Dinsmore Documentation  presents  Classics of American Colonial History

Author: Wright, Thomas Goddard.
Title: Literary Culture in Early New England, 1620-1730.
Citation: New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press; London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1920.
Subdivision:Chapter VI
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Part II:

The End of the Seventeenth Century. 1670-1700.


Chapter VI: Education.

WHEN President Charles Chauncy of Harvard died in 1672, the college ceased to be in the control of those who had been educated in England, and was managed thereafter by its own graduates. Leonard Hoar, his successor, had taken his first degree at Harvard in 1650, and his three successors, Urian Oakes, John Rogers, and Increase Mather, had graduated there, the first two in 1649, and the third in 1656.1 The change seems to have had little effect upon the quality of the work done in the college, partly, perhaps, because even before this Harvard graduates, as tutors, had done much of the teaching.2 Another reason for the slight effect of the change may have been that three of the four successors of President Chauncy had either studied or lived in England after finishing their courses at Harvard. Leonard Hoar went to England in 1653 and preached for some time at Wanstead. He later studied medicine at Cambridge, taking the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1671.3 While living in England he married the daughter of Lord Lisle.4 Urian Oakes went to England soon after graduating, and there became pastor of a church at Titchfield. Being silenced at the Restoration, he accepted the call of the church at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was soon after chosen Presidents Increase Mather studied at Trinity College, Dublin, gaining the Master’s

1 Magnalia, ii. 30.

2 Ibid., passim. George Downing and John Bulkly, Harvard 1642, had been the first tutors.

3 Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, 1st series, vi. 100 note; Magnalia, ii. 14.

4 Ibid. Mrs. Hoar’s mother was the unfortunate Lady Alice Lisle, cruelly beheaded at Winchester in 1685 for giving refuge to fugitives from Monmouth’s defeated forces.

5 Ibid., ii. 115, 116.


degree, and being offered a fellowship which he declined. He also preached in the island of Guernsey before returning to New England.6

The arrival of Charles Morton in 1686 and his appointment in 1692 as fellow and in 1697 as vice president of Harvard brought to the colony and the college a valuable cultural influence, for Morton had been a fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, and for years a successful teacher in London. When he was appointed vice president it was planned that in time he should succeed to the presidency,7 but he died in 1698 while Increase Mather was still president. Upon his arrival he read lectures on philosophy at his own home; but the lectures attracted so many from the college that he was requested to abandon them.8

Such contact with England and English scholastic life must have had considerable effect in keeping the college from becoming too provincial. Its standing was still sufficiently good to attract at least one student from England. Nathaniel Mather of Dublin wrote to his brother Increase, then newly chosen president, December 31, 1684:

. . . one Mr. Rich. Lob, merchant in London, who marryed my sister Thompson, desyres me to write in behalf of this gentleman, the bearer, his kinsman Mr. Penhallow of Falmouth in Cornwall, who designs to spend a year or two in New England, in the Colledg, for the perfecting of his learning, hee having lived 3 or 4 years under the instructions of one Mr. Morton . . . who is constreyned to withdraw by reason of Capias’s upon an Excommunicac˜on.9

One unfavorable picture of Harvard during this period

6 See p. 21, above.

7 Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, 2d Series, i. 158 if; Eggleston, Transit of Civilization, p. 45; Dictionary of National Biography. One of his pupils in England had bee 1 Daniel Defoe. He brought two students with him. At his death Morton left a sum of 5o to Harvard, and his funeral was attended by the officers and students of Harvard in a body.

