Records of the Board of Overseers: votes and resolutions
The collection contains official handwritten and later typewritten records of votes and resolutions enacted during the meetings of the Harvard Board of Overseers, and maintained by the Secretaries of the Board of Overseers, between circa 1700 and 1892. Chiefly consisting of recorded votes, the records also include a small number of printed Board of Overseers meeting announcements, clippings of votes and resolutions, and letters regarding recent votes. The records document the points of concern and interest of those assembled, the changing relationship with the Corporation and the General Court of Massachusetts, and the broader political and social changes occurring at Harvard University and within New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
- circa 1700-1892
- Harvard University. Board of Overseers (Organization)
Open for research.
Extent0.65 cubic feet (1 legal document box and 1 half legal document box)
The collection contains official handwritten and later typewritten records of votes and resolutions enacted during the meetings of the Harvard Board of Overseers, and maintained by the Secretaries of the Board of Overseers, between circa 1700 and 1892. Chiefly consisting of recorded votes, the records also include a small number of printed Board of Overseers meeting announcements, clippings of votes and resolutions, and letters from board members regarding recent votes. The records document the points of concern and interest of those assembled, the changing relationship between the Harvard Corporation and the General Court of Massachusetts, and the broader political and social changes occurring at Harvard University and within New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The voting records document the administrative duties of the Overseers, including appointing faculty members, confirming student degrees, making policy recommendations to the Corporation, appointing special interest committees, and examining students. It should be noted that the records do not represent all of the votes enacted by the Overseers between 1700 and 1892; there are many years where there is no information recorded. The early records from 1732 to 1750 often mention the Board's votes for the appointment of scholarships from Madame Mary Saltonstall’s legacy. The formation of committees as an administrative duty of the Overseers is also documented in these records. In order to evaluate the state of Harvard College and its schools and departments, the Board of Overseers voted to form committees comprised of members of the Board. Some of the special interest committees covered in these records include a committee to “inquire into the state of the college,” which was mentioned in 1809 and 1823; a committee to inquire into the Treasurer’s accounts, 1812; a committee of “information” to examine classes, 1823; and a committee to notify the new president of Harvard College of his appointment, 1869. Also documented are committees focused on the College’s academic departments, schools, museums, laboratories, and sports. Additionally, the Board of Overseers votes and resolutions were recorded by the Secretary of the Board of Overseers, and occasionally signed by the president of the College, including Edward Holyoke and John Kirkland. It is unclear why presidents sometimes signed the votes instead of the secretaries. Those signed by presidents include votes concerning scholarships, incomes, and discipline. The votes and resolutions also document the changing role of Board, including amendments to the constitution of the Board, circa 1800; the severance of the connection between Harvard College and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1864; and the election of new Overseers, 1868.
The records also document social issues at the College, and the discipline of students and staff administered by the Overseers. After a “disturbance” in 1882, the Board voted to give Harvard the authority to revoke the degree of any graduate, up to a week after graduation. Other votes documented a lack of attendance at lectures, 1759; poor condition of library books, 1759; and mentioned the need for discipline, 1825 and 1870. The Overseers felt obligated to discourage unwanted behaviors in the student body such as dancing, drinking, and visiting inns and taverns, and voted in favor of banning these behaviors in 1760 and 1830. The Overseers also enacted discipline amongst the College staff and administration. A vote in 1870 required the Dean of College Faculty to attend meetings in place of the president, and administer discipline to the College; additionally a vote in the same year required the president to reside in Cambridge. Of particular interest is a recorded vote documenting the judgement of Tutor Nathan Prince, 1741. He was disciplined by the Corporation and the Board for his alleged intemperance and slanderous remarks about his colleagues, and was ultimately dismissed from the College by the Board. The question of women entering Harvard in the late nineteenth century also appears in the votes and resolutions. The Overseers voted on this issue often, and created a committee to explore the risks of allowing women to be educated as nurses through the College and attending or taking examinations at Harvard Medical School. They also received multiple proposals for donations of funds to the medical school on the condition of women being allowed to attend, but voted to not accept the funds under the circumstances.
Politics of the Revolutionary War era are documented in several of the votes and resolutions. The Board resolved in 1775 to have the right to hire anyone based on their political principles, the ability to inquire into the principles of those already in office, and the authority to dismiss those who appear to be against the “liberties and privileges” of the colonies. An additional vote in 1778 documented the American Revolution’s political atmosphere, when the Overseers were informed of the hiring of William Kneeland as Steward, but then voted to recommend a different candidate, likely due to his sympathy for the Loyalist cause. Furthermore, in 1780, the Overseers voted to purchase books relating to the “controversy between Great Britain and her country.”
