Rare Harvard commencement broadside, issued as the Continental Congress discussed independence

Printed by Edward Eveleth Powars and Nathaniel Willis, PROCERIBUS POLITIAE MASSACHUSETTENSIS HONORATISSIMIS et consultissimis, Reverendissimisque Viris, Ecclesiarum in Oppidis sex Vicinis Presbyteris Academiae CANTABRIGIENSIS NOV-ANGLORUM CURATORIBUS vigilantissimis…. Cambridge: June 14, 1776.
Letterpress broadside on laid paper, printed area 18 5/8”h x 14 ½”w, sheet size 21”h x 16 ¾”w. Folds flattened, in-fill to 1” x ½” loss at center with loss to perhaps 10 words, long horizontal tear expertly mended. Edges untrimmed. Docketed on verso.

A rare Harvard commencement broadside dated June 14, 1776, just a week after the Continental Congress heard Richard Henry Lee’s motion “that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.” With interesting features suggesting the prevalence at the College of patriotic and republican sentiments.

At this time, the College was on the cusp of returning to Cambridge for the first time since May 1, 1775, when classes had been cancelled in the wake of Lexington and Concord. When Harvard renewed classes in October, it was in a sort of voluntary exile in Concord, some 14 miles to the west. This is entirely keeping with what we know of the political leanings of Harvard faculty and students: Patriot alumni outnumbered Loyalists seven to one, eight alums signed the Declaration of Independence, and after faculty and students decamped to Concord, the Continental Army was permitted to use its five buildings as barracks.

Though the broadside makes no mention of the fact, Harvard had canceled its public commencement ceremony for 1776, as it had every year since the 1774 uproar over the Intolerable Acts. Nevertheless, the students and faculty went ahead and published the traditional commencement broadside. Its form mimics that of earlier examples of the genre: a long and pompous title, followed by a list of the 43 graduates (including future U.S. Senator and Massachusetts Governor Christopher Gore) and a long list of theses in three columns covering a wide range of subjects, beginning with Technology and ending with Physics.

There are only hints that something was amiss. The first is the omission of the ritual dedication to the Royal Governor, the last of whom—Thomas Gage—had departed Boston in October 1775, when the city was already under siege. The other is the imprint at the very bottom, which bears the usual date form “Anno Salutis 1776”, but here is followed by “Annoque Reipublicae Americanae primo”, (“First Year of the American Republic”).

The Harvard University Archives, which naturally holds the largest collection of such broadsides, provides helpful background on the genre and the underlying mechanisms.

“The Theses and Quaestiones broadsides display propositions and questions respectively, used in the Commencement tradition of public student disputation which began at Harvard College in 1642. The practice was instituted under the leadership of President Henry Dunster (president from 1640-1654) within a larger effort to model the college after European universities. Behind the printed broadsides was a multi-stage process that involved both students and faculty. The Latin theses were academic statements created by the graduating students to reflect the scope of their undergraduate study. The Theses fit within a curriculum that emphasized public discourse and syllogistic debate and ranged between approximately 50 and 250 propositions in most years. An 1850 handwritten note to the 1807 Theses, by one of the graduates, James C. Merrill, notes, “‘Sensibus’ – I wrote ‘sensus’ – which was absurdly altered by a college officer to sensibus,’” indicates the multiple hands involved in the creation process. Printed at the expense of the graduating class, the Theses were posted in advance, and graduates were expected to be able to defend them upon request on Commencement Day. Certain students were selected by the faculty to publicly discuss and dispute specific Theses as part of the day’s exercises.

“Beginning with the first Commencement in 1642 through 1810, Theses were printed as broadsides. They were supplemented from 1791 onward by the Order of Exercises for Commencement, printed in English. The last Order of Exercises was printed in 1810, and subsequent Theses were distributed as quartos until they were replaced in 1821 by a Commencement program.” (Harvard University Archives)

In all, a rare and most interesting survival of a tumultuous period in the history of Harvard College, and of the young American republic in general

ESTC W110008. Evans, American Bibliography, #14796. Ford, Broadsides, #1965 (Essex Institute–now the Peabody Essex Museum–Harvard, Library of Congress). OCLC  207743471 et al. (American Antiquarian Society and several others, though I suspect some of these holdings are electronic only).