8 See Mather Papers, pp. 111, 112, for the letter requesting him not to compete with the college.

9 Mather Papers, p. 59.


exists in the account of the visit to it of Jasper Danckaerts, a Dutch scholar, in 1680. In reading this it must be remembered that when the visit occurred Harvard had been four years without a president, and had not recovered from the disturbances and quarrels which led to the resignation and death of President Hoar. Urian Oakes, referred to at the end of the account, had been chosen president, but was not yet installed. The graduates of 1680 were but five, and in 1682 none took degrees.10

We reached Cambridge about eight o’clock. It is not a large village, and the houses stand very much apart. The college building is the most conspicuous among them. We went to it, expecting to see something unusual, as it is the only college, or would-be academy of the Protestants in all America, but we found ourselves mistaken. In approaching the house we neither heard nor saw anything mentionable; but, going to the other side of the building, we heard noise enough in an upper room to lead my comrade to say, “I believe they are engaged in disputation.” We entered and went upstairs, when a person met us, and requested us to walk in, which we did. We found there eight or ten young fellows, sitting around, smoking tobacco, with the smoke of which the room was so full, that you could hardly see; and the whole house smelt so strong of it that when I was going upstairs I said, “It certainly must be also a tavern.” We excused ourselves, that we could speak English only a little, but understood Dutch or French well, which they did not. However, we spoke as well as we could. We inquired how many professors there were, and they replied not one, that there was not enough money to support one. We asked how many students there were. They said at first, thirty, and then came down to twenty; I afterwards understood there are probably not ten.11 They knew hardly a word of Latin, not one of them, so that my comrade could not converse with them. They took us to the library where there was nothing particular. We looked over it a little. They presented

10 Magnalia, ii. 31.

11 The number was exactly thirty, seventeen undergraduates and thirteen graduates, according to Cotton Mather’s lists of the graduates of the classes then in Harvard, Urian Oakes of the class of 1678 having died in 1679. (Magnalia, ii. 31).


us with a glass of wine. This is all we ascertained there. The minister of the place goes over there morning and evening to make prayer, and has charge over them; besides him, the students are under tutors or masters.12

As for the inadequacy of the Harvard Latin so severely criticized by Danckaerts, the fault may have been in Dutch ears, in different methods of pronunciation, or in youthful shyness in the presence of strangers. Cotton Mather, who had taken his first degree at sixteen just two years before this, and at this time was pursuing advanced studies, states that pupils were required to speak true Latin, and to write it in verse as well as prose, before they could enter Harvard; and he boasts that commencement orations were delivered in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and even in verse of all three.13 No one familiar with his writings can doubt Mather’s fluency—at least in quoting Latin.

It is worth mention here that two members of the class which was to have degrees conferred upon it in a few days after this visit, William Brattle and John Leverett, later became tutors of Harvard and, during Increase Mather’s three and one-half years’ absence in England, had complete charge of the teaching. Among the men whom they taught in those years were Paul Dudley, later Attorney General of the Colony, Samuel Mather, who became pastor of a church in England, Benjamin Wadsworth, later president of the college, and Benjamin Colman, leader in the religious and literary activities of Boston during the next two generations. The students whom Danckaerts pictured so unfavorably were capable of training men of ability, and Leverett himself was later chosen president of Harvard; both Leverett

12 Journal of Jasper Danckaerts, p. 266, under date of July 9. Danckaerts’ whole account of conditions in and around Boston is marked by an evident lack of sympathy and a willingness, if not an eagerness, to find faults.

13 Magnalia, ii. 12. More than half of the students who were in Harvard at this time became clergymen, and as such they would have to have some fluency in speaking Latin.


and Brattle were honored by election as Fellows of the Royal Society.14

The following criticism of Cambridge University, England, in 1710—forty years later—also by a foreigner, one Uffenbach, a German savant, as given by Mullinger, should be taken into consideration when attempting to judge of conditions at Harvard.

[This] keen-eyed traveller, in visiting the other colleges [besides Trinity, whose hall he found dirty and “smelly”], could not but be struck by the indifference evinced for the higher interests of learning. At Caius College he found the manuscripts placed in “a miserable garret under the roof,” and lying “thick with dust” on the floor. At Magdalene all the books were “entirely overgrown with mould.” At Trinity Hall, the library appeared to him “very mean, consisting only of a few law books.” At Emmanuel, the books, though “respectable in number,” stood “in entire confusion.” At Peterhouse, the manuscripts were “buried in dust” and in the greatest disorder. At the University Library, a rare codex of Josephus being “torn at the end,” the library-keeper obligingly presented him with a leaf!15

