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No Son Unsung

May 2024
17min read

The dogged effort to record the life of every Harvard man has reached the class of 1744, and with 3,000 new subjects being added every year, the end is nowhere in sight

“At 4, I took a wherry to London, Passed by multitudes of shipping & in an hour landed at King James’s Stairs, in Wapping: where I lodged; but could not persuade the Civil people who Entertained me, that I was born & educated in New England; & they wondered as much at my carriage & Deportment, as at the Fairness and accuracy of my language.”

This was an entry in the manuscript logbook of Thomas Prince, Colonial American historian and member of Harvard’s class of 1707. The excerpt appears in the fifth volume of an extraordinary and little-known historical project begun not quite one hundred years ago, in February, 1859, by a passionately single-minded man, John Langdon Sibley, librarian of Harvard University from 1856 until 1877. The project, which has few equals for magnificent impracticality, was nothing less than an attempt to write a biographical sketch of every man who ever attended Harvard from the time of its founding in 1636 to the present.

Like many grand designs, its origins were comparatively simple. Beginning as early as 1674, Harvard had issued at three-year intervals broadsheet cumulative lists of its graduates in Latin, arranged by the dates when they took their first degrees. The name of each was followed by any later academic degrees and official distinctions he had attained and by an asterisk if the graduate were dead.

In 1841 Harvard’s President Josiah Quincy proposed that Sibley, then assistant librarian, take on the task of editing these Triennial Catalogues. Sibley went to work immediately, and the cumulative Triennial Catalogue of 1842, the first under his editorship, contained hundreds of corrections which he had been able to make by patient and painstaking researches into the records.

With the largely unorganized and unclassified research facilities of those days, acquiring accurate information was an infinitely laborious job, but Sibley plodded on, determined and undismayed. As he worked, he found himself accumulating, more or less incidentally, a vast amount of biographical material that he could not bear to discard. Fascinated by what he had uncovered, he wrote, “There is probably no instance in history where the same number of young men, taken indiscriminately from various classes of society, and trained under the same auspices, have afterward, in their various spheres, exerted greater influence on the politics, morals, religion, thought and destiny of the world than the early graduates of Harvard University.” But, “where was that record of this intellectual and moral power, which during more than two centuries, had been going out from the walls of Harvard? Incidental notices had been interwoven with the general history, and individual memoirs had occasionally appeared here and there, but no literary monument had been raised in express honor of Harvardians collectively.”

Mr. Sibley set about repairing the omission. In 1873 there appeared Volume I of the Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University , which covered the 98 graduates of the classes of 1642 to 1658, with an appendix containing briefer sketches of nongraduates. While at work on the second volume Sibley underwent two operations for cataracts that left his eyesight badly impaired. A lesser man might have decided then and there to leave the further chronicling of Harvard’s great and lowly to someone else, but Mr. Sibley was a New Englander through and through and by now totally possessed by his plan. In 1881 the second volume appeared, bringing the sketches up through the class of 1677.

In 1877 Sibley retired as librarian of Harvard at the age of 73. Despite the burden of his years, his poor health, and his continually deteriorating eyesight, he worked on doggedly. Much of his time was spent at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where, with a heavy shawl folded around him and wearing three pairs of spectacles simultaneously, he patiently pored over the dim, spiky handwriting and archaic language of yellowing journals and letters, tirelessly searching for even the smallest scrap of information. Mrs. Sibley invariably accompanied her husband, bringing her knitting.

Volume III of the Sketches , which carried the work through the class of 1689, was published in 1885, the year of Sibley’s death. In his preface to that volume he wrote, “I have passed my eightieth birthday and I have expended such working power as remained to me in the volume now given to the public. I can do no more. But the work will be continued by younger hands…”

To ensure this, Mr. Sibley had written his will carefully. In it, he left his entire estate to his wife (they were childless), and he provided that on her death the estate should go to the Massachusetts Historical Society. The money was to be maintained separately as the Sibley Fund, “the income thereof to be applied to the publication of Biographical Sketches of the graduates of Harvard University, written in the same general manner as the sketches already published by me, and in continuation thereof.”

Sibley was the son of a New Hampshire country physician whose income had always been modest, if not meager. He had worked his way through Harvard, and in his 36 years of service at the university his salary had never exceeded $2,000 annually. Consequently, it came as an agreeable shock to the Massachusetts Historical Society to learn, on Mrs. Sibley’s death in 1902, that the Sibley Fund would amount initially to $161,169. Somehow through the years of frugal living he had accumulated a few thousand dollars in savings which he asked a Boston friend to invest for him. The friend had done his work well and the Sibley Fund was the result, by far the largest single bequest in the society’s long history. It has since grown to $321,000, and, thanks to Sibley’s shrewd provision that 25 per cent of income be added to the principal in each of the 100 years following his wife’s death, by the year 2002 the fund will amount to more than $560,000.

