The Founding of Harvard College/Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century

[Harvard University Press, $5.00]
[Harvard University Press, 2 vols., $7.50]
EVEN without the tercentenary a history of Harvard is opportune. For during the first third of the twentieth century in North America the archonship passed from church to college, from parson to professor. Yet if university education is to supplant institutional religion as our guide to the good life, whither shall it lead: to mere acquisition of learning and (that gall’d jade) ‘research,’ or should it, supposing that it can, promote innovatory thought and creative arts?
To this interrogation the history of Harvard is aimed straight. The people who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony were a highly selected stock: both as East Anglians (which they mostly were) and as dissenters, they were acutely sensitive to moral scruple and to intellectual liberty, but deficient in æsthetic perception. This defect of disproportion, which they bequeathed, in some sort, to the framework of American thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is being corrected in the twentieth. Naturally their error is resented, but parents who did the best they knew for us deserve to be forgiven their failures.
They did uncommonly well. To have founded a college between forest and ocean where eight years before had been wilderness, and this in a community of less than ten thousand persons, is a transaction without parallel in the history of modern colonization. And, as this college became the sluiceway through which European university learning first poured into North America, Professor Morison in ascending that stream to its origins finds himself tracing a history of the Western mind. Back through the founders of Harvard to their universities in the British Isles and Continental Europe, beyond Reformation and Renaissance to the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages, beyond this to Rome and Israel, beyond these to Hellas — the root system of our family tree stands revealed like the veins of gold in the enchanted mountain on Walpurgisnacht.
Seventeenth-century Harvard, the epoch traversed in these three volumes, has hitherto been a scene tantalizingly dim even to eyes that strained with affectionate curiosity through the dusk of time past. Now it is shown in broad daylight. The reader is made to feel at home in town and college, knows his way around the lanes, wharves, ferries, knows who lives in which houses, how they earn their livings, and what their family connections are in New England and Old. Presidents and tutors speak their minds, the students become our intimates; we know in which chambers of the Old College they lived, who their roommates were, what they ate, drank, studied, read for fun, how they wrote, how they thought, and what scrapes they got into. Everybody comes alive, from governors, soldiers, sailors, fugitive regicides, ministers, and magistrates, to innkeepers and village disreputables. As an authentic historical recreation this performance is astonishing.
Now nothing would have been easier than to let all this sag into a compendium of antiquarian fuddyduddery. Instead, the dry bones stir into flesh-and-blood issues vital to our time. The seventeenth century lives in the twentieth, the twentieth in the seventeenth. It is a question whether such insight could inform an historian unless he had himself sweated in the libertarian labors of his own day. And now, when democracy’s skies are squally, he drops us an anchor in our seventeenth-century liberal tradition, where the holding ground is good.
Liberal it was; not by nineteenth-century tests (you notice I do not say ‘twentieth’) but by its own. To judge seventeenth-century faith by twentieth-century funk is an egregious naïveté. Morison’s work corrects the ignorant Puritan-baiting which has been the fashion since 1900. He instructs us what not to expect of these worthies. Tolerance was not in their shop. But if courage, energy, intellect, integrity, public spirit, and prophetic vision are what you want, here they are.
Now and then, I suspect, the Puritan century fares better at his hands than it deserves. Puritans are fortunate in having for their defender a seasoned humanist, and, like Murray translating Euripides, Morison occasionally translates second-rate Lord’s Brethren into first-rate Morison. To catch him at it the reader must look sharp. For his humor is disarming. Historian and professor repeatedly vanish to leave discoursing in their stead a New Hampshire farmer who sizes up his neighbors with a dry wit which nothing escapes, or a Maine sailor who has been around and knows that the world is wicked but also that it is droll, and its drollery loses nothing in his drawl.
Quiet stretches of documentary history—charters, curricula, and the like — of course there are; but although the author is the good sportsman to say ‘Skip, if you like,’skip I do not, for one never knows at what moment he may run into the quick water of brilliant narrative: the majestic Exodus of the Puritan migration, the touching Genesis of the college, the mingled pity and laughter of Mistress Anne Hutchinson’s vocation as inspired seeress, the ghastly witchcraft delusion, the splendid labors of President Dunster, the high comedy of the Mathers (when have Mather and Son been treated with such discerning respect yet with such devastating hilarity?), and, for finale to these volumes on the seventeenth century, a portrait sketch of the Harvard-bred New England country parson of 1700, as heroic a type as the nineteenth-century country doctor, and one to make any reflective professional man search his heart with humility.
To-day Harvard University is in peril of preëminence and not unbeset by dangers. Beholden to capitalism in a time when capitalism is exposed to attack, allied with a middle and upper class whose status grows equivocal and whose allegiances begin to waver, the university’s intellectual freedom is resented by both extremes — by financial satraps at one end, and at the other by multitudes made the ignorant dupes of demagogy. Its aristocratic tone is unpopular, its wealth is coveted, and its inflexible severity to the mediocre gets it well hated. For the past century Southern New England, like many another area of the United States, has been filling with newcomers. Economically exploited, they did, it is true, often find their cruder sufferings mitigated by the institutional charities of Yankee philanthropists, but although the Yankee may have been personally kind, socially lie failed to make the newcomer feel that he really belonged. In consequence the stock of the Puritans, here as elsewhere, is now beleaguered by a population alien in race, religion, and cultural traditions, if any; and finds itself out-voted and out-birthrated by people who feel little loyalty to its institutions and less reverence for its cultural heritage. Can this Ark of the Covenant be transmitted to the age that is waiting before? This question confronts Harvard at its tercentenary.