Massachusetts: Harvard Square and University, Cambridge Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This historic and commercial center of the first capital of Massachusetts is dominated by the numerous buildings of the oldest university in the United States.

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The city of Cambridge began in 1630 as Newtowne, the fortified capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, set on a defensible hill with access to the sea along the Charles River. Harvard Square has been its center ever since. The city’s Old Burying Ground and its Common lie northwest of Harvard Square, and the winding streets around it retain the original layout of Newtowne. The city has grown enormously and now contains many places of historic interest, such as the Longfellow National Historic Site as well as world-famous academic centers, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Among all these features of Cambridge, however, the biggest influence on its history has been the presence of Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher education in the United States and one of the richest and most prestigious universities in the world. Its core buildings are still on the site where it began more than 350 years ago, in Harvard Yard on Harvard Square.

The Founding of Harvard

Harvard traces its origins to a meeting in October, 1636, of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, which decided to provide four hundred English pounds to establish a school or college. In the following year the court chose Newtowne as its location and appointed a board of overseers, half of them magistrates and the other half ministers of the Congregational Church. The overseers then bought the house and a one-acre cow yard from which the modern Harvard Yard expanded. The first master of the college, Nathaniel Eaton, admitted the first students in the summer of 1638. It was at that time that the town was renamed Cambridge for the English university from which Eaton had graduated. In 1639 the new college was named for Eaton’s friend John Harvard, who was also a Cambridge graduate and a Congregational minister, and who had died in September, 1638, leaving the college half his fortune and his library of four hundred books.

Within the year Eaton, accused of brutally beating his assistant with a walnut tree cudgel, was dismissed and left the colony with his wife, who had herself been accused of failing to provide the students with sufficient beef. Harvard was empty for a year, until Henry Dunster was appointed president and the students returned to study liberal arts, philosophy, and the “learned tongues” (classical Latin and Greek). It was Dunster who, in 1650, persuaded the general court to grant the charter that still governs Harvard, creating the corporation of teaching staff under the nonteaching overseers.

By 1690, when the theologian Increase Mather was dividing his time between presiding over Harvard and preaching in Boston, the college was admitting around twenty-two students a year. Mather had the charter altered to allow the corporation to be dominated by a majority made up of nonteaching Congregational ministers, but his plans were obstructed, first by the King’s Council in London, which wanted power over the college, then by the governor’s council in Boston, which wanted to prevent royal interference by taking control itself. Next the King’s Council forbade Mather to impose Congregationalism on the members of the corporation. By 1701 Mather had been forced out of Harvard, while some of his fellow conservatives went to New Haven to establish what is now Yale University as a counterbalance to what they saw as the excessive liberalism of Harvard.

This impression of the college was reinforced in 1708 when John Leverett became the first president who was neither a minister of the church nor even a conservative Congregationalist. Leverett allowed students to take private lessons in French and appointed an instructor in Hebrew but otherwise left the curriculum unchanged. In 1720, with the student body reaching around 120, Massachusetts Hall, today the oldest building still standing at Harvard, was added to the existing three buildings in the yard.

The Great Awakening

Just as the college was growing and acquiring a reputation not only for training ministers, judges, physicians, and other professionals but also for failing to prevent swearing, rioting, and gambling among its students, the religious revival known as the Great Awakening swept through New England, arriving in Cambridge in 1740 through the passionate preaching of George Whitefield, who attacked ministers trained at “godless Harvard.” Unlike Yale, Harvard resisted pressure to impose a religious oath on its students, and its teachers issued pamphlets opposing Whitefield’s zealotry and his slanders of the college. They also saw to the building of Holden Chapel on a quadrangle inside the yard, between 1742 and 1744. It took more than twenty years to heal the rift between Harvard and Whitefield. Eventually, Whitefield was among those who donated money and books to rebuild the college library after a fire had destroyed Old Harvard Hall in 1765. This disaster occurred just after the opening of Hollis Hall, in 1763, and was followed by the building of what is now called Harvard Hall, in 1766. By extending the number of its buildings and widening its curriculum, Harvard was able to increase its student population little by little, until in 1771 sixty-three students graduated. All examinations were still oral, apart from an essay in Latin.

