenth congressional district, have nominated Dr. David Umberger of Lebanon county, as the democratic candidate for congress. The following resolution was unanimously adopted by the convention.
Resolved, That we have full and entire confidence in the tried integrity and republican statesmanship of the Hon. James Buchanan, the favorite son of Pennsylvania for the next Presidency, and will omit no honorable exertions to secure his nomination for that distinguished post, by the national convention.262
From a Philadelphia paper of February 1, 1844, is extracted this account:
“Johnson Meeting!”–Honor to the Brave!
The friends of Old Tecumseh cannot be sold!!!
The friends of Col. R. M. Johnson,263 the hero of the Thames,264 are requested to meet at the court house in Harrisburg, on Tuesday evening, January 22, at the ringing of the bell. Let the friends of the Old Hero come forth! They cannot be transferred like sheep in the market. Let the people be heard, and not the politicians.
Jan. 22, 1844.
Although scarcely 24 hours notice of the meeting had been given, yet the house presented one dense mass of hard-fisted yeomanry eager to proclaim to the world their preference for Old Tecumseh, and for him only. Gen. Simon Cameron, of Middletown, known as one of the most consistent and influential democrats in the state and union, was unanimously called on to preside. A … number of spirited resolutions were “enthusiastically adopted,” of which we have room for the following extracts only: …
Resolved, That the democracy of Pennsylvania is entitled to the privilege of naming a candidate for the presidency, and as “her own favorite son” has declined the honor unanimously proffered him by his native state, we now solemnly reiterate our intention, and boldly proclaim our determination to stand by the gallant and distinguished son of Kentucky, Colonel R. M. JOHNSON, sink or swim.265
If Buchanan failed to become President until 1856, it was not from lack of persistency on the part of his supporters in presenting his name. In 1848 he was once more put forward:
Pennsylvania nominations of James Buchanan. A meeting of “most of” the democratic members of the legislature of Pennsylvania took place at Harrisburg on the evening of February 2d, … A committee was appointed to draft an address to the people of the United States. At an adjourned meeting on the 8th, … said committee reported an address which was unanimously adopted. It … is exclusively devoted to the subject of the selection of a candidate for the presidency and of the claim that Pennsylvania now has to a long deferred pretension to have a Pennsylvania president, and in recommendation of James Buchanan, “the favorite son of Pennsylvania.”266
From this evidence it appears that Mr. Bryce’s characterization of “favorite sons,” while true of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, would require some modification if applied to the first half of that century. But the fact is that even by 1840 the sobriquet had undergone some diminution, for — as will now be shown — it was originally applied to Washington. We can even, perhaps, trace the steps by which the sobriquet reached its present form. In the Boston Gazette of September 1, 1777, was printed a poem in seven stanzas, of which the first follows:
On that worthy Commander in Chief of the Army of the United States,
By a Friend to his Country.
HAIL! Patriot hail! Brave Columbean,
Heaven’s Favorite, Freedom’s fairest Son;
May Heaven its kindest Blessings send,
And rest them on our worthy Friend.
It is possible that “Favorite” is here an adjective, but more probably it is a noun. In “A Poetical Epistle to his Excellency George Washington, Esquire,” printed in a pamphlet in England but written by a Marylander in 1779,267 occur these lines:
Great source of bliss, kind nurse of arts and fame;
She, wrong’d and exil’d from yon eastern climes,
Perhaps may deign to listen to these rhymes;
And in these regions pleas’d to find relief,
May bear them smiling to her fav’rite Chief.268
In the Independent Ledger of December 24, 1781, appeared a poem signed “Tacitus” in six stanzas, of which the first follows:
COME all Continentals, who Washington love,
The pride of Columbia, the fav’rite of Jove,
And join me in chorus, with hearts full of cheer,
Whilst I shew you at York-town, the fate of the Peer,
Who for six weeks confin’d in a cave under ground,
Like a Fox in his hole, was by Washington found.269
Colonel David Humphreys’s “Address to the Armies of the United States of America,” written in 1782, contains these lines:
Now darkness gather’d round;
The thunder rumbled, and the tempest frown’d;
When lo I to guide us thro’ the storm of war,
Beam’d the bright splendor of Virginia’s star.