For thirty years, however, nothing was done except in a most desultory fashion, to advance Sibley’s grandiose design. When the society’s librarian had a spare hour or so, he worked on the biographies, but these spare hours, apparently, were few and far between, because in a quarter century only a half-dozen sketches of the class of 1690 had been completed.

In 1932 the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison persuaded his fellow members of the publications committee of the Massachusetts Historical Society that serious and sustained work on the biographies should be resumed. The committee agreed it had probably not been living up to the spirit of the Sibley bequest and only falteringly to the letter. Accordingly, Clifford K. Shipton, a young instructor in American history at Brown University and, perhaps needless to add, a Harvard graduate himself, was invited to come and spend the summer in Boston finishing up the fourth volume. When, after making some preliminary investigations, Shipton reported to the committee that it would take three years to complete the volume, he was told to carry on. Sibley’s ghost smiled and sighed and rested easy once more.


The temporary research project has long since evolved into a life work, as today, 26 years later, Shipton prepares to publish Volume X in the series, bringing the sketches up through the class of 1740. Though he is also the associate director of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester and custodian of the Harvard University Archives, Shipton manages to spend some part of each day, and the whole of every weekend, working on the biographies.

Sibley could not have found a better successor if he had hand-picked him. In Shipton runs the same wide streak of scholarly curiosity, the same meticulous care for accuracy, the same reverence for detail, the same tenacity in ferreting out the hidden fact, and the same capacity for utter absorption in remote research that must have run in Sibley. To these qua’ities can be added a clear, witty style and a dedicatioil to discovering the truth of the past that almost outrun Sibley’s own. Furthermore, Shipton enjoys the enormous advantage ol being a trained historian, having taken a Ph.D. under Professor Morison, while Sibley’s methods were largely instinctive.

The appalling statistics of his task bother Shipton no more than they did Sibley. That, between them, he and Sibley have completed the biographies of but 1,592 of the 140,305 holders of Harvard degrees (little more than one per cent) is of no moment to him. He is also superbly indifferent to the stupefying geometric progressions one could devise on reflecting that each June sees approximately 3,000 new degrees awarded and thus 3,000 potential biographees added to the list.

Whether Sibley foresaw the full implications of the legacy he passed on with such calm confidence is problematical. The fact remains that his will set no terminal date for the biographical project, and Massachusetts courts are notoriously reluctant to overturn wills and abrogate the desires of the deceased.

Meanwhile, the work moves on glacially. More than two million words have been written on these 1,592 sons of Harvard, half a million by Sibley and more than three times as many by Shipton.

“When I start on this,” Shipton says, “I thought I’d be able to get through the class of 1800 in my lifetime. Then as I went on, I revised that estimate and decided I’d be doing well if I got through the classes of the Revolution. Well, now I think maybe I’ll make it through the Stamp Act. I manage to get through about a class a year, and I’m working on the men of 1744 at the moment.”

A staggering amount of research must precede the preparation of even the shortest of the sketches and Shipton has contrived an intricate but highly organized and efficient system to facilitate this research. Working on the classes of 1690 to 1800, he had first to establish a true list of students. The college itself kept no formal records of students for many years after its founding, and the only lists of those present were kept by the college stewards who were responsible lor collecting lees. In many cases, the stewards made no note ol first names or they misspelled last names, complicating subsequent identification.

True list in hand at last, Shipton then read through every newspaper and journal published in this country throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He did the same lor all the colonial diaries, journals, daybooks, and interleaved almanacs (a favorite repository ol vital statistics lor the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century citizen). Every time he came across a name that appeared on his list of Harvard students, he made a reference card, noting for future use the type of infomation included and the source. This material he calls his “low-grade ore.” As he went on, individual clues appeared: the man’s birthplace, an announcement of his marriage, a reference to a sermon he had preached. These clues led to ancient genealogies, church records, the minutes of legislative proceedings. Slowly, as the cards accumulated, Shipton amassed the raw material from which he could create a three-dimensional man out of the dust of the past.

Today there are 250,000 of these cards in the study of Shipton’s handsome old house facing the green in Shirley Center. Each one represents a fact it may have taken months to acquire and verify. Once all known data have been assembled, writing one of the individual biographies may take anything from an hour to three months. Of the 1,592 men who already people these pages, there have been less than a dozen for whom Shipton has been unable to find any record beyond the fact that such a man once lived and attended Harvard.

