First College in North America

Harvard College was the first institution of higher education in North America and, together with the first North American printing press, marked Massachusetts as the intellectual center of the New World.

Summary of Event

In New England’s First Fruits, the famous tract extolling the virtues of New England to possible supporters in the old country, the Puritans Puritanism;education and proclaimed that one of their first concerns had been “to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall be in the Dust.” Because the Puritan church’s tenets emphasized interpretation and discussion of the Scriptures rather than mere ritual or emotion, it required a learned clergy. Therefore, on October 28, 1636, the Massachusetts General Court passed a legislative act to found “a schoale or colledge” and voted four hundred pounds sterling for its support. The Antinomian crisis revolving around Anne Hutchinson Hutchinson, Anne delayed action on the matter until November 15, 1637, when, after debating whether the college should be built in Salem, the Massachusetts General Court passed an order that the college be built at Newetowne. A few days later, the building of the college was committed to the first Board of Overseers, which consisted of six magistrates and six church elders. The location for the school was chosen partly because of its resemblance to Oxford and Cambridge in England; hence, Newetowne was renamed Cambridge on May 2, 1638. [kw]First College in North America (May 30-31, 1650)
[kw]America, First College in North (May 30-31, 1650)
[kw]North America, First College in (May 30-31, 1650)
[kw]College in North America, First (May 30-31, 1650)
Education;May 30-31, 1650: First College in North America[1700]
Organizations and institutions;May 30-31, 1650: First College in North America[1700]
American Colonies;May 30-31, 1650: First College in North America[1700]
Harvard College
Education;North America
North America;education
Dunster, Henry
Dudley, Thomas
Eaton, Nathaniel
Harvard, John
Hutchinson, Anne

By June, 1638, Nathaniel Eaton, Eaton, Nathaniel the professor engaged by the overseers, had moved into the house acquired for him in the midst of a cow pasture, and the Massachusetts General Court had granted three lots to him for the college. Within a few months, the first classes were being taught, the building was being constructed, and a library was being assembled.

The college already was operating when, on September 14, 1638, a young clergyman named John Harvard Harvard, John died and left his library and half of his estate, amounting to about eight hundred pounds sterling, to the new institution. Although Harvard was not responsible for the founding of the college, nor did his legacy make its establishment possible, his gift was a remarkable one for the times, and the Massachusetts General Court voted on March 13, 1639, to name the college after him.

Unfortunately, Professor Eaton’s most praiseworthy accomplishment was the planting and fencing of the yard to keep the cows out and the students in. His tyrannical tenure was marred by beatings and dismal living conditions for the students who boarded at his home. Mistress Eaton’s “loathsome catering,” featuring such items as “goat’s dung in their hasty pudding,” provided an inauspicious beginning for that much-maligned institution, the college dining hall. When Eaton’s cruelty finally came to the attention of the Massachusetts General Court, he was fined and dismissed, and the college closed its doors at the beginning of its second year. Lacking an instructor, the school remained closed for nearly a full year, although construction work continued.

On August 27, 1640, Henry Dunster, Dunster, Henry a graduate of Magdalene College, Cambridge, was invited to become the school’s first president. He accepted and began teaching classes that fall, infusing life into the college and providing a firm foundation for its growth. The class of 1642 returned, a new freshman class entered, and a three-year course in the arts was established. A thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin was required for admission. Dunster personally instructed the three classes in the arts, philosophies, and Asian languages, and he also moderated the students’ disputes. Although the Puritans believed that knowledge without Christ was vain, Harvard College was less ecclesiastical than the universities at Oxford and Cambridge, for it strove to provide a course in philosophy and the liberal arts that would be suitable either for a general education or as a basis for entering one of the professions.

A view of Harvard College in 1725. The single building of 1642 has grown into a “quad.”

