J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 06, 2015

How Isaac Royall Came to Endow a Harvard Law Professorship

As historical background for the current controversy over Harvard Law School’s adoption of the Royall family crest, the Harvard University Press recently published a long extract from On the Battlefield of Merit, Daniel R. Coquillette and Bruce A. Kimball’s recent institutional history of the school’s first century.

In April 1775, Isaac Royall (1719-1781, shown here) found himself in Boston and cut off by the siege lines from his estate in Medford. Of course, he could have left Boston and gone home if he wanted, but some of his neighbors accused him of leaning toward the Crown—which he did, though not fervently.

Royall evacuated to Halifax even before the British troops left in March 1776, then traveled to London. Yet he kept talking about going back to Medford, and he really didn’t want to lose control of his property in Massachusetts.

In 1778, as the war ground on, the Massachusetts legislature moved to confiscate the property of former royal officials, supporters, and “absentees” who had left with the British. The provincial army had already used some of that property during the siege, including the Royall house, and for the next couple of years the state administered those estates while maintaining their original legal ownership. But this new initiative would lead to permanent seizures. The state planned to sell the estates to finance the war effort.

Loyalists who had relatives, friends, or well-placed attorneys to lobby for them were more successful in fending off attempts to seize their property. In Royall’s case, his advocate was one of his neighbors, Dr. Simon Tufts.
It was only in 1778, long after Royall had “gone voluntarily to our enemies,” that his property was provisionally confiscated and reserved by the Committee of Medford for future heirs, under the watchful eye of Tufts. In contrast, the estates of his Tory sons-in-law, George Erving and William Pepperell, were taken under the “Act to Confiscate the Estates of Certain Notorious Conspirators,” passed April 30, 1779. Furthermore, Royall was not mentioned in the initial three lists of proscribed persons under the Acts of September 1778, April 30, 1779, and September 30, 1779.

To his death in 1781, Royall claimed that only ill health prevented his return and remained outraged at any slur on his loyalty. . . . exiled in Kensington, he made a will on May 26, 1778. It contained generous gifts to his friends, to the church and clergy in Medford, and to the Medford schools, together with a devise of land to the town of Worcester. But it also contained a gift to Harvard College that was to ensure Royall’s lasting fame. The provision reads, “All the remainder of said tract of land in said Granby containing eight or nine hundred acres more or less...I give, devise, and bequeath to the overseers and corporation of Harvard Colledge...to be appropriated towards the endowing a Professor of Laws in said Colledge, or a Professor of Physick and Anatomy, whichever the said overseers and Corporation shall judge to be best.”

The will only came to probate in 1786. This delay may not have been accidental. Due to his popularity in Medford, Royall was covered under the “Absentee Act” of April 30, 1779, which provided some procedural protection against confiscation, and it appears that Royall’s devoted friend Simon Tufts—essentially the trustee of Royall’s property—was waiting out events. It was a good strategy. The Treaty of Paris of September 3, 1783, contained provisions that at least promised recovery of loyalist property, and Jay’s Treaty of 1794 further raised hopes. In 1795 Harvard hired a lawyer to begin to locate the land in Royall’s bequest in preparation for sale.
Royall’s bequest to Harvard therefore got that influential institution behind his other heirs’ efforts to keep his property out of the state government’s hands.
In 1786 and 1787 Shays’s Rebellion had taken place in the region around Granby, and the ill feeling against loyalists, absentee landowners, and their well-to-do and politically connected friends persisted. The Harvard lawyer found Royall’s land stripped and occupied by squatters. In 1796, $2,000 was all that could be obtained from the Granby estate. . . . The college invested the money with remarkable success, despite economic adversity, and by 1815 there were a capital fund of $7,593 and interest on hand of $432. . . .

In retrospect, it was lucky for the Law School that the gift in Royall’s will could not be effected until thirty-three years after his death and eleven years after the receipt of the initial $2,000. It was not just about having enough money. In 1775 Harvard designated a bequest from Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of £1,000 to support “two Professors of Anatomy and Surgery, and of the Theory and Practice of Physic.” This was followed by further bequests of £1,000 in 1790 from Hersey’s widow and £500 in 1793 from his brother “for the encouragement and support of a Professor of Surgery and Physic.” After Royall’s death in 1781, the college was therefore occupied with appointing three medical professors and founding its medical school in 1782 and 1783.

Royall’s will gave Harvard the option of a “Professor of Law” or a “Professor of Physick and Anatomy.” In 1782 this would have played right into the development of the new Medical School. By 1815, the Medical School looked relatively secure…
The Boston Globe adds that the Harvard Law School didn’t adopt Royall’s crest as its own symbol until more than a century later, in 1936. Thus, while Royall’s bequest has been effective for two centuries, that school crest is less than eighty years old.

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