Seven months before John Harvard arrived in Massachusetts, the General Court established a place of education that later to be named Harvard College. “The General Court appointed twelve of the most eminent men of the colony to take order for a college at Newtown, all of them names dear to New England, on account of their sacrifices, their sufferings, and virtues. Of the twelve, six were magistrates, and six were clergy. The most influential of these were John Winthrop, Thomas Dudley, and Rev. John Cotton. To these names add the name of Sir Henry Vane because he was governor and head of the court that first proposed the college in 1636.” (QUOTE from the History of Harvard University by Josiah Quincy, past President of Harvard University.)
Sir Henry Vane arrived in Boston during the summer of 1635 and was invited to live in the home of Rev. John Cotton —to which he added a large extension for himself. At the time, Vane was but twenty-two years old and must have found a worthy mentor, friend, and father figure in John Cotton. Both men were university educated and spoke several languages. Vane attended Oxford University but dropped out due to his Puritan leanings and was sent to Europe as an ambassador by his father, who was household chancellor to Charles I. John Cotton had been the head lecturer at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University and was the most distinguished cleric and scholar in New England at the time. He was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Vane knew Greek and Latin and spoke several European languages.
At the time, John Cotton was 50 years old and a father for the first time as his first son, Seaborn, was born on the voyage to America in 1633. Earlier that year, Cotton had established the Boston Latin School to provide for the education of the town’s youth. The school was modeled after the Boston Grammar School in Boston, England, which he had been responsible for as town vicar. Cotton, being a new father and a scholar, had a vested interest in education and likely discussed the Colony’s need for a college with Vane during meals and long evenings by the fire. The idea incubated for over a year before the General Court passed the proposal in October 1636 during Sir Henry Vane’s term as Governor.
GENERAL COURT RECORDS ON THE FOUNDING OF HARVARD COLLEGE:
28 October 1636, The General Court headed by Governor Henry Vane decided that the good people of Massachusetts, through their representatives, would give £400 to the establishment of a place of education “whereof £200 would be paid the next year, and £200 when the work is finished, and the next Court to appoint where and what building.”
May 1637, John Harvard emigrated to New England with his wife and settled in Charlestown, Massachusetts.
15 November 1637 Court Records state, “The College is ordered to be at Newetowne.”
27 November 1637 Court records show, “For the College, the Governor, Mr. Winthrope; the Deputy, Mr. Dudley; the Treasurer, Mr. Bellingham; along with Mr. Cotton (and others) that these or the greater part of them, whereof Mr. Winthrope, Mr. Dudley, or Mr. Bellingham, to always be one, to take order for a College at Newetowne.” In addition, Mr. Nathaniel Eaton, a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, was appointed first professor and master of Harvard College.
2 May 1638 Court records state, “It is ordered, That Newetowne shall henceforth be called Cambridge.”
11 May 1638, nearly three acres were granted “to the professor and to the Town’s use forever, for a public school or college; and the use of Mr. Nathaniel Eaton as long as he shall be employed in that work; so that at his death, or ceasing from that work, he or his shall be allowed according to the charges he hath been at, in building or fencing.” And so, the new college opened for classes and Nathaniel Eaton commenced teaching in 1638.
14 September 1638, John Harvard died in Charleston at age 31 and although he left no written will, Harvard made a verbal disposition of his property such that half of his estate and all of his library would go to the new college being proposed for the Newe Towne.
18 March 1639, in recognition of John Harvard’s endowment Court records state, “It is Ordered, That the College agreed upon formerly to be built at Cambridge shall be called Harvard College.”
4 September 1639, Mr. Nathaniel Eaton was censured for beating an assistant teacher, Nathaniel Briscoe, with a cudgel by striking him over two hundred blows. The next day, other teachers and students testified to similar beatings and to the “ill and scant diet of his boarders” to which Mrs. Eaton confessed that she served students skimpy portions of bad food but denied any knowledge of goat dung being added to their hasty pudding. The Court fined Mr. Eaton £40 and “debarred him from teaching children within our jurisdiction.” Eaton fled to Virginia before it was discovered that he had taken over £200 from college funds and received £500 in cash from worthless bills of exchange sold to merchants. As a result, the court seized his estate and closed the college for a year.
23 September 1642, the first commencement at Harvard College took place as “nine bachelors gave good proof of their proficiency in the tongues and arts.” The General Court also decided that magistrates and teaching elders of the six nearest churches would be governors of the college and most of these dined with the students at commencement.
27 December 1643, “By order of the General Court all the magistrates and the teaching elders of the six nearest churches were appointed to be forever governors of the college, and this day they met at Cambridge and considered of the officers of the college, and chose a treasurer, H. Pelham, Esq., being the first of that office.” Rev. John Cotton represented the First Church of Boston.
© by Barry A. Cotton
Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England: Vol. I, 1628-1641. Edited by Nathaniel Bradstreet Shurtleff. Vol. I, W. White, printer to the Commonwealth, 1853.
Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England: Vol.II, 1642-1649. Edited by Nathaniel Bradstreet Shurtleff. Vol. II, Boston: Press of William White, Printer to the Commonwealth, 1853.
Quincy, Josiah. The History of Harvard University. Vol. 2, Cambridge: John Owen, 1840.