No Son Unsung

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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.

The Family Seat