Little Bits of History

Not The Founder

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 14, 2015
John Harvard statue*

John Harvard statue*

September 14, 1638: John Harvard dies at the age of 30. He was born on November 26, 1607 in Southwark, England. He was the fourth of nine children and Harvard senior was a butcher and tavern owner. John’s mother came from Stratford-upon-Avon and her father was acquainted with William Shakespeare’s father, both serving on the borough corporation’s council. In 1625, the plague came sweeping through that portion of England and left only John, his brother Thomas, and their mother. Mrs. Harvard remarried in 1626 but her husband died within three months; she married again in 1627 and that lasted until her husband died in 1632. She remained a widow until her death in 1635. Thomas died in 1637.

John’s mother had inherited property and was able to send him to Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he earned his BA in 1632 and his MA in 1635 and then was ordained a dissenting minister. In 1636 he married Ann Sadler, a sister of a classmate. In the first half of 1637, the couple emigrated to the colonies and settled in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He took a post as a teaching elder of the First Church and became an assistant preacher. He was deeded a tract of land in 1638 and was appointed to a committee which would be deciding on laws. He built a house on Country Road (now Main Street). He died of tuberculosis on this day and left half of his property to his childless widow. The other half went to fund a new school.

In 1636, while Harvard was still in England, the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to set up a new learning institution, being fearful that locals would be illiterate and after the imports from England died, there would be no ministers to take over the flocks. They appropriated £400 for a “schoale or colledge” at what was then called Newtowne. The name of the community changed even before Harvard died and it was called Cambridge, after the English university attended by many of the prestigious colonists. Harvard, being the last of his line, had inherited considerable monies from his parents and his brother. He therefore could endow the new colledge with £780, half of his monetary estate. He also gave the schoale his library which consisted of 320 scholarly volumes.

There are some who like to point out that John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard University. This is true and even the school’s own history admits this. What he did do was donate a large sum of money and a working library which made him a founder, just not the founder. The founding of the University was not a matter of one person creating the institution, but rather several men working together to bring about a place for colonists to be properly educated without having to return to England. The statue of Harvard found in Harvard Yard (included here) is not a likeness of the man. There were no existing pictures of him. It is an idealized likeness only. While we may not know what he looked like, we do know of his great love of learning.

I don’t believe I’ll ever get credit for anything I do in foreign affairs, no matter how successful it is, because I didn’t go to Harvard. – Lyndon B. Johnson

It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds: a Harvard education and a Yale degree. – John F. Kennedy

Ask five economists and you’ll get five different explanations – six if one went to Harvard. – Edgar R. Fiedler

The meek may inherit the earth, but they don’t get in to Harvard. – Robin Williams

Also on this day: Fort McHenry – In 1814, a poem written by a young lawyer was published.
The Earls Leave – In 1607, the Irish aristocracy was forced to flee.
Luna 2 – In 1959, the USSR sent the first man-made object to the moon.
Alleluia – In 1741, Handel completed the oratorio for Messiah.
Olympics Were Less Strict – In 1896, Edgar Aabye was born.

* “John Harvard statue” by alainedouard – Own work by Alain Edouard. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


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