The Revolutionary War

Harvard could not avoid the impact of the Revolutionary War. From 1770 to 1773 the General Court of Massachusetts took over Harvard buildings for its meetings. The Meeting House on Watch Hill, inside the yard, was home to the provincial congress of 1774, which took over government from the king’s officials, as well as to the convention of 1779, which gave the Commonwealth of Massachusetts what is now the oldest constitution still in force in the United States. It was drafted by John Adams, a Harvard graduate. George Washington formally took command of the Continental Army in Cambridge in 1775, either on Cambridge Common or in Wadsworth House, which was then the residence of the president of the university. As for the college’s own activities, from 1774 to 1781 commencement ceremonies were suspended, and from 1775 to 1776 the college was evacuated to Concord, Massachusetts, but otherwise it carried on much as it had before the war.

From 1780 Harvard continued under the terms of the new constitution of Massachusetts. It now became a university, with a board of overseers composed of the governor, lieutenant governor, and council and senate of Massachusetts, along with the ministers of six Congregational churches in Cambridge and nearby. The new board immediately took the next step in Harvard’s expansion, the creation of its “Medical Institution,” in 1781. This was the first alternative in New England to the traditional apprenticeships to physicians and only the third medical school in the United States. At first it was housed in the yard, but it moved to Boston in 1810 to become the world-famous Harvard Medical School.


By the end of the eighteenth century Harvard University was still mainly what it had been founded to be, a school for ministers and other professionals under the guidance of the government of Massachusetts and the leaders of the Congregational Church. The nineteenth century saw changes in Harvard’s religious atmosphere, its relations with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and its educational resources that transformed it into the secular, self-governing and broad-based university of today.

The first breach in Harvard’s traditional character came with the appointments of Unitarians as professor of divinity and as president, between 1804 and 1806. As a direct result of this rebuff to tradition, the Congregational church founded its own seminary at Andover, and puritan families in the New England countryside began to send their sons to other colleges. The Harvard Divinity School, founded in 1819, was accordingly dominated by Unitarians. In 1843, perhaps a little belatedly, the rule that the ministers on the board of overseers had to be Congregationalists was abolished, and at last, in 1851, the ministers’ seats on the board were abolished altogether. Compulsory attendance at morning prayers continued until 1886, when Harvard became the first American college to abolish it.

Another and different sign of change was the rising cost of studying at Harvard. Annual tuition rose from twenty dollars in 1807 to fifty-five dollars eighteen years later, making it probably the most expensive college in the country, although there were several free scholarships available. Three more halls were built: Stoughton in 1804, Holworthy in 1812, and University in 1814 and 1815, the latter two in granite rather than the traditional brick. From 1814 to 1823, with the Federalist Party in control of the state, Harvard received ten thousand dollars a year in state grants, but after a fierce election campaign, in which Harvard was accused of trying to prevent the foundation of Amherst College, the Jeffersonian Republicans took over the state government, stopped the grants to Harvard, and thus forced the university into a financial independence of the state that has continued ever since.

In 1851 the composition of the board of overseers was reformed. In addition to the removal of the clergy, the president and the treasurer of the university were given membership, the state officials were cut down to just five seats, and thirty seats were now to be elected by the state’s house and senate for six-year terms. Finally, only fourteen years later, the state officials were also removed, and the right to elect the thirty other overseers was given to Harvard graduates meeting in Cambridge on Commencement Day. Harvard had now become a fully autonomous academic community.

Charles William Eliot’s Presidency

Perhaps the greatest single influence on the transformation of Harvard was the forty-year-long presidency of Charles William Eliot, during which the curriculum was gradually expanded and revised beyond all recognition. There were already new professorships in law (1815) and in French and Spanish (1819), and the Lawrence Scientific School had opened in 1847, its three-year program and its relatively low admissions standards indicating the status of science at that time. After fifteen years spent teaching in this school, Eliot became president in 1869 and accelerated the process of modernization. Then came the first professorship of political economy in the United States, in 1871; the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, in 1872; the Harvard Annex for women students, near Cambridge Common, in 1879, which became Radcliffe College in 1893; and, in 1890, the reorganization of all the teaching in Harvard Yard under the new Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Eliot was not content simply to increase the number of subjects taught in this faculty. He also wanted to increase students’ access to them and therefore broke with tradition by allowing students to choose what courses they would study. Eliot steadily pushed the elective system to the point where, in 1886, the only limits on choice were that courses had to be “liberal” (nonvocational), advanced classes had to follow introductory ones, and students had to avoid conflicting commitments of their time. From Harvard the elective system spread to every large college, including Yale, by 1904. One side effect was the decline of Greek and Latin studies, which had dominated university learning in Europe and the Americas since the Renaissance. The last great academic innovation under Eliot’s presidency, the foundation of Harvard Business School in 1908, confirmed Harvard’s place among those universities leading the movement away from the lingering medievalism of early nineteenth century education to the involvement of academia in the transformations of the modern world.

