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COLLECTION Identifier: UAII 5.6

Records of the Board of Overseers: waste-books


The Secretary of the Board of Overseers, and occasionally his proxies, took these minutes at meetings of the Board held between 1775 and 1816. These informal minutes, which are incomplete and document only a small portion of the meetings held in those years, were used to create the formal meeting minutes recorded elsewhere. Of note are minutes which document the effects of the American Revolutionary War on Harvard, those which recount the frustrations caused by John Hancock's absentee tenure as Harvard College Treasurer, and those regarding legal changes to the constitution of the Board of Overseers made in 1810 and 1812.


  • 1775-1816


Researcher Access

The Meeting minutes maintained by the Secretary are open for research.

Copying Restriction

Copying of fragile materials may be limited.


.26 cubic feet (1 half document box)
This collection contains meeting minutes maintained by the Secretary of the Board of Overseers, and several proxies, between 1775 and 1816. They are incomplete and do not represent all meetings held in those years. The earliest of the minutes, taken in 1775 and 1776, are in a "waste book" format, i.e. kept together in a small paper-bound journal. The remainder are on loose sheets of paper. The Secretary or his proxy took these notes at Overseers' meetings as decisions were made, and afterwards edited and rewrote them to create the formal meeting minutes (See Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Formal meeting minutes, 1707-1982). Although the Secretary was designated the official record keeper of the Board of Overseers, these minutes demonstrate that the responsibility was sometimes taken on by other individuals in the Secretary's absence.

These handwritten minutes record the transactions, decisions, and votes enacted at Overseers' meetings. Most are accompanied by a signed attestation by the Secretary affirming the validity of the record. Some of the minutes contain pencilled annotations, added at a later date by an unknown individual, which note discrepancies between these minutes and the formal meeting minutes. The minutes in this collection include the following information: a list of attendees at each meeting; a list of Corporation votes to which the Overseers consented; a list of votes taken at the meeting; information regarding the conferral of degrees on various individuals; notes regarding the formation of various committees; decisions related to salaries; and other pressing matters.

Of note are minutes pertaining to Harvard's physical relocation during the American Revolution. On September 5, 1775, the Overseers advised "that the College be removed to Concord with all convenient speed." The minutes from several meetings pertain to the Harvard Corporation's ongoing difficulties with John Hancock as absentee Treasurer (he was in Philadelphia and later Baltimore, with the Continental Congress) and their correspondence with him in attempts to reconcile the College accounts. Other minutes refer to student disorders and measures taken to address them. Also of note are minutes from meetings held in 1812, at a time when the composition of the Board of Overseers was heavily contested and politicized. These minutes concern discussions of a change to the Constitution of the Board in 1810 and the General Court's repeal of those changes in 1812.

History of the Board of Overseers

The Harvard College Board of Overseers was legally established by the General Court of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1642. It is one of Harvard's two governing boards, the other being the President and Fellows of Harvard College (often referred to as "the Corporation"), and now consists of thirty members who are elected by alumni to serve 6-year terms. In addition, Harvard's President and Treasurer serve as ex officio members. Broadly speaking, the function of the Board of Overseers is to encourage the University to maintain the highest attainable standards as a place of learning. To do this, Overseers serve on various standing and visiting committees at the University, through which they conduct research on a range of topics and advise academic and administrative bodies on their strategic directions, priorities, and planning. The Overseers direct the visitation process by which Harvard's schools and departments are periodically reviewed and assessed, and they advise University leaders, including the President. In conjunction with the Corporation, the Overseers approve high-level teaching and administrative appointments. They are also charged with conferring degrees. The Board of Overseers as a whole typically meets five times during the academic year, including a meeting held each year at the time of Harvard's Commencement. At these meetings, the Board hears formal reports from various standing committees and senior University Administrators, including the President. In addition to these meetings of the Board as a whole, individual Overseers meet on separate occasions with the visiting committees and standing committees to which they belong.

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 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.
History of the Secretary of the Board of Overseers The Secretary of the Board of Overseers is an elected officer of the Board and serves as its chief administrator. The primary duties and responsibilities of the Secretary were laid out by a series of Board of Overseers votes in the early eighteenth century and include the following: notifying Overseers of all regular and special meetings, recording and circulating votes and proceedings of the Board among all members, preparing and furnishing members of the Board with agendas and dockets, and communicating Overseers' votes, routine matters, and other information to the Corporation. In addition, the Secretary and other staff plan and arrange meetings of the full Board, provide administrative assistance to the Board's Standing Committees, provide advice and counsel to Overseers (in particular to the President of the Board and committee chairmen), conduct research and prepare background materials for committee meetings, inform Overseers about Governing Boards' policies and procedures, and facilitate communication between the Board and the Corporation, University administrators, Faculty, students, and alumni.

Prior to 1938, the Secretary of the Board was traditionally a teaching fellow, a Harvard alumnus, and/or a member of the Board of Overseers. However, as the twentieth century progressed and the Secretary's responsibilities and demands grew, the need to professionalize the position became apparent. In the years following the reorganization of the Overseers' Visiting Committees system in 1888-1889, there had been a significant increase in the number and type of committees, as well as in the volume of the routine administrative, clerical, and financial duties of the Secretary. In 1937, in order to ease the administrative load carried by then-Secretary Winthrop H. Wade, the Board of Overseers elected Jerome D. Greene to the newly established office of Assistant Secretary of the Board of Overseers. The purpose of this new office was to provide administrative and clerical support to the Secretary of the Board and to assist the Visiting Committees in performing their duties. Greene held this position, in addition to that of Secretary to the Corporation. In 1938 Wade retired and Greene was elected Secretary of the Board of Overseers. From that time forward, the Board of Overseers has traditionally elected the Secretary to the Corporation to serve simultaneously in that role and as Secretary to the Board of Overseers.


The minutes are arranged in chronological order.

Acquisition information

The documents in this collection are University records and were acquired in the course of University business.

Online access

All of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives
  1. Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Records of the Board of Overseers:
  2. Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Formal meeting minutes, 1707-1982:
  3. Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Votes maintained by the Secretary, ca. 1700-1892 (UAII 5.7)
  4. Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Reports to the Overseers, 1650-1854 (UAII 10.5)
  5. John Hancock Collection, 1754-1792:

Inventory update

This document last updated 2018 November 26.

Processing Information

The meeting minutes maintained by the Secretary were first classified and described in the Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980. They were included in the finding aid for a larger collection, the Records of the Board of Overseers, and formed part of a subseries called the Board of Overseers' Waste-Books and Collected Papers. In 2010, they were re-processed. Re-processing involved a collection survey, rehousing in appropriate archival folders, and the creation of this finding aid.

This finding aid was created by Laura Morris in October 2010.

Preservation and description of the Meeting minutes maintained by the Secretary was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
Link to catalog
Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Records of the Board of Overseers: waste-books, 1775-1816: an inventory

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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