Records of the Board of Overseers: minutes, 1707-1982
- Harvard University. Board of Overseers (Organization)
Extent7.89 cubic feet (40 original volumes, 13 use copy volumes, and 4 microfilm reels)
The formal meeting minutes in this collection were taken at meetings of the Board of Overseers held between 1707 and 1982 and document the points of concern, discussion, and decisions of those assembled. The minutes (handwritten and later typewritten) are in bound volumes and were recorded by the Secretaries of the Board of Overseers. Each volume includes a general subject index. Only the meetings held prior to 1800 are described at length in this finding aid; later volumes are simply listed. It should be noted, though, that many of the post-1800 minutes document conflicts and disputes that occurred over the years between the Overseers and the Corporation regarding the Overseers' role in the governance of Harvard. These later minutes include information about various reorganizations of the Board, legislative acts affecting the authority of the Board with respect to that of the Corporation, efforts to improve relations between the Overseers and the Corporation, and the Overseers' reforms to improve the effectiveness of the visitation process.
The Overseers held meetings to discuss a range of Harvard's academic, administrative, and financial concerns, and the eighteenth century minutes record many noteworthy discussions on topics ranging from the size and placement of tablecloths in the dining hall to the housing of British prisoners of war in Harvard buildings following their defeat in the American Revolutionary War. Unlike the Harvard Corporation meeting minutes, which record only the formal votes of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, the Board of Overseers' minutes record the deliberations of Board members, in addition to the decisions they reached. At a meeting held on November 12, 1718, it was decided "that the votes of the Overseers should be written in a book by themselves; and that the Book should be produced at the Overseers' Meetings." Although minutes were generally recorded by the Secretary of the Board of Overseers, entries in unknown hands appear sporadically in each volume. The position of Secretary of the Board was created on July 4, 1764; the individual in this position had formerly been referred to as the Clerk of the Board, although the change in title had little effect on his actual responsibilities. The bulk of the eighteenth century minutes in this collection were entered by these Clerks/Secretaries: Henry Flynt, from 1707 to 1758; Andrew Eliot, from 1758 to 1778; and Simeon Howard, from 1778 to 1804. Entries for each meeting include a list of all attendees and a list of votes taken and other decisions made. Entries related to the awarding of degrees often list all students receiving A.B. and A.M. degrees in a given year.
Topics discussed at meetings included the following: laws and procedures, of the College in general and of the Board itself; appointments, resignations, and departures of Tutors, Professors, and Presidents at Harvard (including information about those who declined offers of the Presidency); salaries; the establishment and regulation of endowed professorships; tuition and fine increases; applications to the General Court for funding and other support; student behavior and disorders; student dress; food and food service; the ongoing lack of sufficient student housing; the financial status of the College; decisions related to Commencement; Harvard's land holdings and their management; religion and its role at the College; the College Library and its specific concerns; the granting of degrees and honorary degrees; the establishment of the Harvard Medical School; review of Corporation votes; the curriculum; and the reports of various visiting committees (including those examining the Treasurer's accounts, the Library, and the Museum); and the selection of worthy beneficiaries of Mary Saltonstall and Joanna Alford's legacies to Harvard, among many other topics. In addition to information specific to Harvard's institutional and cultural history, the minutes often reflect events occurring in the world beyond the University and are rich in historical information. They provide a unique view – spanning centuries – of various social, cultural, political, and economic changes and concerns that affected the lives of New England citizens.
The formal meeting minutes contain extensive information about the curriculum of the College in the eighteenth century, including detailed descriptions of the roles and responsibilities of those holding endowed professorships. These professorships included the Hollis Professorship of Divinity and the Hollis Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (both endowed by Thomas Hollis), the Hancock Professorship of Hebrew and other Oriental Languages (endowed by Thomas Hancock), the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory (endowed by Nicholas Boylston), the Hersey Professorship of Anatomy and Surgery and the Hersey Professorship of the Theory and Practice of Physic (both endowed by Ezekiel Hersey), and the Erving Professorship of Chemistry (endowed by William Erving). Entries from many meetings provide detailed accounts of discussions regarding the curriculum in mathematics, astronomy, divinity, geography, French, and other subjects. The minutes also contain some very specific observations; on October 4, 1796, for example, it was decided that students were reading John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding before they had developed the "mental power" and "habits of attention" necessary to understand it in the desired way.