“What I am really doing,” Shipton explains, “is making bricks for future historians.” And even the most cursory examination of these sketches reveals that the project is no mere exercise in gratification of institutional vanity. The great of Harvard’s and the nation’s past loom large in each volume, but here also are the neglected and forgotten who may not have seemed so obscure in their own time. And out of the collected details of their lives a biography of their society emerges which, because it is focused on people rather than events, seems somehow more comprehensible across the division of the centuries.

Who were these early sons of Harvard? They were the sons of weavers, tailors, ministers, innkeepers, carpenters, merchants, mariners, shoemakers, cordwainers, and landed gentry. They came of families where a dozen or twenty children (the majority of whom died in infancy from such diseases as “the bloody flux” or “throat distemper”) were common. And although most of them left Harvard as ministers, many indulged in other skills and talents as well: farming, practicing law or medicine, becoming Indian fighters, merchant princes, judges, royal governors, and members of Parliament.

In Harvard’s first class of 1642 was Sir George Downing, who built the street where Britain’s prime ministers live. In 1645 he signed aboard a ship sailing for the West Indies as a schoolmaster to the seamen. By a circuitous route he made his way to England, where he joined Cromwell’s forces as a chaplain, rising rapidly to become a confidential member of Cromwell’s staff, for which most of his contemporaries read “spy.” The year 1665 found him in the Netherlands as Cromwell’s emissary, holding a two-hour conversation in Latin with Mazarin. By 1657 he had been appointed Cromwell’s minister to Holland at a salary of £1,100 annually. An obscure clerk in his office was a diarist named Samuel Pepys, who made frequent, acid entries on his superior. Although he had served Cromwell brilliantly, Downing was able to transfeer his allegiance so convincingly to Charles II that after the Restoration he was knighted and elected to Parliament. In 1665, for sevices rendered, he was made a baronet and given the largest estate in Cambridgeshire. He was instrumental in the English acquisition of New York from the Dutch, and in 1667 he was a lord of the Treasury. He died in 1684, never having returned to Massachusetts, but a son of Harvard all the same.

A classmate of Sir George Downing was Henry Saltonstall, son of Sir Richard Saltonstall, one of the original patentees of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The younger Saltonstall went on to become a Fellow of Oxford and the University of Padua. A freshman when Downing was a senior was Dr. George Stirk, who gave his life treating victims of the Great Plague in London in 1665.

And a few classes later, in 1656, came Increase Mather, who entered Harvard at the age of twelve, became its president in 1685, influenced the theology, morals, politics, and education of his time as few men ever have before or since, and was the oldest living graduate of the college when he died in 1723. His will was ruminative: “Concerning my son Cotton Mather, he has bin a great comfort to me from his childhood, having bin a very dutifull son, & a singular blessing both to his Fathers Family and Flock. If I had any Considerable estate, I ought to bequeath the greatest part of it to him. It has bin thought, that I have bags by me which is a great mistake. I have not twenty Pounds in silver; or in bills. But whatever I have (be it more or less) whether in silver or Bills, I give it to him, my eldest son. Item, I give him my pendulum watch, Item my pendulum clock, Item my silver tankard.” Sibley devoted 28 pages to Increase Mather’s biography and 50 Pages to a bibliography of his writings. Increase’s son Cotton, who also entered Harvard at twelve and after graduation was an influential and distinguished divine, lived fourteen years less than his father, but his literary output rated a 115-page bibliography from Sibley.

Sharing the second volume with Increase Mather are Joseph Dudley, who was educated for the ministry but turned to civil affairs and before he died had been chief justice of Massachusetts, lieutenant governor for the Isle of Wight, member of Parliament, and royal governor of Massachusetts Bay and adjoining colonies; Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first full-blooded Indian to be graduated from Harvard; and Daniel Mason, a ship’s surgeon who was captured by a corsair and died in captivity in Algiers. Here also are John Foster, the first printer in Boston, and Japhet Hobart, who, according to a contemporary diarist, “went home to England & travelled in foreign Parts, renounced his Religion and became a Romanist, & died a Cardinal or some such great Dignitary in the Church of Rome.” And here is Nathaniel Higginson of the class of 1670, who went first to England, then on to India, where he established himself as a merchant at Fort St. George (Madras), “and after serving in the Council as Secretary, succeeded as Governor … Elihu Yale, the founder of Yale College.”

