No Son Unsung

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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.