Nathaniel Mather, of Dublin, writing in 1686, seems well satisfied with the scholarship of Harvard, although he criticizes some details:

The method of these, & the last years Theses is in my judgmt better than an[y] I have seen formerly. But the grammar of some of [them] might bee mended, e. g., in Thes. 2, . . . It should have been producant, not producerent; . But I perceive the Cartesian philosophy begins to obteyn in New England, & if I conjecture aright the Copernican System too. There should also in a thing coming out from scholars in an university, have been more care taken of orthography. e. g: Thes. Phys. 28, nitrolis for nitrosis; and Phillipsius should not bee with a double p.16

There is little evidence in this period of the attitude of

14 Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, xiv. 291; Sibley, Harvard Graduates, iii. 183.

15 Mullinger, History of Cambridge, p. 168.

16 Mather Papers, p. 63.


the English universities toward Harvard; for after the Restoration few Harvard men were tempted to England either for study or to seek for churches. Cotton Mather and Thomas Brattle, like William Brattle and John Leverett, were honored by being chosen Fellows of the Royal Society;17 the former was given the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the University of Glasgow in 1710;18 and Jeremiah Dummer, Harvard 1699, was given the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Utrecht in 1703.19 Benjamin Colman, Harvard 1692, was also given the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the University of Glasgow in 1731.20 Samuel Myles, Harvard 1684, and William Vesey, Harvard 1693, received the degree of Master of Arts from Oxford in 1693 and 1697.21 One other possible evidence of Harvard’s standing in the world of scholarship is found in a statement of Increase Mather writing of the college in 1689:

the Learned Men there have a corresponding communication with other Learned Men in divers parts of the World, where the Reformed Religion is professed, and by them [are] highly reverenced for their Learning and Sobriety.22

In this period, then, Harvard had come to hold a much less important place in the English speaking world than it had held in the first period, and to that extent had become provincial; but this change had not greatly affected the quality of scholarship, and had, if anything, increased the influence of the college in the colonies. There were few Oxford or

17 Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, xiv. 8, ff; Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, p. 167.

18 Sibley, Harvard Graduates, iii. 39.

19 Sewall, Letter-Book, i. 302.

20 Turell, Life of Benjamin Colman, p. 157.

21 Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, xviii. 21o, is. 1. The last two degrees were awards to men who had adopted Episcopalianism, and that to Colman was given at the request of Governor Belcher. If they were not always rewards for scholastic ability solely, at least they showed that the British universities were willing to recognize Harvard officially through such honors to her graduates.

22 A Brief Relation of the State of New England, Andros Tracts, ii. 162.


Cambridge men to compete with the Harvard men. Cotton Mather, speaking of the influence of Harvard in 1696, states that of 87 ministers in Massachusetts, 76 were Harvard graduates, and of 35 in Connecticut, 31 were from Harvard.23

As to the quality of the scholarship, one or two more illustrations may be given. Nathaniel Mather, brother of Cotton Mather, graduating from Harvard in 1685 at the age of sixteen, was sufficiently skilled in mathematics and astronomy to figure out the statistics and calculations of almanacs for the years 1685 and 1686, which he published.24 Samuel Sewall, Harvard 1671, seems to have had a sound classical training. Dr. William Everett, in referring to Sewall’s original English and Latin poems, says,

. . . in the latter, at least, the metre is irreproachable, ac-cording to the rules of quantity as recognized by the scholars of his time. An exhaustive examination of the verses in the Diary leaves no doubt on this subject.25

Sewall also shows his scholarship elsewhere. In a letter he writes:

There is mention made of a new Translation of the Bible: If it go forward, I would propound One Word of amendment: John, 10. 16. The Word (Fold) in the latter part of the verse ought to be changed for the word (Flock).26 The new French Translation has it (Un seul tropeau) I have a Latin Testament printed Parisijs ex officina Rob. Stephani typographi Regij M. D. XLV. He seems to be scrupulous in departing from the Vulgar Latin; yet has this Marginal Reading (ut fiat unus grex) Beza in his latter edition, has (grex) Tremellius his Translation of the Syriack, runs thus (fietq[u]e totus grex unus) In reading Austin

23 Magnalia, i. 86.

24 The Boston Ephemeris, an Almanack for the year 1685 [and the same for 1686]. Many of the Boston almanacs of the seventeenth century were compiled by the graduates of Harvard who were continuing their studies in residence after graduation. Such resident bachelors specialized in astronomy and mathematics.