One aspect of Harvard's curriculum which is often referenced in the minutes is French language instruction, which was apparently sometimes contentious at Harvard in the eighteenth century. A long entry from a May 13, 1735 meeting describes the scandal surrounding Harvard's first French professor, Mr. Longloissorie, who was dismissed for making "certain dangerous errors." In addition to other offenses, Longloissorie claimed to have had divine visions and revelations, which College officials dismissed as delusional and a dangerous influence on students. Education in French appears to have been sidelined for decades after this scandal, until the appointment of a Mr. Curtis, who taught from 1769 to 1771, and the September 15, 1780 appointment of Simon Poullin. On October 7, 1794, the Overseers voted to recommend that the Corporation "inquire into the character & conduct of the French instructor, and to act respecting him as they shall judge proper" It is not known if Poullin was teaching at that time, or if the inquiry involved someone else. On June 15, 1797, it was voted that a new French professor be appointed, and his duties were clearly outlined. Among them were "pointing out the grammatical niceties of the French language" and teaching the students "all its peculiarities of phraseology, pointing out to them its beauties & elegancies." By October of 1799, though, it was decided to discontinue instruction "in any living language" at Harvard, although on October 4, 1800 the Overseers conceded that students could study French under an outside instructor, provided they received the Corporation's permission.
Also of note are entries related to Samuel Williams, Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy from 1780 to 1788, who was dismissed for his alleged financial mismanagement in settling the estate of Joshua Paine. The minutes contain a copy of Williams' letter of resignation, as well as minutes documenting discussions of Williams and later decisions regarding his compensation. The role of the Hollis Professorship and what was to be taught was also re-evaluated following Williams' departure, and it was decided that the Hollis Professor's lectures on solar astronomy should "particularly explain procession of the equinoxes, the nutation of the earth's axis, and the motion of the apogee." Lectures on lunar astronomy should focus on "the moon's libration, and the motion of her Apogee and Nodes."
Public health concerns, most notably smallpox, were frequently discussed by the Overseers. Smallpox posed an ongoing threat to students, faculty, and administrators alike throughout the eighteenth century, and fear of its spread motivated many of the Overseers' decisions. Commencements, meetings, and other gatherings were regularly cancelled for fear of contagion, "considering the Present Prevalency of the small pox" (April 3, 1752). In March of 1764, students were sent home because of the heightened danger of smallpox, and in May of the same year their leave was extended because of the ongoing threat. On September 10, 1792, the Board voted to allow a special month-long recess for students, so that "those who [had] not had the small pox [could] retire for inoculation." On July 3, 1794, the Board voted to award an A.B. to student Christopher Cushing, who had been blinded by a smallpox inoculation after his junior year and has consequently been unable to return to the College and resume his studies.
Another perceived threat to students and faculty alike was the over-consumption of alcoholic beverages. The deleterious effects of alcohol on students' behavior and academic success is a theme often visited in the minutes, and the Overseers played a part in the College's ongoing efforts to regulate and eliminate its use. Their efforts were largely unsuccessful. On September 6, 1732, it was noted that "whereas the use of some mixed drinks has very much grown in the College of late, wch is apprehended to be of dangerous tendency & of an unseemly aspect in such a Society, that therefore a very strict law be made to prevent the using of Punch, Flip, or such like intoxicating drinks by any of the Graduates or students." Besides the unseemly behavior it caused, students' drinking also proved expensive, and the Overseers suggested on multiple occasions that laws should be passed prohibiting local inns and taverns from allowing students to run up expensive tabs over the course of several years. If they were going to drink, they should "pay immediately for the same." The College Buttery's laws were later revised for the same purpose. As the minutes document, alcohol proved to be the downfall of several members of the faculty, as well. Hollis Professor Isaac Greenwood was fired for intemperance, as was Tutor Nathan Prince. In an instance of a different sort of impropriety, it has been discovered that Harvard President Samuel Locke's sudden resignation in 1773 was prompted by his fathering of an illegitimate child. (The minutes indicate that the Overseers were unaware of the actual cause of his resignation).