O first of heroes, fav’rite of the skies,
To what dread toils thy country bade thee rise!270
It was not, however, until Washington became President that we find the sobriquet now under discussion. The day after his inauguration, which occurred April 30, 1789, a New York newspaper remarked:
Yesterday the Great and illustrious Washington, the favourite son of liberty, and deliverer of his country, entered upon the execution of the office of First Magistrate of the United States of America; to which important station he had been unanimously called by the united voices of the people.271
Pale terrour marches on, with solemn stride;
Cornwallis trembles, Britain’s boasted pride:
He and his armed hosts,
Surrender all their posts
The friend of Liberty — Columbia’s favourite son.
Fly, swift-winged Fame,
The news proclaim:
From shore to shore,
Let cannons roar;
And joyful voices shout Columbia’s name.2721
In the fall of 1789 Washington began his tour through New England, reaching Boston on Saturday, October 24. A colonnade had been erected “in the West end of the State-House” — the present Old State House — and adjacent was a triumphal arch designed by Bulfinch. A newspaper account reads:
As soon as the President entered this Colonnade, he was saluted by three huzzas from the citizens; and by an ODE sung by a select choir of singers, with Mr. Rea at their head, in
THE TRIUMPHAL ARCH
which was adjacent to the Colonnade. This Arch is 18 feet high, composed of a centre arch 14 feet wide, and one on each side, of 7 feet, with an Ionick pilaster and proper imports between them. The freeze exhibits 13 stars on a blue ground, and a handsome white dentule cornice is carried to the height of the platform; above is painted a balustrade of interlaced work, in the centre of which is an oval tablet, with the following inscriptions — On one side, “To the Man who unites all hearts” — and on the other, “To Columbia’s favourite Son.”273
The ode sung on the occasion consisted of eight stanzas, of which the first two follow:
to columbia’s favourite son,
Sung on the arrival of THE PRESIDENT at the State-House.
GREAT Washington the Hero’s come,
Each heart exulting hears the sound,
Thousands to their Deliv’rer throng,
And shout him welcome all around!
Now in full chorus join the song,
And shout aloud great Washington!
There view Columbia’s favourite Son,
Her Father, Fav’rite, Friend and Guide!
There see th’ immortal Washington!
His Country’s Glory, Boast and Pride!
Now in full chorus, &c274
Upon his arrival at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on October 31, 1789, he was greeted by the singing of three odes, the last stanza of the second ode being as follows:
Let strains harmonious rend the air,
For see the godlike Hero’s here!
Thrice hail, Columbia’s fav’rite Son,
Thrice welcome, matchless WASHINGTON.275
The following is an account of the celebration in New York on July 4, 1794:
The legionary corps of this city, consisting of the troop of horse, the brigade Artillery, and the Granadier and Infantry companies, assembled at 9 o’clock A. M. on the 4th instant, … At three o’clock the OFFICERS … assembled at the old Coffee-House, … and the following TOASTS were drunk under the discharge of Artillery.…
3. Columbia’s favorite Son, the virtuous Washington — May he long live to enjoy the highest mead which a patriot can receive, “the affections of a grateful and happy People.”276
THIS day in happy union met,
We mourn “Columbia’s fav’rite son,”
He’s gone, but can we e’er forget
The worthy, virtuous WASHINGTON.277
It will be observed that in all these extracts Washington is called not “America’s favorite son,” but “Columbia’s favorite son.” At some future time I shall hope to lay before the Society a detailed account of the use of “Columbia” as applied to this country; for though such use has been noted, it has not received adequate treatment.
In bringing these desultory remarks to a close, it may not be uninteresting to call attention to the dedication by Dr. John Leigh of his work published at Edinburgh in 1786 called An Experimental Inquiry into the Properties of Opium, and its Effect on Living Subjects. Probably this is the first book written by a foreigner to be dedicated to Washington. The inscription, dated “Edinburgh, May 15. 1786,” is as follows:
this treatise is humbly inscribed
GEORGE WASHINGTON, Esq.
