Records of the Corporation relating to College tax exemptions
- Harvard University. Corporation (Organization)
Extent.26 cubic feet (1 half legal document box)
The documents are arranged in three series: Memorial and drafts of legislation (Series I), Account statements and supporting documents (Series II), and Correspondence (Series III). Series I contains a copy of the July 15, 1797 Memorial and four drafts of bill sections related to the College's tax exemptions. Series I and II have similar types of information, but Series II is built around a set of thirteen numbered documents that appear to have been compiled as a subject file and include copies of the petition of the Committee of the town of Cambridge, a memorial by Harvard Professors to the General Court regarding the tax exemption of College officers, and inventories and accounting statements related to the College's real estate and income. Series III contains six pieces of correspondence including two letters from President Joseph Willard to the President of the Massachusetts Senate, Samuel Phillips providing background on the issue, and a letter from Phillips to Professor Eliphalet Pearson providing information about the progress of the tax act.
The collection offers a resource for studying the College's relationship with state and local governments in the late 18th century, and forms a component of the records of the Harvard Corporation. Because the tax-exemption issue centered on the question of Harvard's real estate holdings and related income, many of the documents provide figures and lists of the College's property and related financial transactions with the town of Cambridge.
In addition to the exemption provided by the Charter of 1650 (and reinforced by the Massachusetts State Constitution of 1780), annual tax legislation provided further exemptions to the College and its officers. In 1746, Harvard Tutor Judah Monis and Professor John Winthrop successfully petitioned the General Court for an exemption on their town and property taxes as College officers. In subsequent years, the annual tax law of the General Court included a clause stating that, "The President, Fellows, Professors, Tutors, Librarian, and Students of Harvard College, who have their usual resident there, and settled Ministers of the Gospel, and Grammar School Masters, are not to be assessed for their polls or estates...and also all persons who have management or improvement of the estate of Harvard College are not to be assessed for the same." Similar tax exemptions were allowed for the officers of Williams and Bowdoin Colleges.
Following the Revolutionary War, inflation and the depreciating value of money in Massachusetts made it difficult for Harvard to maintain livable salaries for its faculty. In an effort to secure accommodations for College officers as might be needed in financial emergencies, the Corporation purchased houses and land in Cambridge in the 1790s. Some Cambridge residents complained that the College's real estate tax exemptions would result in a loss of income from the property purchased by the Corporation. A Committee of the Town of Cambridge was formed and began negotiating with the College over the types of building that should be included in the calculation of their £500 exemption. On July 15, 1797, the Harvard Corporation presented a petition to the Massachusetts General Court requesting the amount of their tax-exempt real estate be expanded. The Corporation and the Cambridge Committee met on June 20, 1798 to discuss the issue, but failed to agree on a satisfactory compromise.
In early January 1799, the Corporation again began pressing the General Court to address their petition, and in the same month, the Cambridge Committee submitted their own petition to the General Court requesting that future tax acts should not by "doubt in construction" or "operation" exempt the estate of the College or its officers from "paying a just & equitable proportion of Town and Parish Charges." The annual tax act, approved on February 28, 1799 (Chapter 75), acknowledged the issue by including a clause that if within the year, the town of Cambridge could prove that the Harvard Corporation's real estate holdings "afforded a net income of more than five hundred pounds" the related taxes would be paid out of the public Treasury.
The Corporation, Harvard professors, and the town of Cambridge offered petitions and related documentation to General Court committees during their legislative session in 1799. On June 10, 1799, with a bill pending before the General Court, the Corporation appointed a Committee comprised of Corporation members Judge John Lowell (1743-1802; Harvard AB 1760) and Judge Oliver Wendell (1733-1818; Harvard AB 1753) to appear as needed before the General Court and to do all they could to help pass the legislation "as may be most for the advantage of the College." The Corporation also voted to appoint Professor Pearson as the agent for the Committee, and instructed him to appear with them and "furnish such documents, on the subject, as he may now have in his possession, or may further procure."
The General Court did not respond to the Corporation's request for an increased exemption allowance in 1799, but it also did not change the tax exemption for College officers; the annual tax act approved on February 24, 1800 included the traditional exemption clause. Disagreement between the Corporation and local towns over the College's tax exemptions continued into the 19th century and was impacted by court decisions and state tax legislation. Notable among the court decisions, in 1828, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in the case of Nahum Hardy vs. Inhabitants of Waltham (7 Pick. 108), that based on the Charter of 1650 all lands "first acquired by the college before their annual income amounted to 500l., would never be liable to taxation."
Pearson received an AB from Harvard in 1773 and an AM in 1777. In 1778 he was appointed the first preceptor of Phillips Academy, and he continued in that position for eight years. In 1786 he returned to Harvard, where he became Hancock Professor of Hebrew and other Oriental Languages.
In addition to his duties as a professor, Pearson contributed to Harvard committees and occasionally represented the school before the state's General Court. In 1800 he was elected a fellow of the Harvard Corporation, and was active in College affairs. After the death of Harvard President Joseph Willard on September 24, 1804, Pearson became interim President, and soon became enmeshed in argument with other Corporation members over the proper religious leaning of candidates for the next Hollis Professor of Divinity. When Pearson's candidate was not chosen as the Hollis Professor, and he himself was rejected as a candidate for the Harvard Presidency, he resigned from the Corporation and as professor on March 8, 1806, and returned to Andover. Pearson died on September 12, 1826.
Willard received an AB from Harvard in 1765 and an AM in 1768. In 1772, Willard became the minister of the First Church of Beverly, Mass. and served there until 1781 when he was appointed President of Harvard. Although considered somewhat austere and autocratic by students, Willard earned their respect and that of the faculty for his conscientious attention to administrative matters. Under Willard’s leadership the University’s reputation flourished; entrance requirements were raised, instruction was updated with the introduction of new courses and texts, daily sermons were discontinued, additions to Harvard Hall were built, and the Harvard Medical School was established. Moreover, the University’s financial stability improved with several substantial gifts. Willard fell ill in 1798 and spent the next several years in semi-retirement. He died in 1804.
- Memorial and drafts of legislation, -1799
- Accounting statements and supporting documents, -1799
- Correspondence, 1799
- Harris, Seymour E. The Economics of Harvard. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
- Shipton, Clifford K. Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College in the Classes 1764-1767. Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society,1972.
- Wright, Conrad Edick. Sibley's Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of those who attended Harvard College in the Classes of 1772-1774. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1999.
This finding aid was created by Diann Benti in April 2011.
Preservation and description of the records of the Corporation relating to College tax exemptions was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
- Harvard University. Corporation. Records of the Corporation relating to College tax exemptions, -1799: an inventory
- EAD ID
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