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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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A New President for Harvard College

To be sure, there were other things going on in Massachusetts in March 1770 besides responses to the Boston Massacre. On 21 March, Harvard College installed a new president, the Rev. Samuel Locke.

Locke had been born in Woburn on 23 Nov 1731, the oldest child of a substantial farmer and his wife. Later his family moved to Lancaster, where he studied for college with the local minister.

At Harvard, Locke was in the class of 1755. His classmate and friend John Adams thought he was one of the “better Schollars than myself,” and enjoyed hearing him discuss metaphysics. After college, Locke did the equivalent of graduate school while seeking a job as a minister.

Sherborn had a vacancy because the Rev. Samuel Porter had died, and in November 1759 Locke was ordained as that town’s new pastor. Less than two months later, he married the previous minister’s daughter Mary. They had three children between 1761 and 1765: Samuel, Mary, and John.

Ten years later, Harvard College also faced the choice of a successor: Edward Holyoke, president of the college for thirty-two years, died in June 1769. Holyoke was highly respected, and he had built up the college’s reputation and campus, but his approach to education was conservative.

On 18 Dec 1769, after more than six months of discussion and some turn-downs, the Harvard corporation decided to offer the presidency to the Rev. Mr. Locke. Just thirty-eight years old, he would be the youngest person ever in that position.

The Rev. Andrew Eliot of Boston wrote on 25 December:
The corporation have at length chose a President. His name is LOCKE—a truly venerable name! This gentleman is minister of a small parish, about twenty miles from Cambridge. He has fine talents, is a close thinker, had at College the character of a first rate scholar; he is possessed of an excellent spirit, has generous, catholic sentiments, is a friend to liberty, and is universally acceptable, at least so far as I have heard. He has not conversed so much with the world as I could wish, and perhaps has not a general acquaintance with books; but he loves study, and will have opportunity at College to improve, being not yet forty years old. We know not whether he will accept.
Locke’s youth was thus seen as a plus, since he could grow in the job and serve for decades as Holyoke had. Even coming from a small country town turned out to be an advantage: though Eliot felt certain that Locke was “a friend to liberty,” the Sherborn minister had played no visible part in the religious and political controversies that split Massachusetts society.

People also perceived Locke as being strong in some of the modern subjects that the late president had neglected. The Rev. Ezra Stiles later judged:
Dr. Locke was scarcely equal to Mr. Holyoke in classical Knowledge but much superior to him in the Sciences, and in Penetration Judgment & Strength of mind. He was excellent & amiable in Government, tho’ he did not equal the Dignity of his Predecessor. And yet he was a greater Literary Character.
Locke’s old friend Adams always felt he had achieved “a Station for which no Man was better qualified.”

Members of the corporation rode out to Sherborn in late December and offered Locke the job. He took six weeks to accept. One obstacle might have been moving his family into Cambridge. Another was the Sherborn congregation’s reluctance to let him go; Harvard ultimately paid that body £37.1s.

On 21 March, the merchant John Rowe recorded in his diary: “This Day Mr. Lock was installed President of Cambridge.” The ceremony was even more grand than usual because the Massachusetts General Court was then sitting in Cambridge. Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, Boston representative John Hancock, and many other office-holders attended.

Locke delivered an inaugural address in Latin in his robes. A man who knew him later in life recalled him as “a stout, dignified looking man, a little below the common stature.” Hutchinson gave a brief reply, also Latin, and then a student orated for longer. There were prayers and hymns and a dinner for all the professors and other dignitaries. The institution looked forward to a grand future.

That night, students set fire to the outhouse.

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