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Harvard’s 1786 Graduating Class and Their Theses, Dedicated to Gov. James Bowdoin
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Interesting broadside in Latin issued for Harvard University’s 1786 commencement lists Latinized names of 45 graduating students. Among the graduates are Joseph Warren (1768-1790), the son of prominent Boston physician and Harvard graduate Joseph Warren, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775; Boston attorney Timothy Bigelow (1767-1821); U.S. Senator Christopher G. Champlin (1768-1840); Boston attorney John Lowell Jr. (1769-1840), whose grandson served as president of Harvard in the early twentieth century; U.S. Senator Thomas W. Thompson (1766-1821); and Massachusetts Chief Justice Isaac Parker (1768-1830).

HARVARD COLLEGE. Broadside. List of Graduating Students and Theses for Disputation. Boston, Massachusetts: Edmund Freeman, 1786. 1 p., 16 x 24 in.

Inventory #23331       Price: $1,950

Historical Background

The Theses broadsides display propositions, used in the Commencement tradition of public student disputation which began at Harvard College in 1642. The practice was instituted under the leadership of President Henry Dunster (president from 1640-1654) within a larger effort to model the college after European universities.

Behind the printed broadsides was a multi-stage process that involved both students and faculty. The Latin theses were academic statements created by the graduating students to reflect the scope of their undergraduate study. The Theses fit within a curriculum that emphasized public discourse and syllogistic debate and ranged between approximately 50 and 250 propositions in most years. This broadside includes theses in technology, grammar, rhetoric, logic, metaphysics, ethics, theology, politics, mathematics, and physics.

Printed at the expense of the graduating class, the Theses were posted in advance, and graduates were expected to be able to defend them upon request on Commencement Day. Certain students were selected by the faculty to discuss and dispute specific Theses publicly as part of the day’s exercises.

Beginning with the first Commencement in 1642 through 1810, Theses were printed as broadsides. They were supplemented from 1791 onward by the Order of Exercises for Commencement, printed in English. The last Order of Exercises was printed in 1810, and subsequent Theses were distributed as quartos until they were replaced in 1821 by a Commencement program. Generally, the ceremony for students receiving their Bachelor’s degrees occurred in the morning and was followed by the Master’s degree ceremony in the afternoon.

James Bowdoin (1726-1790) was born in Boston and graduated from Harvard College in 1745. He was active in scientific pursuits and collaborated with Benjamin Franklin on experiments. Bowdoin served as the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Bowdoin College is named in his honor. Elected to the Massachusetts provincial assembly in 1753, he served there until appointed to the Governor’s Council in 1756. He became a critic of the royal governors and supported the patriot cause. Although ill at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Bowdoin was elected president of the executive council of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a position he held until 1777. He served as president of the 1779 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. After Governor John Hancock resigned as Massachusetts governor in 1785, the ensuing election gave no candidate a majority, and the General Court chose Bowdoin as the second governor of Massachusetts, a position he held from 1785 to 1787. His attempts as governor to collect taxes led to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, and made Bowdoin unpopular. He lost his reelection bid in 1787 to John Hancock.

Thomas Cushing (1725-1788) was born in Boston and graduated from Harvard College in 1744. He studied law and was admitted to the bar but also ran his family’s merchant business. He was a close political ally of John Hancock. An early opponent of British taxes imposed to pay for the posting of troops in the colonies, Cushing became speaker of the Massachusetts assembly in 1766 and held the position until the assembly was dissolved in 1774. He represented Massachusetts in the First and Second Continental Congresses, but was replaced by Elbridge Gerry, when Cushing did not support independence. Elected to the Massachusetts Senate in 1780, he briefly served as its president before assuming office as Lieutenant Governor in November 1780, a position he held until his death in 1788.

Scarce. The British Library ESTC catalog locates four copies in American libraries.


Good. Toned. Chipped at bottom edge with no loss to text or border. Old folds, breaks at the center repaired with tissue, minor spotting.

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