Student "disorders," a broad term used to refer to both minor and significant breaches of College and community laws and morals, often involved alcohol and figure prevalently in the minutes. At an October 9, 1723 meeting, it was recorded that "altho there is a considerable number of virtuous and studious youth in the College yet there hat[h] been a practice of several immoralitys particularly stealing lying swearing idleness picking of locks & too frequent use of strong drink." Fines, referred to in the minutes as "pecuniary mulch," were often assessed to punish various misbehaviors. At a May 5, 1789 meeting, the Overseers discussed new measures to "prevent the frequenting of taverns and houses of public entertainment, and the undue use of spirituous liquors [...and] to prevent profanity and disorders in the night." At that time, the Board thought it desirable that Harvard be allowed legal involvement in the appointment of innkeepers in the vicinity of the campus, so as to restrict their abilities to "entertain" students. On May 7, 1793, a committee reported to the Overseers that they were "obliged with great mortification" to report that "a spirit of riot, dissipation & mischief has notoriously prevailed & some injury has been done to the property of the College." The minutes from the 1790s also contain many entries related to the Board's attempts to prevent students from attending the theater, which was believed to negatively influence their morals and behavior.
Also of note are entries related to student dress. On October 1, 1754, citing both the financial expense and the distraction of extravagant clothing, the Overseers recommended that the Corporation propose a law "requiring that on no occasion any of the schollars wear any gold or silver lace or any gold or silver brocades in the College or town of Cambridge and that on Commencement days every candidate for his degree appear in black or dark blew or gray cloaths and that no one wear any silk night gowns." A later resolution (June 13, 1786) regarding student uniforms, in the wake of American independence, specifies "that no part of the dress of the Undergraduates be of silk; and that it be recommended to them to cloath themselves, in the manufactures of our own country, as far as may be."
The minutes also document an array of changes, often subtle, in the social structure of the Harvard community. On October 1, 1751, the Overseers consented to the Corporation's earlier vote forbidding that "any schollar whatsoever make use of any boy Negroe or other servt in the Town of Cambridg in going on any errand or doing any business at the College without leave from their respective parents or masters signifyed in writing." Although this was likely in many ways a practical decision, stemming from complaints from the "parents and masters," it is nonetheless noteworthy. College freshmen were also freed of some of their prior obligations to be subservient to older students; a May 6, 1760 vote specifies that "no freshman should be required to go upon any errand after ringing the bell for Commons in the evening." Library borrowing privileges were also eventually extended to younger students – to junior sophisters in December 1765 and to sophomore sophisters in September 1793. In another significant change, the Overseers voted on May 1, 1770 that, breaking from tradition, the names of the students in each class should be listed alphabetically, rather than "according to the supposed dignity of the Families whereto they severally belong."
Religion is also a subtext in many of the discussions recorded in the minutes. When John Winthrop was selected as the second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1738, there was extensive debate over whether or not he should be interrogated as to his religious views before the appointment was finalized. Ultimately the Overseers decided against such an interrogation, but the disagreement and indecision surrounding the issue is noteworthy. Similar discussions surrounded many appointments and decisions made by the Board.
