Laws and statutes of Harvard
The Harvard laws and statutes, first compiled in 1642 and revised periodically thereafter, defined appropriate student conduct, and detailed the requirements for admitted students; later laws included regulations for the library, the steward and butler, and governors and officers of the College. The collection contains manuscript copies of College laws from 1655 through 1789, a handwritten copy of the "Freshmen laws," and printed copies of laws in both draft and published forms from 1790 onward. Most of the items were used by Harvard Presidents and the Corporation while revising and editing the codes, and many include annotations. The records provide insight into the Harvard administration's expectations of student behavior and also offer a resource for studying collegiate governance, student life, and codes of conduct in the 17th and 18th centuries.
- Harvard University. Corporation (Organization)
The Laws and statutes of Harvard are open for research.
Copying of fragile materials may be limited.
Extent3.2 cubic feet (1 legal document box, 1 half document box, and 28 volumes)
The collection contains copies of the Laws and Statutes of Harvard. Documents consist of manuscript copies of College laws from 1655 through 1789, a handwritten copy of the "Freshmen laws," and printed copies of laws in both draft and published forms from 1790 onward. Most of the items were used by Harvard presidents and the Corporation while revising and editing the codes, and many include annotations, including notes by Presidents John Leverett and Charles Chauncey.
The laws and statutes provide insight into the Harvard administration's expectations of student behavior and offer a resource for studying collegiate governance, student life, and codes of conduct in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Laws and statutes in this collection dating from after 1800 are listed in the finding aid, but are not described in detail.
The Harvard laws, first compiled in 1642, and revised periodically thereafter, defined appropriate student conduct and detailed the requirements for admitted students; later laws included regulations for the library, the steward and butler, and governors and officers of the College. Many of the College Laws focused on student behavior, religion, and academics, and attempted to confine students within the College Yard. The early laws were written in both English and Latin and recorded in Harvard’s College Book, but additional manuscript copies were made for use by the President, and also copied by students. The earliest published laws appeared in "Rules, and Precepts that are observed in the Colledge" in the 1643 tract, New Englands First Fruits.
The Harvard College Charter of 1650 assigned the authority to make “orders & Bylawes for the better ordering & carying on the worke of the Colledge as they shall thinck fitt” to the Harvard Corporation. The 1655 College laws, enacted during President Charles Chauncy’s tenure, and known as the Chaunceian Code, were the first laws created by the Corporation. The 1655 code expanded on early laws to include rules on admission, student life, absences, expenses, academic courses, and punishments.
Through the end of the 17th century, both the Overseers and Corporation added rules and amendments to the College Laws. Notable revisions and additions included the 1667 establishment by the Overseers of rules pertaining to the Library and the Library keeper, the Dudley Code of 1686 (recorded in College Book IV), and the Mather Code of 1692 (extant only in Cotton Mather's Magnalia).
As early as 1719, the Corporation began discussing a large-scale review of the College Laws, and in 1734 a new code was approved. The 1734 code encompassed eight chapters and addressed all aspects of student life: I. About admission into the College; II. Concerning a religious, virtuous life; III. Concerning scholastical exercises; IV. Concerning penal laws; V. Concerning the scholar’s commons; VI. About academical degrees; VII. About the Steward, Cook, and Butler; and VIII. Concerning miscellaneous matters.
The 1734 code declared that, “every candidate for Admission shall procure and keep by him a true Copy of the College Laws respecting his Duty and Priviledges, which being signed by the President and Major Part of the Tutors shall be his Admission into College.” Through the 1767 revision of the College Laws, this signed copy of the Laws was known as the “Admittatur." In 1767, the “Admittatur” evolved into a certificate approved by the Steward and signed by the President indicating that the student was aware of his responsibility to pay his College debts.
Many 18th century Harvard freshmen not only copied the College Laws, but also heard the College Customs read aloud to them by a Sophomore soon after they began college. The College Customs were a set of nineteen rules reflecting the social hierarchy of the different undergraduate classes, including the wearing of hats and errand-running by freshmen for upperclassmen. While the original date of the Customs is unknown, the Corporation's acknowledgment of them extended into the late 1700s. Only in 1786 did the Corporation vote to prohibit freshmen errands.
In 1765, Harvard administrators began planning an expansive revision of the College laws, and in 1767, a ten-chapter code was distributed that expanded on the rules related to the Library as well as to the officers of the College. On May 14, 1790, the Corporation voted, for the first time, to publish a printed edition of the College Laws. The laws of the 18th century remained in effect until June 1825, when the Corporation and Overseers published a new code with one hundred and fifty-three laws in thirteen chapters.
The records are organized in seven series:
- 1655 College laws, 1655-1708
- 1734 College laws, 1734
- 1767 College laws, 1767
- College customs, [ca. 1760s]
- 1790 College laws, 1790
- 1798 College laws, 1798-1799
- 19th and 20th century College laws, 1807-1890
Most documents in this collection are University records and were acquired in the course of University business; others were donated and acquisition information is noted at the item level.
Some of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.
- Lane, William C. "Manuscript laws of Harvard College" in the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Volume 25, April 1923.
- 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.
- Quincy, Josiah. The history of Harvard University. Cambridge: J. Owen, 1840
This document last updated 2019 March 04.
The material was first classified and described in the Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980. The material was originally described as part of a larger Harvard Corporation finding aid. The material was re-processed in 2010. Re-processing involved a collection survey, re-housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid. Post-1800 materials have been included in the finding aid, but are not fully processed.
This finding aid was created by Diann Benti in October 2010.
Preservation and description of the Laws and statutes of Harvard was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
- Harvard University. Corporation. Laws and statutes of Harvard, 1655-1890: 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