I discovered a bit of historical trivia recently that is really quite fun, and also a bit serious.

Harvard claims that it is the oldest college in the U.S. It furthermore claims to have the oldest continuously operating corporation in the U.S. (i.e., the Harvard Corporation, which runs the college). Turns out both claims are suspect.

Many people who have visited Cambridge, Massachusetts know the statue in Harvard Yard to be “the statue of three lies.” It is labeled something like “John Harvard, Founder, 1638.” The “lies” are:

  1. the statue is not a likeness of John Harvard (actually a model)
  2. Harvard was founded by Massachusetts, not by John Harvard
  3. the college was founded two years earlier in 1636.

Ah, but it turns out there are many, many more lies buried on many signs and documents about Harvard.

First off, Harvard wasn’t founded in 1636. It only became known as “Harvard College” after John Harvard died in 1638. The General Court of Massachusetts did indeed order a “New College” to be created in Cambridge (then Newtowne), but no work had been done before 1638. At that time, no educational institution could grant degrees without a government charter, which Harvard didn’t have. That didn’t stop it from starting to graduate people in the 1640s.

In 1650, Harvard was granted a charter by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This created the corporation known as “The President and Fellows of Harvard,” which is still the official governing body of Harvard. It claims to be the oldest corporation in the U.S. still in existence. The charter of 1650 is the one the university trots out on occasion, as they did during the recent inauguration of the new president of Harvard. How an institution of higher learning that can only legally grant degrees if chartered claims to date to 1636 when the charter was passed in 1650 is an interesting question.

But it only gets worse.  What I’m about to tell you is information that you’d never find on Harvard’s (or any) website.

In 1684, the King of England was annoyed at Massachusetts for a number of things. A writ of scire facias was issued against the colony, something rarely done today, but basically it is a writ issued for officials to appear in court and show cause for an action when a government or official exceeds its authority. The actual official or government in charge usually revokes the offending actions. One of the issues in the writ was that Massachusetts Bay Colony had exceeded its authority in founding a college that was now granting degrees. That could only be done by royal authority.

The King went further and annulled the charter of Massachusetts Bay Colony. For all legal purposes, Massachusetts had never existed, and without a government to charter it, Harvard again went back to the status of essentially “illegally” awarding degrees.

Increase Mather, then president of Harvard, went to England to petition the king for a royal charter for Harvard. He failed, primarily (it seems) because of his insistence on certain puritanical ideas and the fact that he did not want to grant the king license to “visit” Harvard, i.e., to govern it or dictate policy when he wished. In the 1690s, Mather and others managed to get the Massachusetts Bay Colony rechartered (now as an expanded “Province of Massachusetts Bay”), but there was still no Harvard charter.

Eventually, Mather gave up petitioning the king and managed to convince the new government of the Province of Massachusetts Bay to create a new Harvard charter. They did so, twice, in the 1690s, after Mather finally agreed to give up some of his crazy puritanical nonsense.  (At that time, Harvard’s theology was a little wacky, and it was more-or-less a seminary, so that was a big issue.) Both times, the King of England revoked the charter.

Time passed, and finally a decade or so later, Massachusetts declared that the previous 1650 charter had never been invalidated. It had no authority to do so, and in fact, it doesn’t really make sense that it could declare that a charter issued by a government that had never existed legally (due to the King’s annulment in 1686) could somehow still be valid and had never been revoked.

The King, it seems, could not be bothered to revoke a charter that he had already revoked. But Harvard kept on going for almost another century, operating without any official legal standing. If you doubt that this was a serious legal issue, consider that another charter for Harvard was actually written into the new Massachusetts Constitution when the Commonwealth was formed in 1780 after it declared independence. This is the first undisputed date when Harvard was awarding degrees legally as an institution of higher learning. By that point, there were a half dozen other colleges founded in the colonies either by the King or by charter from a local government with the King’s authority.

All of this is an interesting story, to me, even though it may seem like a legal technicality. In effect, for the 150 years or so that Harvard was operating without a valid charter, it was not a valid institution of higher learning according to standards of the day. While in Massachusetts (and even in England, to some extent), bearers of Harvard degrees were treated with proper respect, there clearly was enough concern about legitimacy that the new commonwealth felt the need to recharter it again in 1780.

Other colleges with royal charters in other colonies didn’t feel the need to recharter themselves when they declared independence.  In fact, royal charters for colleges were explicitly dealt with by the U.S. Supreme Court case Trusties of Dartmouth College v. Woodworth (1819), where the Supreme Court held that provisions of the original charter of Dartmouth by George III were still operative, even though the state of New Hampshire wanted to change some of the charter’s provisions.  If these pre-existing college charters were still valid, why should Massachusetts feel the need to recharter Harvard, unless there were some serious doubt about its legal standing?

The wording in the new Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is very precise: “Whereas our wise and pious ancestors, so early as the year one thousand six hundred and thirty six, laid the foundation of Harvard-College, in which University many persons of great eminence have, by the blessing of GOD, been initiated in those arts and sciences, which qualified them for public employments, both in Church and State. . . .” No reference is made to the 1650 charter, nor anything but mention that the “foundation” was laid “so early as” 1636.

While Harvard by the late 18th century was a good institution producing well-educated people, it essentially was not an accredited institution, in today’s parlance. It might as well have been selling degree certificates by mail order, since their legitimacy could be questionable on legal grounds, even if a legal challenge was rarely (if ever) done in practice. And the Harvard Corporation technically did not have standing according to English law, putting it on par with an illegal syndicate today. At least, this seems to be the most reasonable way to interpret the situation; it was just that the King couldn’t be bothered to revoke something that didn’t exist.

It’s relatively hard to come by any of this information, since Harvard has done a very good job of ignoring some of the unsightly elements of its early history.  Perhaps there were actually some court cases dealing with this, but this is the story I could piece together from a few references.

So is Harvard’s claim to “the oldest college in the U.S.” valid? Only if you accept that a “college” operating without the same kind of charter that every other institution of higher learning in the world had at that time (whether from a king, government, or pope) was actually a valid college.