Rare Revolutionary-era Harvard commencement broadside

Printed by Thomas and John Fleet, PROCERIBUS POLITIAE MASSACHUSETTENSIS HONORATISSIMIS et consultissimis, Reverendissimisque Viris, Ecclesiarum in Oppidis sex Vicinis Presbyteris Academiae CANTABRIGIENSIS NOV-ANGLORUM CURATORIBUS vigilantissimis…. Cambridge: July 15, 1778.
Letterpress broadside on laid paper, printed area 18 ½”h x 14 ¾”w, sheet size 22 ½”h x 18”w. Some spots, largely confined to margins, ms. notation in ink in right margin, edges untrimmed, folded in 1/8s at one point. Docketed on verso.

A rare Harvard commencement broadside issued in 1778 while the Revolutionary War was raging, with interesting features suggesting the prevalence at the College of patriotic and republican sentiments.

Though the broadside makes no mention of the fact, Harvard had canceled its public commencement ceremony for 1778, as it had every year since the uproar in 1774 over the Intolerable Acts. Facing any number of difficulties, on June 10, 1778 the Corporation (governing body) of Harvard had voted yet again to dispense with the ceremony:

“Vote 12. That in Consideration of the public Difficulties occasioned by the Continuance of the present War; the apparent danger of spreading the Small Pox in the natural way; in particular the Situation of the President’s Family now visited with that Distemper; the want of necessary Accommodations in the Town of Cambridge, the Houses being crowded with British Officers; there be no public Commencement this Year, & that the Candidates . . . . shall receive their Degrees by a General Diploma signed by the Corporation.” (quoted by Lane, p. 291)

Nevertheless, the students and faculty went ahead and published the traditional commencement broadside, though with a number of decidedly non-traditional features. At first look, it appears like others of the genre: a long and pompous title, followed by a list of graduates (including Ezra Stiles (1727-1795), future President of Yale) and a long list of theses in three columns covering a wide range of subjects, beginning with Technology and ending with Physics. But this was 1778, and a closer inspection reveals that the format may be the same, but the content was very much of the times. To begin with, it skipped 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. Further, the imprint at bottom bears the usual date form “Anno Salutis 1778”, but here is followed by “Annoque Reipublicae Americanae tertio”, (“Third Year of the American Republic”).

At least to my inexpert eye, the vast majority of the theses appear to be run-of-the-mill stuff. But, in a reflection of the times, in 1778 Politics was for the first time considered a worthy subject. This section includes 13 lines of argument, including the following:

“Jus, sive auctoritas summi magistratus civilis a populo semper oritur. Ergo,


“Summo magistratui civili non est jus exercendi ullam auctoritatem quae a populo ei non datur.”

Which renders as:

“The right or authority of the chief civil magistrate always arises from the people. Therefore,


“The supreme civil magistrate does not have the right to exercise any authority which is not given to him by the people.”

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 during the siege of Boston faculty and students decamped to Concord so that the Continental Army could use its five buildings as barracks.

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 W10367. Evans, American Bibliography, #15849. Ford, Broadsides, #2139 (American Antiquarian, Harvard).  OCLC  207743615 (American Antiquarian Society, Faulkner Univ., Simon Fraser Univ., Univ. of West Florida). William Coolidge Lane, “Early Harvard Broadsides”, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 24 (Oct. 1914), pp. 264-304. Finding aid for “Commencement Theses, Quaestiones, and Orders of Exercises” at the Harvard University Archives.