Food – its cost, its quality, its quantity, and its presentation – is perhaps the topic that appears most regularly in the eighteenth century minutes. In a June 13, 1722 entry about economizing Commencement expenses, it was resolved "that henceforth no preparation nor provision of either Plumb Cake or Roasted Boyled or Baked meates or pyes of any kind shall be made." In the face of student complaints about both the quality of their food and the manner in which it was served, the Board of Overseers decided on September 6, 1732 "that there be something more of variety or change in the Diet at the noon meal, that the tables be all covered with decent linnen cloath of a convenient breadth & length and that there be clean linnen twice a week." It was noted several years later (October 7, 1740) that there was "a considerable uneasiness among the schollars for want of a greater variety in the Colledge commons especially at supper." Quantity was also an issue. On May 3, 1762, the Overseers voted "that it is the opinion of this Board that one of the chief reasons of the scholars not dining in the Hall is the smallness of the quantity of the provision made for them & the manner of it's being served up. And that each scholar should be allowed one pound of meat before pudding."
On October 1, 1765 it was voted that "there shall always be two dishes for dinner a pudding of some sort to be one of them, except on Saturdays salt-fish alone, & the same dish shall not be ordinarily provided above twice in a week, puddings excepted & there shall always be chocolate, tea, coffee & milk for breakfast, with bread or biscuit & butter, & bread & milk, rice, applepie, or something equivalent for supper." (Such luxuries as salt-fish, chocolate, coffee, and tea were suspended during the Revolutionary War and in its aftermath, though, because of the expense and difficulties in procuring them.) The Overseers' minutes also include an entry about the so-called Butter Rebellion of 1766; on October 7 of that year the Overseers determined "that there has been great neglect in the Steward in the quality of the Butter provided by him for many weeks past."
Money, including currency depreciation, was a widespread concern in the eighteenth century, not solely as it related to food and other provisions but also in regards to faculty salaries, student tuition, and the general cost of education. Minutes from an April 8, 1735 meeting refer to "an Extraordinary depression of the value of Bills of Credit wch hath raysed the price of many commodities & necessarys of life." Currency concerns are prevalent in minutes from meetings after the Revolutionary War. An entry made June 17, 1782 refers to the severe depreciation of paper currency. In May 1791, the Overseers and the Corporation appealed to the Massachusetts General Court for financial support, claiming that without the Court's assistance "it may be a very serious question, whether that security to the independence of the States, and of course to the safety of the Union, which is derived from an early education at home, will not be weakened and perhaps annihilated."
John Hancock, who was unanimously elected Treasurer of Harvard College in 1773, proved to be a source of additional financial distress, and many entries relate to his failures in that office. Hancock's involvement with the Continental Congress, for which he was physically absent from Massachusetts, rendered it impossible for him to perform the necessary duties as Treasurer, to the great distress of the Board of Overseers. To make matters even more difficult, Hancock had brought the records of the Treasurer with him to Philadelphia, and the Corporation and Overseers were obligated to select someone to travel south to reclaim the records in the midst of the Revolutionary War. They chose Harvard Tutor Stephen Hall for the mission, and although he arrived in Philadelphia to find that the Congress had moved even further south, to Baltimore, he managed to eventually return with many of the needed records. Repeated mentions of Hancock's still-unsettled accounts are made in the Overseers' minutes, though, and it was only in February 1785 that they were finally declared settled. The memory of past frustrations had clearly faded by June 1792, though, when the minutes note that Hancock was awarded an honorary LLD.
Many other effects of the American Revolutionary War on Harvard, its students, and its administrators are evident in the Overseers' minutes from that period. In June 1774 they voted against holding a public Commencement, "considering the present dark aspect of our public affairs." At a meeting held in Watertown on August 22, 1775, they decided to carry on teaching activities "while the war in which we have been forced to engage for the defence of our liberties" was taking place around them. They decided to remove the College to the town of Concord, where they learned that "students may be boarded [...] at the rate of 6/8 per week, fire-wood & candles, washing & mending excepted." At a meeting held October 24, 1775, it was resolved "not to appoint any persons as Governors or Instructors, but such whose political principles they can confide in, and also to inquire into the principles of such as are now in office, and dismiss those who by their past or present conduct appear to be unfriendly to the liberties and privileges of the Colonies." Several entries relate to General William Heath's request for permission to house the soldiers of John Burgoyne (British prisoners of war) in College buildings. With some hesitation, the Overseers and Corporation voted in late 1777 to allow him to do so. A smaller but interesting impact of the war on Harvard was the loss of several books. An October 20, 1778 entry indicates that the "four volumes of Muller's works" which had been loaned out to the Provincial Congress (presumably the works of John Muller concerning artillery and fortification) had not been returned. In addition, several students who had served in the war later petitioned – successfully – to be granted their degrees expense-free.
