No Son Unsung

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“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.”