The curriculum at Harvard was a constant area of discussion at the meetings of the Overseers. The votes and resolutions of 1865 and 1871 document new and advanced requirements to obtaining medical degrees, which was part of President Charles Eliot’s reformation of the Medical School. Also documented are advanced admission and examination requirements, 1870; and amendments regarding holidays during the school year, 1865. Committees of Board members formed to inquire into the state of the College and its various departments and schools also document the Board’s role in curriculum.
Religion also influenced the votes and resolutions of the Board of Overseers and was a topic of frequent discussion. In 1759, the Board recorded the desire for the creation of a divinity or ethics department at Harvard. Regulations regarding prayer and prayers during meetings were also described in various voting records, including 1780 and 1825. In 1869, resolutions were made regarding the required religious observances for students, stipulating that second Sunday service was voluntary for undergraduates, but daily devotional exercises were required, among others. By 1875, penalties for being absent at required Church services were suspended.
The Harvard College Board of Overseers was legally established by the General Court of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1642, although the first Board of Overseers had been previously appointed in 1637 by the General Court. The Board of Overseers is one of Harvard's two governing boards, the other being the President and Fellows of Harvard College, often referred to as "the Corporation." Where the 1642 legislation had given expansive duties to the Board of Overseers, the Charter of 1650, and its Appendix of 1657, redefined the responsibilities of the Overseers as an advisory body with sanctionative powers over the Corporation. The governing bodies were briefly joined in the Charter of 1692, but separated and reverted to their original order in 1707.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Board of Overseers was involved in a wide range of decisions related to Harvard College, actively shaping its academic priorities and administrative decisions in conjunction with the Corporation. The Board's membership included the Governor, Deputy Governor and the magistrates of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, as well as the teaching elders of the six next adjoining towns. Due to the overlapping membership between the Board and the Massachusetts legislature, the The Board of Overseers coordinated their meeting times with meetings of the Massachusetts legislature. Originally, the Board of Overseers maintained a close relationship with religion; its members were often reverends and clerics, and Overseers frequently interviewed tutors and professors on basis of their religious beliefs.
Significant changes in the Board of Overseers' composition occurred in 1810, when it was decided that some of the Board's members should be elected, in order to draw upon the expertise and experience of those outside the Board's traditional constituency. An act was passed by the Massachusetts legislature in March 1810 which declared that, although the core membership would remain the same, the Board of Overseers should also include "fifteen ministers of Congregational churches and fifteen laymen.” Although this change in the constitution of the Board of Overseers would prove somewhat controversial, and faced serious opposition in 1812 when it was temporarily repealed, by 1814 it had become the established criterion for the Board's membership. Not until the General Court's Act of April 28, 1865, which separated the Overseers from the control of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and allowed alumni to elect the Board's membership, would the membership of the Board of Overseers transition into its current structure. Membership currently consists of thirty members who are elected by alumni to serve six-year terms. In addition, Harvard’s President and Treasurer serve as ex officio members.
The function of the Board of Overseers is to encourage the University to maintain the highest attainable standards as a place of learning; this is accomplished by advising university leaders, the president, and directing the visitation process that reviews and assesses Harvard’s schools and departments. The Overseers also approve high-level teaching appointments along with the Corporation and confer degrees. The Overseers meet approximately five times during the academic year but do not always record votes. During these meetings, the Board hears formal reports from standing committees and senior University administrators, including the president, and then votes on the various issues. The Board also meets as smaller visiting committees throughout the year to discuss specific issues.
The votes and resolutions are arranged in chronological order.
The documents in this collection are University records and were acquired in the course of University business.
All of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.
- Hoffmann, John M. "An Analysis of College Books I-III; The Principal Records of Early Harvard" in Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Documents from the Harvard University Archives 1638-1750 (Boston: 1975), Volume 50, Appendix D.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936. List sources here
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936. 1887-1976. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
This document last updated 2019 March 29.
- Holyoke, Edward, 1689-1769.
- Kirkland, John Thornton, 1770-1840.
- Harvard University -- Administration.
- Harvard University -- Board of Overseers.
- Massachusetts -- Politics and government -- 1775-1783.
- Harvard College (1636-1780) -- Administration -- History.
- Harvard Medical School -- Women.
- Harvard University -- Curricula.
- Harvard University -- Discipline.
- Harvard University -- Religion.
- United States -- History -- Revolution, 1775-1783.
Formats and genres
- Administrative records.
- Clippings (information artifacts)
- Manuscripts (documents)
- Resolutions (administrative records)
Processing involved a collection survey, rehousing documents in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid.
This finding aid was created by Lael Dalal in March 2016.
Preservation and description of the Records of the Board of Overseers: votes and resolutions was supported by the Arcadia-funded Colonial North American Project at Harvard University.
All titles were supplied by the cataloger.
- Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Records of the Board of Overseers: votes and resolutions, circa 1700-1892: an inventory
- Language of description
- EAD ID
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.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA