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COLLECTION Identifier: UAII 27.40

Records related to the charges against and defense made by Nathan Prince


In 1742, Nathan Prince was dismissed from his position as Harvard College Tutor, following several years of controversy surrounding his alleged intemperance, slanderous comments about his colleagues, and other misdeeds. This collection contains records of the complaints and depositions made against Prince, his defense against those accusations, and related correspondence. Ultimately Prince's appeal of the Board of Overseers' decision to dismiss him was refused and he was forced to leave Harvard.


  • 1740-1742


Researcher Access

The Records related to the charges against and defense made by Nathan Prince are open for research.

Copying Restriction

Copying of fragile materials may be limited.


.26 cubic feet (1 half document box)

In 1742, Nathan Prince was dismissed from his position as Harvard College Tutor, following years of controversy surrounding his alleged intemperance, slanderous statements about his peers, and other misdeeds. This collection contains records of the complaints and depositions made against Prince, his defense against those accusations, and related correspondence. Ultimately Prince's appeal of the Board of Overseers' decision to dismiss him was ignored and he was forced to leave Harvard.

Records in this collection include manuscript copies of the complaints against Prince (including those submitted to the Board of Overseers by the President and Fellows) and related votes of the Overseers, depositions made by students and colleagues against him, letters from Prince to Harvard President Edward Holyoke requesting an appeal, other correspondence related to Prince's case, numerous copies of his defense against the individual charges made, and records related to the removal of his possessions from his chamber at Harvard. Also included is a paper wrapper which suggests that these records were assembled, decades after their initial use, for President Josiah Quincy as he wrote about the Prince case in his book, The History of Harvard University.

It should be noted that some documents whose dates are between January 1 and March 25 in the years prior to 1752 have been cited with the double date convention, e.g. February 27, 1658/9. This convention has been followed only when the document itself indicates the date in such a manner. This convention was used in England and the North American colonies between 1582 and 1752. The first date refers to the year according to the Julian calendar, which began on March 25, while the second refers to the year according to the Gregorian calendar, which began on January 1.

Historical Note: 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, as it included (per the Massachusetts 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 Massachusetts 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.

Biographical Note: Nathan Prince

Nathan Prince (1698-1748) led an adventurous and often tumultuous life. Although educated at Harvard College and employed as one of its Tutors for almost twenty years, he was ultimately forced out of that position because of alleged intemperance and slanderous remarks about his colleagues. After his departure from the College, Prince eventually accepted a position as missionary to the Miskito Indians on the island of Roatán. He died within a year of his arrival.

Nathan Prince was born to Samuel Prince and Mercy (Hinckley) Prince on November 30, 1698 in Sandwich, Massachusetts. He was their twelfth child. Prince attended Harvard College and graduated with the class of 1718; his brother, Thomas Prince, had graduated with the class of 1707. Immediately after graduation, he moved to Bristol, Rhode Island, where he kept school for a year. The following year Nathan kept school in Plymouth, Massachusetts. By the fall of 1720, though, Prince had returned to Cambridge, to renew his studies at Harvard. He received an A.M. from Harvard in 1721 and was recommended by the College's President, John Leverett, to preach at Westerly, Rhode Island. He preached at Westerly until April 1722, when he left to preach at Nantucket and Yarmouth.

In April of 1723, Prince was appointed a Tutor at Harvard College, a position to "be holden without Limitation of time." He taught at Harvard until his dismissal in 1742, and served as a Fellow from 1728 through 1742. Many of Prince's peers believed him to be a remarkable scholar of mathematics and natural philosophy, although he published only one scientific article (on the Aurora Borealis). John Eliot asserted in his Biographical Dictionary that Prince was "in mathematicks and natural philosophy superiour to any man in New England." Prince was also widely known, though, to be hot-tempered and unreliable, and these qualities were likely contributing factors to his being overlooked as a candidate for the Hollis Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. When John Winthrop was chosen for the position in 1738, following the resignation of Isaac Greenwood (due to intemperance), Prince was deeply disappointed. The rest of his years at Harvard were tumultuous.

From 1738 onwards, Harvard students and faculty appear to have become increasingly upset by Prince and his behavior. Complaints against him were filed regularly, but it was unclear which, if either, of Harvard's governing bodies – the Corporation and the Board of Overseers – had the authority to dismiss him. Ultimately the Board of Overseers filed the series of complaints against Prince which led to his dismissal. They accused him of intemperance, disturbing the peace, contemptuous speech towards the President and Fellows, stirring up strife, ridiculing his peers, and numerous other misdeeds. In February of 1741/2 the Overseers found Prince guilty of all these charges, and although he appealed their decision they refused his appeal. He then appealed to the General Court for assistance, publishing The Constitution and Government of Harvard-College in an effort to prove that his dismissal violated Harvard's constitution, but the Court also refused to hear his argument.

Following his dismissal, Prince fled to Boston, where after some difficulties establishing himself he was eventually allowed, in February 1742/3, to set up a school. The school was unsuccessful, and a year later Prince relocated once again, to Stratford, Connecticut, home of his brother Joseph. Prince taught in Stratford for several years before accepting a position as schoolmaster on the man-of-war Vigilant. He taught aboard the ship until it landed in Lisbon, Portugal in the summer of 1746, when he learned that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel wished to employ him as a missionary to the Miskito (then called Mosquito) Indians. Prince accepted their offer and traveled on to Portsmouth and London, England for further instructions.

On March 5, 1747/8, Prince sailed for the West Indies aboard the Duke of Bedford. Although the ship was damaged in a storm, it safely arrived in Jamaica in June 1748. The Governor instructed Prince to settle on the "Island of Rattan" (Roatán), which he apparently did in the last month of his life. Nathan Prince died in Roatán on July 25, 1748.


The Records related to the charges against and defense made by Nathan Prince are arranged chronologically in a single series.

Acquisition information

Most of the materials in this collection are University records and were acquired in the course of University business.

Nathan Prince's "Defence against the charge of undermining the authority of the Overseers of Harvard College" was purchased from the American Antiquarian Society on February 7, 1980 (Accession #8834).

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives

  1. Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Formal Meeting Minutes, 1707-1982
  2. Papers of Nathan Prince, 1725-1741 (HUG 1712)
  3. [Nathan Prince's] Mathematical notes, ca. 1718 (HUC 8718.371)
  4. [Nathan Prince's] Geometrical definitions & axioms. Geographical & astronomical definitions. Plain sailing, etc. (HUG 1712.5)
  5. [Nathan Prince's] Collection of arithmetical and geometrical rules and exercises, preceded by chronological notes on the reign of Augustus (HUG 1712.5)
  6. Prince, Nathan. The Constitution and Government of Harvard-College. Boston: Rogers and Fowle, 1742 (HUA 742.71)

In the Boston Public Library

  1. Thomas Prince Collection. In addition to Thomas Prince's library (including two copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book as well as John Eliot’s Indian Bible of 1663), this collection includes personal correspondence.

In the Massachusetts Historical Society

  1. Compendium of logick [manuscript copies], 1693-1716 (Ms. SBd-155)
  2. Nathan Prince commonplace-book, 1714-1716 (Ms. N-94)
  3. Nathan Prince papers, [1723?]-1747 (Ms. N-746)
  4. Notes on sermons delivered in Massachusetts, 1722-1723 (Ms. S-227)
  5. Thomas Prince papers, 1661-1743 (Ms. N-747)


  • Eliot, John. A Biographical Dictionary, Containing a Brief Account of the First Settlers and other Eminent Characters among the Magistrates, Ministers, Literary and Worthy Men in New-England. Salem, Massachusetts: Cushing and Appleton, 1809.
  • Quincy, Josiah. The History of Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass.: John Owen, 1840.
  • Shipton, Clifford K. "Class of 1718: Nathan Prince." In Sibley's Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of those who attended Harvard College in the Classes of 1713-1721. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1942.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2018 December 21.

Processing Information

These papers were previously listed in the Archives shelflist but unprocessed. Processing included involved a collection survey, re-housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid.

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

Preservation and description of the Records related to the charges against and defense made by Nathan Prince was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Harvard University. Board of Overseers. Records related to the charges against and defense made by Nathan Prince, 1740-1742: an inventory
Language of description

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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