Also in the class of 1670 was George Burroughs, the only Harvard graduate ever to be executed for witchcraft and, if Sibley’s interpretation is correct, the original innocent bystander. Not long after his graduation, Burroughs was preaching in Maine when he received an invitation to become the minister of Salem Village in Massachusetts. He accepted, but his ministry was not a happy one. Many of his parishioners were still angry with his predecessor and vented their anger on Burroughs. Moreover, he found himself in financial difficulties, principally because he was unable to collect arrearages on his salary. Within four years he had returned to Maine and settled there contentedly, probably hoping never to hear of Salem again. But the witchcraft frenzy was boiling furiously, and when it was at its height a few influential citizens remembered they still had a grudge against Burroughs. A warrant was sworn out for his arrest, and he was brought back to Salem for an examination of the charges against him. After a hearing on the preliminary evidence, Burroughs was indicted on four counts of witchcraft, one of which was for “extraordinary Lifting,” and featured testimony that although “he was a Puny man, yet he had often done things beyond the strength of a Gyant … only putting the Forefinger into the Muzzle of an heavy Fowling piece of about six or seven foot Barrel, [he] did lift up the Gun, and hold it out at Arms length.” It could not have comforted Burroughs that one of his judges, Samuel Sewall, was a Harvard man, as was also the foreman of the grand jury that brought in the indictments against him. Burroughs was convicted and from the gallows made a speech so sensible and so eloquent that the crowd was almost persuaded to free him. But before they could act, that other old Harvardian, Cotton Mather, convinced them that they were only doing their duty, and the execution took place on schedule. Apparently, the old school tie could take the form of a noose in the seventeenth century.


A man as precocious as Cotton Mather, Paul Dudley of the class of 1690, entered Harvard at the age of ten and went on to become chief justice of Massachusetts. According to Shipton he resembled Mather in other ways, combining religious bigotry with intellectual curiosity. “From London he ordered such books as Don Quixote . He was interested in everything in the world about him, from earthquakes to the marvelously dressed ‘Greek Nobleman’ who entertained in Boston for a time.” When Paul Dudley died he left to Harvard an endowment of £133 6 s. 8 d. for a series of lectures, every fourth one of which was “to be for the purpose of detecting and convicting and exposing the Idolatry of the Romish church,” and Shipton remarks dryly, “For many years past it has not been deemed expedient by the college authorities to honor the donor’s wishes in this respect but the Dudleian lectures are still delivered.”

A classmate of Judge Dudley’s was an obscure minister whose name (naturally) was John Jones. The Reverend Mr. Jones’s only claim to fame came after he died by drowning when the horse he was riding fell through the ice of New Haven Harbor on a bitter January day. He was found still seated on his standing horse, man and mount frozen solid at the bottom of the bay.

Volume IV of the Sketches includes also such colorful ministers as “Handkerchief” Moody, a brilliant and popular man, who in later life developed a psychosis which caused him to wear a handkerchief to obscure his features and to preach with his back to the congregation; Hugh Adams, who wrote voluminous and labored verse screeds against the practice of wearing powdered wigs; and Dudley Bradstreet, who was dismissed as minister to the people of Groton for his amorous advances to the ladies of the parish.

Quick, vivid glimpses of the homely realities of colonial life are to be had in the catalogued trousseau of Rebecca Estabrook, which included, among other items, four gowns (and petticoats), five hoods, two bonnets, one pair of stays, eleven night caps, and nine “speckled handkerchiefs.” Or again, in the 1702 agreement made by the town of Sandwich with its minister, Rowland Cotton, that part of his salary was to be “all such drift whales as shall, during the time of his ministry in Sandwich, be driven or cast ashore.” And again in the prescriptions of Jared Eliot, an eminent parson and noted physician of the early eighteenth century, who told a patient complaining of a “Catarrhous humour” to “take a vomit once in awhile of Ipaccunia, and also bitters, as gentian, camamile & in powder or steeped in wine, and also the yolk of an egg in cyder sweetened with honey, once twice or 3 times a day.”

Among all the divines, physicians, judges, lawyers, and public servants whom Harvard gave to colonial America, scoundrels (or at least those readily identifiable as such) were few and far between. But now and again one appeared, and perhaps it is to Harvard—s credit that their crimes were generally colorful. There was, for example, Joshua Parker, who had an ear cut off in the pillory for forgery. Henry Phillips was indicted for murder after he had killed Benjamin Woodbridge in a duel at dusk on the Boston Common in 1728; he never stood trial, for he fled to France and died there, an unwilling exile, a few years later.

