Rare Revolutionary-era Harvard commencement broadside, issued at the end of the American Revolution

Printed by Thomas and John Fleet, ILLUSTRISSIMO JOHANNI HANCOCK, Armigero, GUBERNATORI; HONORATISSIMO THOMAE CUSHING, Armigero, CONSILIARIIS et SENATORIBUS REIPUBLICAE MASSACHUSETTENSIS; Reverendisque, Ecclesiarum in Oppidis sex vicinis, PRESBYTERIS, Universitatis HARVARDIANEAE CURATORIBUS; Reverendo JOSEPHO WILLARD, PRAESIDI; Toti SENATUI Academico; Caeterisque, qui in Rebus Universitatis administrandis versantur; Venerandis Ecclesiarum passim Pastoribus; Universis Denique, ubicunque terrarium, Humanitatis Cultoribus, Reique Publicae nostrae literariae Fautoribus; THESES hasce, Juvenes in Artibus initiate…. Cambridge: July 16, 1783.
Letterpress broadside on laid paper, printed area 22”h x 14 ½”w, sheet size 24 ¾”h x 17”w. Folds flattened, minor wear at a few intersections with partial loss to a few letters. Edges untrimmed. Docketed on verso.

A rare Harvard commencement broadside issued in 1783, with interesting features suggesting the prevalence at the College of patriotic and republican sentiments.

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)

As an aside, it is worth noting that Harvard had canceled its public commencement ceremony in 1774 during the uproar over the Intolerable Acts, not resuming them until 1781.

The broadside
At first look, this 1783 broadside appears like others of the genre: a long and pompous title, followed by a list of 31 graduates, including Tobias Lear, George Washington’s personal secretary from 1784 to the latter’s death in 1799. These are followed by a long list of theses in three columns covering a wide range of subjects, beginning with Technology and ending with Physics. But this was 1783, and a closer inspection reveals that the format may be the same, but the content is in places 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 MDCCLXXXIII”, but here is followed by “Rerumque Publicarum Foederatarum Americae Summae Potestatis VIII” (very roughly, “And the Eighth [year] of the public affairs of the sovereignty of the Federated States of America”), reflecting the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781.

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, since 1778 “Politics” had been considered a worthy subject. This section includes 16 theses, including “Societates civiles, quibus, homines legibus aequis conjuncti obstrictique sunt, felicitatem humanam promovent.” This renders as: “Civil societies, in which men are united and bound by equal laws, promote human happiness.”

All this is entirely keeping with what we know of the political leanings of Harvard faculty and students: In the Revolutionary era 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.

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 W10377 (American Antiquarian Society, Boston Public). Evans, American Bibliography, #17970. Ford, Broadsides, #22359 (Boston Public, Harvard, Yale).  OCLC #207744387 (American Antiquarian Society and five others).

Background from William Coolidge Lane, “Early Harvard Broadsides”, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 24 (Oct. 1914), pp. 264-304; and the finding aid for “Commencement Theses, Quaestiones, and Orders of Exercises” at the Harvard University Archives.