The Revolutionary War was not the only conflict to affect life at Harvard. The French and Indian War, decades earlier, had also taken its toll. An entry made June 17, 1757 explains that "in consideration of the expensive & distressing war in wch we are involved & the severe drought wth wch wee are now visited and the very dark aspect of divine providence upon the publick affaires of the Province wch call for publick humiliations & fasting rather than rejoicing & festival entertainments," an ostentatious public Commencement would not be held. A later entry contains more information about the effects of the drought on crops of hay and English grain, which were used to feed horses and were then in short supply; such problems compounded the effects of the war.
Also of interest are minutes about a controversy that erupted in 1762 over the possible establishment of another college in the "County of Hampshire," in what is now western Massachusetts, to be called Queens College. The Board of Overseers was overwhelmingly and adamantly against this new college, which they perceived as a threatening rival, and they asked Francis Bernard, then Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, to intercede on their behalf. The minutes contain a transcription of an extensive and plaintive argument the Overseers compiled and submitted to Bernard, entitled "Reasons against founding a college or collegiate school in the County of Hampshire." The minutes also include a copy of Governor Bernard's response. Ultimately, the college was not established.
The minutes contain extensive information about a school which was established: Harvard's Medical School. On November 4, 1782, the Overseers reviewed the report of a committee appointed to consider the establishment of a Professorship of Physic (Medicine). That committee recommended "that the library of the University be enriched with a collection of the most approved authors in anatomy, surgery, physic, chymistry, &c – a more perfect collection than any in America, as soon as circumstances will permit." They also recommended that "a compleat anatomical and chymical apparatus, a sett of anatomical preparations, with a proper theatre, and other necessary accomodations for dissection and chymical operations be provided," and that the General Assembly of the Commonwealth be asked to pass a law "giving the bodies of criminals executed, and of suicides, to [Harvard's] Professor of Anatomy [...] for dissection." The extensive planning involved in establishing the medical school and selecting its first professors is recorded in detail in the Overseers' minutes.
Also of interest are minutes which refer to notable additions to the collection of the College museum, then housed together with the library. Additions included an "orrery made by Mr. Pope" (Oct. 4, 1791); "articles from the Sandwich Islands & Nootka Sound," "an uncommon sea tortoise shell," and a sea otter "which hath been quite destroyed by vermin" (May 7, 1793); and "seven glass cases containing birds and two containing quadrupeds presented by Dr. [John Coakley] Lettsom [...] also a curious inkstand wrought of the lava of Vesuvius" (Oct. 3, 1797). It was noted on October 4, 1796 that Dr. Lettsom and the Republic of France had donated a "rich & magnificent cabinet of minerals."
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 was decidedly different then than it is today, though, as it included (per the General Court's Act of 1642) 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, viz. Cambridge, Watertown, Charlestown, Boston, Roxbury, and Dorchester." For decades following the American Revolution, the membership criteria changed only slightly and the Board included representatives from the government of the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts: the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Counselors, President of the Senate, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, in addition to the aforementioned "teaching elders." 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 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, all inhabitants within the state, to be elected." 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, would the membership of the Board of Overseers undergo another structural change.
This finding aid was created by Laura Morris in October 2010.
Preservation and description of the formal meeting minutes was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
Collection and other titles modified by Kate Bowers in October 2013. Portions redacted.
- Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Records of the Board of Overseers: minutes, 1707-1932: an inventory
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