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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Friday, April 03, 2020

George Washington’s Honorary Degree from Harvard

On 3 Apr 1776, Harvard College awarded an honorary doctor of laws (Ll.D.) degree to Gen. George Washington.

The official college record of the event reads:
At a meeting of the President and Fellows at Watertown, Voted, that the following Diploma be presented to his Excellency General Washington, as an expression of the gratitude of this College for his eminent services in the cause of his country and to this Society. . . . 
The college had never conferred a degree outside of its regular summer commencement. It had never awarded an honorary degree to a man who hadn’t graduated from any college yet. Harvard’s treasurer, John Hancock, was away in Philadelphia at the time.

But this was Gen. Washington, and he had just successfully completed the siege of Boston. He had had also managed to leave the college campus, used by the Continental Army as barracks, reasonably intact.

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper was a member of the Harvard corporation that conferred that degree, and his diary reveals the scramble to deliver it:
3. Went with Mrs. C. to Watertown. Corporation and Overseer’s Meeting there. Din’d at Mrs. [Dorothy] Coolidges [tavern] with College Gentlemen, went p. m. to Waltham with Mrs. C. who din’d at D[eacon Samuel]. Fisk’s. slept at Mr. [Jonas?] Clark’s. Horse there on my Hay.

4. Thursday. We din’d at home; Sign’d Diploma for Genl. Washington’s Doctorate of Laws. went to Cambridg p. m. to wait on him and take Leave; found him set out for Boston, and f’m thence to N. York, slept and H. at Mr. Clark’s, on his Hay.
That suggests that the Harvard dignitaries arrived at the general’s Cambridge headquarters too late to catch him. If a group of college officials chased after Washington to deliver the diploma, Cooper wasn’t among them.

That formal certificate did get to Washington one way or another, and it remained in his papers. Here’s an image from the Library of Congress (with the webpage stating the wrong date for the document). The honorary degree was also reported in several American newspapers over the following weeks.

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