A MAN EQUALLY REVERED
BY THE FRIENDS AND FOES OF HIS COUNTRY;
AND WHOSE CHARACTER WILL,
WITH UNRIVALLED LUSTRE,
BE TRANSMITTED TO THE
LATEST AGES OF POSTERITY,
FOR CONSUMMATE CONDUCT AND COURAGE,
PUBLIC AND PRIVATE VIRTUE.278
Mr. Henry H. Edes remarked that the account of Washington’s reception in Boston in 1789 was of particular interest to him as his great-grandfather, Nathan Webb, then a young man of twenty-two, was in the triumphal arch erected on that occasion.
Mr. Edes read two letters to President Joseph Willard — one dated 10 March, 1787, in which Washington expressed his approbation of the conduct of Tobias Lear279 of the Harvard Class of 1783, who had been recommended to him by President Willard; the other dated 6 June, 1800, in which Tobias Lear acknowledged on behalf of Mrs. Washington the receipt of a letter from President Willard and of copies of the tribute paid by Harvard College to the memory of Washington.280 These letters follow.
Mount Vernon Mar 10th 1787
Permit me to entreat, that my long delay in acknowledging the receipt of your polite letter of the 15th of May last, may be ascribed to any cause rather than the want of respect for your character and gratitude for the favorable sentiments you have expressed me.
As the letter was introductory of Mr Lear, I found myself inclined, though disposed to give full credence to your acct of the talents and good disposition of this young Gentleman, to take time, and seek occasions, to form my own judgement of him; and it is with pleasure I now assure you that, his deportment since he came into this family has been such as to obtain the esteem, confidence, and love of every individual in it.
As (from the interest you have taken in his welfare) I persuade myself this testimony of my approbation of his conduct will not be displeasing to you, I could no longer with-hold it; especially as it affords an occasion of assuring you of my good wishes for the University over which you preside, and of the esteem & respect with which I have the honor to be
Your most obedt & humble Servt
The Rev. Sam. Willard281
Mount Vernon, June 6th, 1800.
In compliance with the request of Mrs. Washington, I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter to her of the 16th of April, together with three Copies of the performances of the University over which you preside, commemorative of the death of her beloved Husband.
This tribute of respectful veneration paid to the memory of the partner of her Heart, Mrs. Washington receives with grateful sensibility; and while she acknowledges the deep impression made on her mind by the sympathetic feelings expressed in your letter, as well as in the performances, she begs that her best thanks may be made acceptable to yourself and the College; — and requests me to assure you that your wishes, with respect to two of these copies, shall be truly fulfiled.
In making this communication, permit me, Reverend Sir, to express the profound Respect which I entertain for the Character who so honorably presides over my Alma Mater — and to subscribe,
with sincere wishes for your health & happiness
Your most humble & Obedtt Servt
The Revd Joseph Willard.
The Revnd Joseph Willard D.D. LL.D.
President of Harvard University
At a meeting of the Society in March, 1906,282 Mr. Henry H. Edes communicated a letter from Governor John Hancock, dated October 20, 1783, and addressed to President Willard, in which he offered “to erect a respectable fence” about the College buildings. The rough draft of this letter, from which the copy communicated to the Society was made, was at the time in the possession of Miss Willard, of Cambridge. With other manuscripts it was purchased last week at auction for the College by a generous friend. A letter from President Willard to Governor Hancock, which was acquired at the same time, shows that the Governor’s offer was accepted by the Corporation, although, as I stated at the former meeting, the College Records are silent on the subject. This letter, written three months after the offer was made, is as follows:
Cambridge Janry 16, 1784.
I have desired Capt Walton and Mr Moore,283 the College Carpenters, who, according to your Excellency’s proposal, have looked out for cedar posts, to wait upon you. They are directed to take your Excellency’s orders, in everything respecting the fence, generously designed by you for the College; and I hope, Sir, your Excellency will direct every thing, agreeably to your own taste, which, I am confident, will strike the taste of every judge of architecture.
