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COLLECTION Identifier: HUC 6642

Commencement Theses, Quaestiones, and Orders of Exercises


The collection consists of Theses, Quaestiones, and Orders of Exercises for Commencement used in Harvard Commencement exercises from the 17th century into the early 19th century as precursors to the modern Commencement program. The Theses (for undergraduates) and Quaestiones (for Master's degree candidates) are broadsides, written in Latin, that list prompts used in the commencement tradition of public student disputation which began at Harvard College in 1642. Broadside Theses were printed through 1810; broadside Quaestiones were printed through 1791. The Orders of Exercises for Commencement broadsides, printed in English from 1791 to 1810, list Commencement speakers and their topics.


  • 1642-1818


Researcher Access

The Commencement Theses, Quaestiones, and Orders of Exercises are open for research.

Copying Restriction

Copying of fragile materials may be limited.


6.25 cubic feet (1 legal document box, 16 flat boxes, 2 volumes, and 2 microfilm reels)

The collection is comprised of Theses, Quaestiones, and Orders of Exercises for Commencement in various formats including originals, photostats, bound photocopy use copies, and master negative microfilm. Within series, items are arranged chronologically by year.

William Coolidge Lane’s Early Harvard Broadsides (Worcester, 1914) provides a comprehensive list of holdings among various institutions. Since the article's publication in 1914, Harvard has acquired an original Theses from 1719 and original Quaestiones from 1673, 1745, and 1763. Previously unknown originals of the Theses from 1724, 1728, 1729, and 1736 have been discovered at other institutions, and photostat copies are now included in this collection.

Historical Note

The Theses and Quaestiones broadsides display propositions and questions respectively, used in the Commencement tradition of public student disputation which began at Harvard College in 1642. The practice was instituted under the leadership of President Henry Dunster (president from 1640-1654) within a larger effort to model the college after European universities. Behind the printed broadsides was a multi-stage process that involved both students and faculty. The Latin theses were academic statements created by the graduating students to reflect the scope of their undergraduate study. The Theses fit within a curriculum that emphasized public discourse and syllogistic debate and ranged between approximately 50 and 250 propositions in most years. An 1850 handwritten note to the 1807 Theses, by one of the graduates, James C. Merrill, notes, "'Sensibus' - I wrote 'sensus' - which was absurdly altered by a college officer to sensibus,'" indicates the multiple hands involved in the creation process. Printed at the expense of the graduating class, the Theses were posted in advance, and graduates were expected to be able to defend them upon request on Commencement Day. Certain students were selected by the faculty to publicly discuss and dispute specific Theses as part of the day's exercises.

Upon receiving a Bachelor’s degree, students could continue their studies as candidates for a master's degree, usually for a period of three years. In contrast to the rigidly defined scope of study for undergraduates, graduate students focused on independent reading. The Commencement exercises for the Master’s degree included the Quaestiones, a single question chosen by each candidate, to be discussed in the affirmative or negative. In practice, according to a note written by President Joseph Willard on the 1794 Order of Exercises, "There is seldom opportunity for more than two or three who are candidates for the degree of Master of Arts to perform any exercises in the Afternoon, because much of the time is taken up in giving the degrees."

Beginning with the first Commencement in 1642 through 1810, Theses were printed as broadsides. They were supplemented from 1791 onward by the Order of Exercises for Commencement, printed in English. The last Order of Exercises was printed in 1810, and subsequent Theses were distributed as quartos until they were replaced in 1821 by a Commencement program. The Quaestiones were printed from 1642 through 1791. Generally, the ceremony for students receiving their Bachelor’s degrees occurred in the morning and was followed by the Master’s degree ceremony in the afternoon.


The collection is arranged in three series:

  1. Theses, 1642-1818
  2. Quaestiones, 1653-1791
  3. Orders of Exercises for Commencement, 1791-1810

Acquisition information

The collection was assembled from various sources. Much of the collection is of uncertain provenance. A number of items were purchased with Minot and G.F. Parkman Funds or received in the 19th and 20th century from donors including Mrs. John N. Baxter, William Bentley Fowle, Octavius Pickering, and the Harvard Club of Boston. Photostats of originals not held by Harvard were received in the 20th century from the American Antiquarian Society, the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Yale University, and Christ Church, Oxford. Donation and purchase information is occasionally written on document versos. Specific acquisition information is noted at the item level.

Digitization Funding

Collections and items have been digitized with the generous support of The Polonsky Foundation.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives

  1. Harvard University. General information about Harvard commencement and exhibition. (Arranged by year).
  2. Mansfield, Isaac. Theses, in Comitiis publicis Harvardini Collegii quod est Cantabrigiae Nov-Anglorum, defensae & pro viribus propugnatae a Juvenibus in Artibus initiatis, 1660-1753. (Harvard University Archives call number: HUM 7)
  3. Mansfield, Isaac. Questiones propositae pro modulo discutiendae Comitiis publicis Harvardini Collegii quod est divin. provid. Cantabrigiae Nov-Anglorum a Laureae Magistralis candidatis, 1660-1753. (Harvard University Archives call number: HUM 6)

Other libraries with Theses and Quaestiones holdings

  1. American Antiquarian Society
  2. Massachusetts Historical Society
  3. University of Glasgow Library Special Collections
  4. Yale University


  • Lane, William Coolidge. Early Harvard Broadsides. Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1914.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Founding of Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1935.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
  • Young, Edward J. "June Meeting, 1880. Subjects for Master's Degree" in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 18 (1880-1881) pp. 119-151.
  • Edes, Henry M. "April Meeting 1898: Harvard Theses of 1663" in Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Transactions, 1898, pages 322-339.

General note

This document last updated 2019 July 23.

Processing Information

The collection was first assembled by archivists and arranged in two large volumes sometime prior to 1980. In 1990, most of the collection was removed from the volumes for microfilming. The collection was re-processed in 2010. Re-processing involved a collection survey, conservation treatment of select items, re-housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid. All call numbers were simplified to HUC 6642.

Photostat copies of originals in the collection were removed. Call numbers HUC 6642.1, HUC 6642.4, and HUC 6642.5 were incorporated into HUC 6642. Manuscript transcriptions of the Theses and Quaestiones prepared by Isaac Mansfield, originally cataloged as HUC 6642.2 and HUC 6642.3, were distinguished as separate items (Harvard University Archives call numbers: HUM 7 for Theses, and Quaestiones, HUM 6 for Quaestiones). An incomplete set of index cards with English translations of originally cataloged as HUC 6642.6, was distinguished as a separate collection (Harvard University Archives call number: HUY 12).

This finding aid was created by Diann Benti in April 2010.

Preservation and description of the collection was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.


Harvard University. Commencement Theses, Quaestiones, and Orders of Exercises, 1642-1818: an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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