25 Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 2d Series, iv. 80.

26 This change was made in the revised version of 1881, as the editors of the Letter-Book pointed out.


upon the Psalms, I have often met with, (Unus grex, unus pastor) Psal. 71. Col. 780. Psal. 77. Col. 852. Psal. 78. Col. 878. ter legitur. I do not see that the word is any where else translated (Fold). In Act. 20. 28, 29, and 1 Pet. 5. 2, 3, the word is of the same Origination, though of the Neuter Gender, and is still rendred (Flock).27

On one occasion he reports that he and a friend spent the evening reading Latin verse to each other.28 In another letter he discusses the “enetymology” of the word “Lordane, by Corruption, Lurdane;. . . . Though your English Dictionary carrys it another way.”29 The following memorandum in his “Letter-Book” also indicates his interest in study:

To Mr. Stretton, to buy Bellarmine, two volumes, polemical works, fair print. Some Spanish Books; Barthol. de las Casas in Spanish, and in English too; Gram¯ar and Dictionary, if to he had; and what else you shall see convenient for my purpose of getting a Smattering of the Spanish tongue.30

Somewhat later Cotton Mather also became interested in Spanish, as is shown by his own account:

About this Time, understanding that the way for our Communication with the Spanish Indies, opens more and more, I sett myself to learn the Spanish Language. The Lord wonderfully prospered mee in this Undertaking; a few liesure Minutes in the Evening of every Day, in about a Fortnight, or three weeks Time, so accomplished mee, I could write very good Spanish. Accordingly, I composed a little Body of the Protestant Religion, in certain Articles . . . This I turn’d into the Spanish Tongue.31

27 Letter-Book, i. 297.

28 “Mr. Bradstreet read to me Chrysostom’s going out of Constantinople into Banishment; and I read his Return; both in Latin, very entertaining. ’Twas occasion’d by my mentioning the two folios I had given him. I offered to give Dr. Mather’s Church History for them and put them into the Library. It seems Mr. Bradstreet has all the Eton Edition.” (Diary, iii. 163.)

29 Letter-Book, i. 18.

30 Ibid., i. 123. In the year 1691.

31 Diary, i. 284. January, 1698-9. He confessed in the Diary that the task gave him a terrible headache!


In the “Magnalia” he quoted one proverb in Spanish.32 He also wrote at least one tract in French.33 In a day in which the education of woman was neglected, he taught his daughter Katherine both Latin and Hebrew.34 Evidently the scholarly spirit was not lacking in this period of the colonial life.

Nor was the period without scientific spirit. Nathaniel Mather’s letter, given on page 103, refers to the growing influence of the Cartesian philosophy in the Colonies. Thomas Brattle also refers to this in a letter which he wrote at the time of the witchcraft troubles.

The Salem justices . . . are so well instructed in the Cartesian philosophy, and in the doctrine of effluvia, that they undertake to give a demonstration how this touch does cure the afflicted persons.35

It had become established at Cambridge not long before this.36 The Reverend Deodat Lawson, whose lecture at Salem Village, March 24, 1692, was largely responsible for the beginning of the witchcraft persecutions, had been educated in England, where he had spent six years at the English universities, whence he had brought the current beliefs of English scholars.37 The Copernican theory was accepted with some hesitation, but slowly gained way. It was stated and explained as early as 1659 in Zechariah Brigden’s “Almanack” for that year. Alexander Nowell in his “Almanack” for 1665 defended it. In 1665 Samuel Danforth published “An Astronomical Description of the late Comet, or Blazing

32 Magnalia, ii. 581.

33 Diary, ii. 651. It was entitled Grande Voix du Ciel à la France sous La Verge de Dieu.

34 Wendell, Cotton Mather, p. 257.

35 Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, 1st Series, v. 63.