I have the honor of being, with the highest esteem & respect,
your Excellency’s most humble and obliged servt
The incident is interesting in view of the somewhat strained relations which had existed between the College and Governor Hancock over the Governor’s accounts as Treasurer of the College. In fact, although Hancock had long ceased to be Treasurer and the College property had been turned over to the College authorities, no final settlement of his accounts had yet been made, and the College Records of May 31, 1784, show that the Corporation was still pressing him to wind up the business.
In spite of the directions given to the College carpenters to take his Excellency’s orders, the fence apparently was not built at Hancock’s expense. This at least is to be inferred from the vote of May 2, 1785, “that the President, Treasurer, and Professor Wigglesworth be desired to agree with some workmen to build a fence in front of the Colleges upon the best terms they can.”
I have also brought two interesting official letters from John Adams to President Willard, which, with other official documents remaining in their hands, the Misses Willard, of Cambridge, have lately given to the College.
At Commencement, 1781, the Corporation voted to confer the degree of LL.D. on the Chevalier de La Luzerne, the French Minister, on John Adams, and on Arthur Lee, but apparently no formal action was taken, perhaps because, at this time, the College was without a President. In the autumn, the Rev. Joseph Willard, of Beverly, was elected to that office, and in the account of his installation, December 19, 1781, we read that at the close of the ceremonies “the President ascended the pulpit and announced to the assembly that the University had conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws” on the persons named. On April 1, 1783, we find the following vote in the Corporation Records: “That the Diploma for a Doctorate of Laws, conferred on His Excellency John Adams Esqr, some time since, be immediately engrossed, and the seal enclosed in a silver box.”284
Auteuil near Paris Septr 8. 1784.
I have received, by Mrs Adams, the Letter you did me, the Honour to write me on the eighth of June last, together with a vote of the President and Fellows of Harvard College of the first of April 1783, and a Diploma for a Doctorate of Laws elegantly engrossed and the Seal inclosed in a Silver Box.
This Mark of the approbation of so respectable a University does me great Honour and is more especially acceptable to me, as it comes from a Society, where I had my Education, and for which I have ever entertained the highest Veneration. Let me pray you, Sir, to present my best Respects, and most hearty Thanks to the Corporation, and to accept the same for the polite and obliging manner, in which you have communicated their Resolution and Diploma.
Your design, Sir, of visiting the Universities of Europe to become acquainted with their Laws, Customs, and modes of Education, is a very wise one. The Reflections you would make and the Correspondences you would form, would amply compensate the Trouble and Expence, although I can give you no Encouragement to hope, for the smallest pecuniary Advantage, it is the general Sentiment, in Europe, even of those who are not professed Eunemies to America, that there is already in that Country, Wealth and Knowledge enough, and too many Advantages for acquiring more, to make it necessary for them to contribute any of theirs to our Assistance.
If you come, Sir, while I remain in Europe you may depend upon any Assistance, which a Residence of near Seven Years abroad, in France, Holland and England, may enable me to give you, in obtaining Introductions to such Characters as you wish to see.
After all, the System of Education at your University is so excellent that I should not wish to see it essentially changed, much less conformed to the Models in Europe, where there is much less Attention to the Morals and Studies of the Youth, in this Sentiment I am so fully fixed as to be very desirous of giving my own Son an Opportunity to study with you. He has travelled with me and Mr Dana, for near seven years, and has seen the most of Europe, but he has not neglected his Studies. He has been matriculated in the University of Leyden, and studied there sometime, and might have a Degree there, with the Attendance of a few Months more. He is advanced in Age and I flatter myself in Literature so far as to render it impossible for me to offer him, at Harvard Colledge as a Freshman. But if the Laws will admit him, after an Examination and upon the Payment of a Sum of Money for the Benefit of the Society, with the Class of the fourth or third Year, I should chose to send him to you rather than to Leyden. I should be much obliged to you for your Sentiments upon this Subject.
With the greatest Respect and
Esteem I have the Honour to be, Sir
your most obedient and
most humble Servant
The Reverend Joseph Willard.