(Library of Congress)

The establishment and support of a college was an ambitious undertaking for such a new, economically insecure community. Only the strong religious faith of the Puritans in the purpose of their endeavor carried it through. Contrary to the claims of various educational historians, the Puritans took a greater interest in intellectual pursuits than other Englishmen of their day. Their concentrated system of settlement in towns rendered the accomplishment of popular education easier than in Virginia, where the population was dispersed. Even before the law required it, a number of Puritan towns established schools: Boston had hired a schoolmaster in 1635, as had Charlestown in 1636. The first New England school legislation, the Massachusetts Act of 1642 Massachusetts Act of 1642 , required the heads of families to teach their children and servants “to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of the country” and to see that they were employed in useful occupations. Thus, the Puritans understood education as serving social and economic needs: It provided training for citizenship and service in the community. New England;education in

The laissez-faire system apparently proved to be unsatisfactory: In 1647, the Massachusetts General Court passed a law requiring every town of fifty families to appoint a schoolmaster “to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read.” His wages were to be paid by the parents or the town, as the town should choose. Towns of one hundred families were to establish grammar schools to instruct youth “so far as they may be fitted for the Universitie.” The cost of supporting the schools was a hardship on some of the smaller communities, and the uneducated complained of the ruling class trying to force its high standards upon the poor. Thus, interest in public education did not work its way up from the bottom but down from the top.

Determined to establish in America the collegiate system as it was practiced in England, under which the students lived, studied, ate, and disputed together with their tutors, Dunster and the overseers were anxious to complete the first building despite an economic depression. Donations made possible the occupation of the “Old College” in September, 1642, in time for the commencement of the first nine graduates. Within this building, the students attended classes, studied, ate, and slept.

During its early years, Harvard College had serious financial problems. Lacking any sort of endowment or income-producing lands, it struggled along on tuition fees, as well as the ferry rents and town levies that it was granted. A fund-raising mission to England met with moderate success, and in 1644, representatives at the meeting of the United Colonies of New England agreed that all the Puritan colonies should share in supporting the college. Each family was obligated to give a peck of wheat or one shilling annually. Governor Thomas Dudley Dudley, Thomas signed Harvard College’s first official charter on May 30-31, 1650.


The establishment of Harvard College among what were in many ways still the fledgling colonies of New England was an event of great cultural import. Alongside the importation of the first American printing press to Cambridge in 1638, it instantly established Massachusetts as the intellectual capital of the New World. More important, it established that there was an intellectual capital among the English colonists, that they were not content with a mere agrarian existence. It is also quite notable that Harvard, while designed to produce religious, Puritan citizens, was not dominated wholly by religion. While this may seem unremarkable by modern standards, among the Puritan theocracy of Massachusetts, the establishment of an institution as given to general learning as to the inculcation of Puritan tenets indicated just how firmly the colonists believed in the importance of education for education’s sake.

Further Reading

  • Bailyn, Bernard, et al., eds. Glimpses of the Harvard Past. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Contains essays on each major phase of the school’s development. Bailyn’s essay, “Foundations,” deals with Harvard’s early years.
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin, and David Riesman. Education and Politics at Harvard. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975. Critical discussion of political controversies at Harvard. The chapter on “The Colonial Period” deals with discipline and academic freedom, among other issues.
  • Maddocks, Melvin. “Harvard Was Once, Unimaginably, Small and Humble.” Smithsonian 17, no. 6 (June, 1986): 140-160. Describes the hardships faced by Harvard students from the school’s beginnings through the nineteenth century.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Founding of Harvard College. 1935. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. This first volume of Harvard’s official tercentennial history sets the school’s founding and early development up to 1650 in context with the rise of liberal arts and European universities during the Renaissance.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936. These books continue Morison’s tercentennial history of the college, from the granting of its first charter in 1650 through 1708.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. “The Puritan Age, 1636-1707.” In Three Centuries of Harvard: 1636-1936. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936. A condensed history of Harvard’s founding.
  • Quincy, Josiah. The History of Harvard University. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: John Owen, 1840. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1977. The official history of the college, written in celebration of its bicentennial.

Pilgrims Arrive in North America

Great Puritan Migration

First Printing Press in North America

Confederation of the United Colonies of New England

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Anne Hutchinson; Sir Henry Vane the Younger; John Winthrop. Harvard College
Education;North America
North America;education