Ironically, modernization of the curriculum was accompanied by a revival of medieval architectural styles for the main buildings added to Harvard’s stock in Eliot’s time. Outside the yard to the north can be found Memorial Hall, an enormous Gothic building, finished in 1878, honoring Harvard graduates killed during the U.S. Civil War, as well as Austin Hall, a Romanesque building designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, who also designed Sever Hall, built in 1880 inside the yard.

Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s Presidency

Eliot’s successor, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, was president from 1909 to 1933 and also left his mark both on Harvard and on higher education across North America. From 1914 he overhauled the elective system, introducing the distinction between majors and minors, which is now standard in North American higher education. Perhaps even more important was his courageous stance on academic freedom. When an alumnus made his offer of ten million dollars to Harvard conditional on the removal of Hugo Munsterberg, a philosophy professor who publicly supported Germany even after the United States entered World War I, Lowell refused the gift and kept Munsterberg on the faculty. No doubt it was easier for a president of Harvard than for those in charge of poorer colleges to insist that gifts be unconditional.

The Harry Elkins Widener Library opened in 1913, commemorating a graduate who went down in the Titanic. It is now the third largest library in the United States. In 1927 Lowell presided over the relocation of the Fogg Art Museum, founded in 1895, to the east of the yard, on Quincy Street. In the following year he used a gift from Edward S. Harkness to fund the building of undergraduate housing on sites to the south of the yard, toward the Charles River. He also saw to the establishment of the Memorial Church in 1931. It now commemorates Harvard graduates killed in both world wars.

The Great Depression and World War II

It fell to Lowell’s successor, James Conant, to take Harvard through the Great Depression and World War II. Innovations under Conant included the abolition of class attendance records and the university’s rank list, the creation of national scholarships to broaden the base of admissions away from New England, and the founding of the educational television station WGBH. After spending most of the war years at Dumbarton Oaks, supervising research on radar, chemical weapons, and the atomic bomb, Conant returned to Cambridge for an additional seven years, overseeing the introduction of general education courses for undergraduates and restricting Harvard’s scientists to undertake only nonclassified research for the federal government.

Even with this restriction in place, government research became a major source of Harvard funding under its next president, Nathan Pusey. By 1963 most of the research in science and engineering was federally funded, as at many other universities. Nor was Harvard immune from the protests that swept campuses in the late 1960’s. These peaked in 1969 when a student occupation of University Hall, where personnel files were held, was quickly broken up by police.

Derek Bok became president in 1971, at a time of financial crisis. Federal funding declined from a peak of 40 percent of Harvard’s income in 1967 to just 25 percent in 1974, and energy and other costs were rising rapidly. Under Bok, Harvard kept up its tradition of academic innovation, introducing compulsory courses in 1978 to cover the “core” subjects in the curriculum. This helped revive debate about the selection of compulsory subjects, and the view of civilization that they imply, that has continued ever since.

Harvard University has become a very different institution from the college founded by the puritan colonists in 1636. A single house and a cow yard have given place to a sprawling range of buildings in which subjects beyond the founders’ imaginations are taught and studied. Architecturally, academically, and–not least–financially, Harvard continues to try to balance tradition and innovation, the heritage of successive generations, and the needs and interests of the contemporary United States and the outside world.

For Further Information
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936. Still the standard history of Harvard University. It is also one of the most impressive histories of any university, blending parochial details with wider social changes.
  • Norton, Bettina A. Around the Square: An Architectural Hunt in the Environs of Harvard Square. Boston: BAN, 1992. A guidebook to the architecture of Cambridge.
  • Smith, Richard Norton. The Harvard Century: The Making of a University to a Nation. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Brings Morison’s story up to date, but with less panache and perhaps too much concentration on the personalities of Harvard’s recent presidents.
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