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The President’s Chair

April 2024
3min read


This fall Harvard inaugurated its twenty-fifth president. Taking note of that event, John T. Bethell, editor of the Harvard Bulletin , decided to recount briefly the travails of the university’s presidents over the past 334 years, often, as he did so, finding familiar themes. Herewith is the amusing minihistory by Mr. Bethell (Harvard, ’54):

When Derek Curtis Bok was installed in October as Harvard University’s twentyfifth president, tradition dictated that he sit briefly on a hallowed relic known as the President’s Chair. Knurled and knotty, crafted by some anonymous artificer of Puritan England, the chair was not designed for comfort. Luckily for the presidents of Harvard, they are only required to use it during inaugurations and on Commencement Day.

Still, the chair’s stern contours may be symbolic, for fully half of Mr. Bok’s twenty-four predecessors found the Harvard presidency irksome and uncomfortable—and said so. Even the nine or ten presidents generally regarded as great or near-great had their share of misery in the office. Two of them were actually forced out of it.

Henry Dunster, whose term lasted from 1640 to 1654, gave direction to the tiny college in its first two decades. Dunster had all the attributes of greatness, but he made the mistake of ensnaring himself in religious controversy. Although it was against the law of Massachusetts to question the practice of infant baptism, Dunster opposed it. Having broken the law, he felt it necessary to resign as president of Harvard.

John Thornton Kirkland, who had the office from 1810 to 1828, was one of Harvard’s most effective and best-loved presidents. His approach to financial administration was somewhat casual, however, and it ultimately drew down the wrath of Nathaniel Bowditch, a member of one of the governing boards. When Bowditch denounced the president’s lackadaisical bookkeeping, Kirkland quickly declared his intent to retire, and did.

Edward Holyoke (1737-69) brought the President’s Chair to Harvard from England and was the first president to sit on it. On his deathbed, at eighty, he issued a warning: “If any man wishes to be humbled and mortified, let him become president of Harvard.”

Less able men, before and after Holyoke, were thoroughly humbled and mortified. Nathaniel Eaton (1637-39), master of the college even before it was called Harvard, was summarily dismissed for flogging his students too zealously. His scapegrace career terminated in an English debtors’ prison. The promising administration (1770-73) of Samuel Locke, a bachelor, was aborted by the embarrassing revelation that the president’s maidservant was with child.

Almost from the beginning, Harvard students have worked tirelessly and mercilessly at humbling their presidents. The pomposity of Leonard Hoar (1672-75) prompted students “to Travestie whatever he did and said, and aggravate every thing in his Behaviour disagreable to them, with a Design to make him Odious.” (So wrote the none-too-agreeable Cotton Mather, then a student.) Tutors resigned, and students deserted in a body. Hoar gave up the presidency and died, it is said, of a broken heart.

Benjamin Wadsworth (1725-37), a methodical administrator but a weak disciplinarian, sweated out twelve years of almost continuous disruption. Samuel Langdon (1774-80), whose chief qualification for the presidency had been his exemplary patriotism, was driven from office by protesting students. While petitioning the governing boards for his removal, the students sent a delegation to tell Langdon that “as a man of genius and knowledge we respect you; as a man of piety and virtue we venerate you; as a President we despise you.” Langdon ruefully quit his office, and the students sped the parting guest with a subscription of money.

Josiah Quincy, whom Harvard histo rian Samuel Eliot Morison calls “the most unpopular president since Hoar,” still managed to hold out for sixteen years (1829-45). His successor was the worldly Edward Everett, former ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Everett at first shunned the presidency as beneath his dignity—even when Professor George Ticknor urged him to take it and “defend the College against the united attacks of the Orthodox and the radicals.” Everett accepted at last, but students made his life a hell. “When I was asked to come to this university, I supposed I was to be at the head of the largest and most famous institution of learning in America,” he fussed at prayers one morning, after a night of riot. “I have been disappointed. I find myself the sub-master of an ill-disciplined school.”

Everett resigned in pique after little more than two years (1846-49). He became Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore and was the orator whose bombastic, two-hour speech preceded Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg.

Jared Sparks (1849-53) was popular with students, but he soon resigned because of “a precarious state of health.” The Reverend James Walker (1853-60) was arthritic; Morison writes that he “disliked hobbling out at night to fulfill the traditional presidential duty of quelling every’Rinehart’ in the Yard.” (To later generations “Oh, Rinehart” was a rallying cry for nocturnal hanky-panky in the Harvard Yard.) Cornelius Conway FeIton (1860-62) was beloved as a teacher, but he confided to a colleague that “there is no more comparison between the pleasure of being professor and president in this college than there is between heaven and hell.”

The Reverend Thomas Hill (1862-68) laid groundwork for significant change at Harvard and is one of the university’s most underrated presidents. But when he spoke to a freshman class on the dangers of overexertion, noting that he had once sprained a testicle while gardening, Hill was hung for good with a very undignified nickname.

Over the last hundred years Harvard’s past four presidents have fared better. Charles William Eliot, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, and James Bryant Conant were remarkably scrappy and resourceful men. Nathan Marsh Pusey, who retired last June after eighteen years in office, is a man of abiding faith and singular steadfastness. A zest for combat and a deep store of inner strength may not be the only qualifications for a successful presidency at Harvard, but they seem to help.

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