The Founding of Harvard
One very good thing we have to remember about the first settlers of Massachusetts is that early in the life of the colony they founded schools and colleges. A good many of the settlers were Oxford and Cambridge men, though more indeed came from Cambridge than from Oxford, as Cambridge was much the more Puritan of the two. But whether from Oxford or from Cambridge they were eager that their children born in this New England should have as good an education as their fathers had had in Old England. So when Harry Vane was Governor the colonists voted Ł400 with which to build a school. This is the first time known to history that the people themselves voted their own money to found a school.
It was decided to build the school at “Newtown.” But the Cambridge men did not like the name, so they got it changed to Cambridge, “to tell their posterity whence they came.”
Shortly before this a young Cambridge man named John Harvard had come out to Massachusetts. Very little is known of him save that he came of simple folk, and was good and learned. “A godly gentleman and lover of learning,” old writers call him. “A scholar and pious in his life, and enlarged towards the country and the good of it, in life and in death.”
Soon after he came to Boston this godly gentleman was made minister of the church at Charlestown. But he was very delicate and in a few months he died. As a scholar and a Cambridge man he had been greatly interested in the building of the college at Cambridge. So when he died he left half his money and all his books to it. The settlers were very grateful for this bequest, and to show their gratitude they decided to name the college after John Harvard.
Thus the first University in America was founded. From the beginning the college was a pleasant place, “more like a bowling green than a wilderness,” said one man. “The buildings were thought by some to be too gorgeous for a wilderness, and yet too mean in others’ apprehensions for a college. “
“The edifice,” says another, “is very faire and comely within and without, having in it a spacious hall, and a large library with some bookes to it.”
Of Harvard’s own books there were nearly three hundred, a very good beginning for a library in those far-off days. But unfortunately they were all burnt about a hundred years later when the library accidentally took fire. Only one book was saved, as it was not in the library at the time.
Harvard’s books are gone, nor does anything now remain of the first buildings “so faire and comely within and without.” But the memory of the old founders and their wonderful purpose and energy is still kept green, and over the chief entrance of the present buildings are carved some words taken from a writer of those times. “After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, rear’d convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the Civil Government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to Posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the Churches when our present ministers shall be in the Dust.”
John Harvard was a good and simple man. In giving his money to found a college he had no thought of making himself famous. But “he builded better than he knew,” for he reared for himself an eternal monument, and made his name famous to all the ends of the earth. And when kings and emperors are forgotten the name of Harvard will be remembered.