36 Mullinger in his History of Cambridge, ca. p. 158, speaks of it as attracting great attention and interest around 1660.

37 Littlefield, Early Boston Booksellers, p. 164. It must be remembered that the colonists in their beliefs in witchcraft were not behind the times, but rather accepting the latest ideas as expressed by Joseph Glanvil and Henry More of Cambridge. See p. 142 and p. 160, below.


Star,” in which he maintained that the orbit of the comet was elliptical, and that its center was not the earth.38 In 1675 John Foster’s “Almanack” advanced strong arguments for the theory. In Nathaniel Mather’s “Almanack” for 1686, already referred to, Robert Hook’s discovery of a sensible parallax of the earth’s orbit among the fixed stars was cited as proof of the truth of the new system.39

The influence of Harvard in this period, then, may have been more provincial; but there seems to be no proof that this change was attended by any appreciable decline in scholarship. Harvard was still training men satisfactorily for the ministry; its graduates were achieving distinction in political life, Samuel Sewall, Paul Dudley, Benjamin Lynde, and Gurdon Saltonstall, for example; and two other graduates of this period, Cotton Mather and Thomas Brattle, received recognition for their scientific writings by the publication of their articles in the Transactions of the Royal Society as well as by election to that Society.40

Of common school education during this period there is no detailed information. School books were imported in large numbers,41 and some were printed in the colony. Marmaduke Johnson testified in 1668 that he had printed a primer;42 and before or by 1690 Benjamin Harris had published

38 Eggleston, Transit of Civilization, p. 35. This was reprinted in England.

39 Sewall, for all of his classical learning, was somewhat skeptical of the new science. As late as 1714 he wrote in his Diary (iii. 31), “Dr. C. Mather preaches excellently from Ps. 37. Trust in the Lord &c. only spake of the Sun being in the centre of our System. I think it inconvenient to assert such Problems.” Sewall’s earlier credulity in accepting the spectral evidence in the witchcraft cases reacted upon him to make him cautious of things not too evident.

40 Thomas Brattle was recognised for his ability as a mathematician and astronomer, Mather for his writings reporting natural (and sometimes, in the eyes of the modern reader, unnatural and absurd) phenomena. The seeming absurdity of some of these articles must not blind us to the fact that they did not seem absurd at the time and were not at all out of place in the most learned periodical of the time. “The Relation,” commented the astronomer Halley, as editor, writing of one of the most absurd, “seems to be well attested.” (Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, xiv. 82.)

41 See book lists in the following chapter.

42 Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 2d Series, xi. 247.


the famous “New England Primer.”43 That primers such as these and catechisms like Cotton’s “Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes”44 sufficed for a primary education equivalent to that obtainable in old England is shown by the statement of John Locke in his “Thoughts Concerning Education,” written in 1690, that the method of teaching children at that time in England “was the ordinary road of Hornbook, Primer, Psalter, Testament, and Bible.”45 Mr. Littlefield’s statement seems to sum up the situation accurately: “The writer is very strongly of the opinion that the facilities for instruction in the colonial and provincial periods were greater than is generally supposed.”46

43 Littlefield, Early New England Schools, p. 148; Ford, Boston Book Market, p. 29.

44 See p. 23, above.

45 Littlefield, Early New England Schools, p. 92.

46 Ibid., p. 328. That Massachusetts was interested in the enforcement of her public school law is shown by the fact that when she assumed authority over the province of Maine she applied to that territory the school law, and in 1675 the towns of Kittery, Cape Porpus, Scarboro, and Falmouth were all presented because they did not as towns take care to have their youth taught their catechism and educated according to the law. Maine Historical Society, Proceedings, 2d Series, iv. 192.

Dinsmore Documentation  presents  Classics of American Colonial History

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