President of the University at Cambridge
Adams’s letter was communicated to the Corporation, and on November 16, 1784, the President and Fellows passed the following vote:
1. His Excellency, John Adams Esqr, having, in a letter to the President, expressed his desire, that his eldest son, who has been a matriculated Student in the University of Leyden, should complete his education in this University, provided, upon his being found qualified for an advanced standing, he should pay the sum required for admittance in such cases,
Voted, that the President be desired to inform Mr Adams, that this Corporation has such a high sense of the services he has performed for his Country, that, should his son be sent to this University, he shall be admitted to whatever advanced standing the President Professors and Tutors, on examination, shall find him qualified for, free from all charges.285
The second letter from Adams is in reply to President Willard’s letter communicating the Corporation’s vote, and its reference to his son and the experience he had had during the years in which he remained in Europe with his father, is most interesting:
Auteuil near Paris April 22, 1785
I have received the Letter you did me the Honour to write me the fourteenth of December, with the Resolution of the President and Fellows of the University of the Sixteenth of November, which, as well as the Concurrence of the Board of Overseers, does me great Honour and demands my most grateful Acknowledgements.
My Son, John Quincy Adams, for whom this favour is intended will have the Honour to deliver you this Letter, and I beg leave to recommend him to the kind Protection of the Corporation, and the candid Friendship of his fellow Students. He has wandered with me in Europe for Seven Years, and has been for the last Eighteen Months my only Secretary, so that it may be easily conceived, I shall part with him with Reluctance. But the Necessity of breeding him to some Profession, in which he may provide for himself, and become a usefull Member of Society, and a Conviction that no American can be any where so well educated as in his own Country, have induced me to relinquish the Pleasure of his Company and the Advantage of his Assistance. I think I do not flatter him nor myself, when I say, that he is a studious Youth, and not addicted to any Vice; of his Advancement in Literature and the Sciences you will form an Estimate from his Examination, which would probably be more for his ease and Safety if it could be in French, with which Language he is more familiar than his own. But as this is not to be expected, an allowance will naturally be made, [on] account of his long absence from home.
It is somewhat delicate to give Advice upon the Point of your Travels to Europe. There is no doubt but considerable Advantages might be obtained, but considering the Time, the Expence and the Risque I think if I had the Honour to be a Member of the Corporation or the Overseers, I should estimate these as probably so much more than the others, as to advise my Countrymen as they are so happy as to have a good President, to preserve him carefully at the Head of his University. Our Commercial Negotiations, Sir, which your public Spirit naturally enquires after, proceed so slowly and to so little Effect, that I wish myself on your side the Water, and whether any other Plan would suceed better is too uncertain to excite any sanguine Hopes. All the Ports of Europe, however are open to our Vessells, those with whom we have no Treaties as well as the others.
I have the Honour to be, with the utmost
Esteem and Respect, Sir your
most obedient and most
The Reverend Joseph Willard
President of Harvard University
John Quincy Adams went abroad with his father in February, 1778, when he was but eleven years of age. He was in Paris till June, 1779, when he returned with his father to America, but went back to France in the following November. In July, 1780, Adams was sent as Ambassador to the Netherlands, and his son studied at Amsterdam and at Leyden till July, 1781, when he went to St. Petersburg as private secretary to Francis Dana, the American Minister to Russia. He was in Stockholm during the winter of 1782–1783, then joined his father again at The Hague, and later accompanied him to Paris. In May, 1785, he returned to the United States, and after being tutored for a few months, entered the Junior Class at Harvard in March, 1786, graduating with high honors in 1787. The following passage is worth reprinting in connection with the letters presented:
I have been seven years travelling in Europe, seeing the world, and in its society. If I return to the United States, I must be subject, one or two years, to the rules of a college, pass three more in the tedious study of the law, before I can hope to bring myself into professional notice. The prospect is discouraging. If I accompany my father to London, my satisfaction would possibly be greater than by returning to the United States; but I shall loiter away my precious time, and not go home until I am forced to it. My father has been all his lifetime occupied by the interests of the public. His own fortune has suffered. His children must provide for themselves. I am determined to get my own living, and to be dependent upon no one. With a tolerable share of common sense, I hope, in America, to be independent and free. Rather than live otherwise, I would wish to die before my time.286