And finally, most famous or infamous of all, there was Thomas Bell of the class of 1734. Of him, Shipton writes: “Thomas Bell was one of the best-known Americans of his century, and is still a prominent figure in folklore for reasons thus succinctly stated long ago: ‘Tom Bell … greatly excelled in low art and cunning. His mind was totally debased and his whole conduct betrayed a soul capable of descending to every species of iniquity. In all the arts of theft, robbery, fraud, deception and defamation, he was so deeply skilled, and so thoroughly practised, that it is believed he never had his equal in this country.’ ” Whatever the judgment of his contemporaries, under the softening influence of time Bell seems one of the most engaging and ingenious confidence men ever to practice that imaginative calling. In a career that spanned more than twenty years and covered every colony as well as such outlying islands as the Barbados and Nova Scotia, he plied his trade with singular success. He passed himself off at various times as a Fairfax of Virginia (and drew bills against the head of the clan), as a son of the governor of the Barbados, as a Revivalist minister, as a Winthrop, and as a son of Robert Livingston. When things were really difficult, he stooped to robbery. He was in and out of jail constantly, usually escaping before he had served his full sentence. His notoriety finally became such that his mere presence in a town would elicit hysterical public warnings against him. It would be pleasant to be able to report that Thomas Bell came to a dramatic and spectacular end, but the truth is otherwise. When last heard of, he was teaching school in Charleston, South Carolina, and selling subscriptions to his memoirs.

In the stormy years that preceded the War of Independence, Harvard men were articulate and forceful champions of both the Tory and Revolutionary causes—evidence that, then as now, Harvard believed in teaching a man to make his own judgments. New England’s giants of the Revolution, John Hancock, Sam Adams, John Adams, James Otis, and John Quincy Adams, were Harvard men all. But in the patriotic exaltation that followed the war it was sometimes forgotten that some of the most brilliant men of the preRevolutionary and Revolutionary period were Tories. Governor Thomas Hutchinson is an outstanding example; through the accident of the Governor’s having been a Harvard man, Shipton has been able to retrieve a reputation lost to the slanders of posterity.

Perhaps the most appealing Tory of his time was Mather Byles of the class of 1725, who almost immediately on graduation established himself in Boston as a poet, a wit and humorist, and an influential and popular minister. Byles’s circle of friends was wide, and within it was Benjamin Franklin, whom Byles suggested to Harvard for an honorary degree. It was granted in 1753, as of the classs of 1724, since it was presumed that this would have been the great man’s class had he gone to college. Returning the compliment, Franklin suggested Byles to Aberdeen University for an honorary degree, and Aberdeen obliged by awarding Byles a D.D. in 1765. Byles made no bones about his Tory sympathies, however, and a contemporary, Nathaniel Emmons, recalled a revealing conversation: “I stood with Parson Byles on the corner of what are now School and Washington Streets, in March, 1770, and watched the funeral procession of Crispus Attucks—that half Indian, half negro and altogether rowdy who should have been strangled long before he was born. There were all of three thousand in the procession—the most of them drawn from the slums of Boston; and as they went by the Parson turned to me and said: ‘They call me a brainless Tory; but tell me, my young friend, which is better—to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?’ ” In June, 1778, Parson Byles was found guilty of being an “enemy of the United States” and was ordered banished to the West Indies or Europe. Such was his personal popularity, however, that the sentence was reduced to simple house arrest, a situation he appeared to enjoy hugely. Shipton writes: “For two years the Doctor was confined to his house, part of the time under the eye of an armed guard whom he described as his ‘observe-a-Tory.’ Once he induced this soldier to go on an errand and himself shouldered the musket and marched up and down in front of his house, guarding it ferociously.”

There has been some thought that the Sibley-Shipton-Successors marathon could perhaps be terminated with Harvard’s class of 1820. For it was in that year that the custom of publishing class reports was begun. These were periodic autobiographical sketches written by members of a class chronicling their progress over the years following their graduation. But a sturdy school of thought opposes the view that the class reports could substitute for the Sibley sketches. While admitting that the reports have the unique flavor and excitement of autobiography, Sibley enthusiasts contend that they cannot ever be read as objective, or even reasonably complete, history. The class report of a future Tom Bell might make fascinating reading, but would it measure up to the professional historian’s view of accurate reporting? The chances are, therefore, that history’s demands will be served, and the Sketches will continue to be written and published for unspecifiable decades into the future.

Ahead of Shipton and the brave company of men who will follow him successively in the mathematically impossible attempt to carry out John Langdon Sibley’s legacy lies a fascinating and frighteningly formidable task. For Harvard’s extraordinary capacity to attract, nurture, and begin the education of the uncommon man had only just begun in 1740. But by that year the pattern had been set, and whatever else may be said of her alumni—from Presidents to revolutionaries, from poets to physicists—they have rarely been dull men.

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