Puritans hold first graduation ceremony from college named for John Harvard: 1642 September 23

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Although founded in 1636, Harvard did not hold its first Commencement until September 23, 1642 . In so doing, the College gave the country its first taste of nonreligious European ritual.  Of course, there was the Puritan influence throughout

Charles A. Wagner sets the scene for us in “Harvard: Four Centuries and Freedoms”:

The academic procession on that far distant September morning of 1642 counted the nine “commencers,” four juniorsophisters, and eight or ten freshmen, with a motley audience of visitors from Boston and all the settlements nearby; ministers, Indians, residents, parents, and gloating familiars. The people made it a holiday of annual joy in learning. And there were orations by the commencers in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Then, in the afternoon session, came the series of disputations in Latin between commencers on many of the age-old topics of the theses philosophicae and philologicae.

Until Quincy’s discovery, the hand-drawn sketch (from records of an Overseers meeting on Jan. 6, 1644) had been filed away and forgotten. It became the basis of the seal officially adopted by the Corporation in 1843 and still informs the version used today.

Our rowers are wearing the crimson scarves.

Crimson was officially designated as Harvard’s color by a vote of the Harvard Corporation in 1910. But why crimson? A pair of rowers, Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, and Benjamin W. Crowninshield, Class of 1858, provided crimson scarves to their teammates so that spectators could differentiate Harvard’s crew team from other teams during a regatta in 1858. Eliot became Harvard’s 21st president in 1869 and served until 1909; the Corporation vote to make the color of Eliot’s bandannas the official color came soon after he stepped down.

Are you really sure about the color?

But before the official vote by the Harvard Corporation, students’ color of choice had at one point wavered between crimson and magenta – probably because the idea of using colors to represent universities was still new in the latter part of the 19th century. Pushed by popular debate to decide, Harvard undergraduates held a plebiscite on May 6, 1875, on the University’s color, and crimson won by a wide margin. The student newspaper – which had been called The Magenta – changed its name with the very next issue.

A Latin Ceremony:

Early in the afternoon of Sept. 23, 1642 — the first Commencement at Harvard College — all nine graduates lined up in front of President Henry Dunster. He conferred degrees on the group in order of their parents’ prominence, which made Benjamin Woodbridge Harvard’s first graduate. After delivering an address in Latin, Dunster handed each new scholar “a Booke of Arts,” wrote one witness. But after the ceremony, Harvard took each book back.

Diploma? What diploma?

It was not until 1813 that Harvard College graduates received something at Commencement they could keep: a uniformly sized, textually common diploma in Latin. (Medical diplomas were first given out in 1817, and law diplomas in 1827.) Before the era of printed diplomas, any graduate who needed a document attesting to a Harvard degree (usually for travel overseas) hired a local calligrapher to pen an inscription on parchment. Then he — always “he” in those days — paid the Harvard president to sign it. When it came to 17th- and 18th-century diplomas, you “rolled your own,” wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

Go Team. Go Pilgrims!

The Harvard sports teams may go by the nickname “Crimson” but the mascot of Harvard University was an historical figure, the college benefactor John Harvard, the Pilgrim.

It is not Harvard, he was not the founder, and it was not in 1638.

The famous statue of John Harvard is located in front of University Hall, on the campus of Harvard University. The bronze sculpture was created by Daniel Chester French, was given to the college by Samuel James Bridge, and dedicated on October 15, 1884. It now sits in front of University Hall in historic Harvard Yard.

The statue is famous for several reasons. Traditionally, it is supposed to bring you luck if you rub John Harvard’s left shoe. It is also known as the “statue of three lies”. The statue has a three line inscription on the granite base. Every line is false.

JOHN HARVARD

FOUNDER

1638

  1. The sculpture does not depict John Harvard. There is no known image of John Harvard. So, when Daniel Chester French needed a model for the statue. Sherman Hoar, class of 1882, believed to be the most handsome student at Harvard, was selected.
  2. John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard. He was its earliest benefactor. John Harvard was a clergyman who bequeathing £780 as well as his 400 library of books to the New College. The college then renamed Harvard College in his honor.
  3. Harvard College was not founded in 1638 but in 1636. Sixteen thirty-eight was the year John Harvard died.

Walk right in…but not through there.

Harvard is full of other gates open around the clock (anyone can go to the territory on working days). But the Johnston Gate, the main gate of the campus, is closed most of the year.All because Harvard students have to go through them only twice. The first time –  when they are first-year students on campus, and the second time – as it is easy to guess – when they leave Harvard as graduates. It is considered a bad omen if students pass through the gate more than twice.

2 thoughts on “Puritans hold first graduation ceremony from college named for John Harvard: 1642 September 23

  1. I never knew all this information and history about Harvard. You have educated me. But no diploma in Latin please. I barely passed Latin in school and hated it!

    Liked by 1 person

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