Sibley’s Harvard Graduates: Determination and Persistence
By Conrad Edick Wright, Research
One of the happy consequences of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s centuries-long institutional stability has been its ability to carry out extended projects. It is not that we actively try to transform small, modest undertakings into ones that never end, but that we see our commitments through to their conclusion. Determination and persistence are our watchwords. The time horizon of most businesses is usually a matter of a few weeks, months, or years. Even well-endowed educational and cultural institutions rarely project their plans decades into the future. One of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s signature projects, however, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, a multi-volume collected biography of the college’s alumni, has a history more than a century and three-quarters long, including more than 130 years as a formal MHS activity.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, no one expected that work on Sibley’s Harvard Graduates would still be underway today. To say that Sibley has proceeded by fits and starts would be a triumph of tact. Whether one dates the series from 1842 (the year that Harvard assistant librarian John Langdon Sibley [1804-1885] began to collect source materials for the series), 1859 (when he wrote the first entries), or 1873 (when he published the first volume), the undisputable fact is that the project has been underway for a very long time.
It goes without saying that everyone involved would prefer a more rapid rate of publication. The series was an ancillary responsibility when Sibley began to work on it some 176 years ago, however, and an ancillary responsibility it has remained. One of his many duties as assistant librarian was to maintain an up-to-date record of Harvard’s alumni. The college began no later than 1674 to publish an annotated broadside list of its graduates, Catalogus eorum qui in Collegio Harvardino . . . alicujus gradus laurea donate sunt, so in 1841, when President Josiah Quincy asked (or really instructed) Sibley to add the preparation of the list to his library responsibilities its form and nature were well established. The broadside appeared once every three years. To the extent possible, it included the Latinized names of the known graduates of the college—thus William Ames, A.B. 1645, became Gulielmus Amesius. Graduates who had achieved such honors as elevation to a major public office or admission to a significant cultural institution qualified for appropriate abbreviated notes recognizing these distinctions. When a graduate died, he did not disappear from the list; instead, a star next to his name marked his passing.
As Sibley accumulated reams of biographical information on Harvard men, friends began to urge him to make more of this data than the restricted space of the triennial broadside allowed. There were already models of collected biography to draw on, notably Athenae Oxonienses: An Exact History of All the Writers and Bishops Who Have Had their Education in the University of Oxford from 1500 to 1690 by Anthony Wood (1632-1695), but, model or not, preparing volumes of Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, later known simply as Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, still proved to be a time consuming task. Shortly before Sibley’s death in 1885, he completed his third and final volume; he had taken his story from Harvard’s first graduating class in 1642 through the class of 1689. All told, he had written entries on 301 graduates. Some sketches, on subjects about whom little was known, were only a few paragraphs long. In contrast, the entry on the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, A.B. 1678, no doubt colonial America’s most prolific author, ran 153 pages, including a list 117 pages long of his 456 works.
John Langdon Sibley and his wife, Charlotte, lived with unusual frugality; at his death, after providing for Charlotte, he pledged to the Society about $150,000, to that point its largest bequest. Although the legacy could be used for a number of different purposes, the continuation of Sibley’s Harvard Graduates was the closest to his heart. Nearly half a century passed before another scholar, Clifford K. Shipton (1902-1973), resumed the series. Between 1930, when Shipton began the work, and the posthumous publication of volume 17 in 1975, he prepared fourteen volumes of sketches, a massive achievement that carried the project from the class of 1690 through the class of 1771. After a sixteen-year pause, work on the series resumed in 1989. Volume 18 appeared in 1999. Publication of volumes 19 and 20 is in progress, and research and writing for volume 21, which will take the series through the class of 1784, is far along.
From time to time, scholars and administrators at other American colleges have toyed with the possibility of undertaking their own counterpart to Sibley and two institutions have produced valuable reference tools. Between 1885 and 1912, Franklin Bowditch Dexter (1842-1920) brought out six volumes of entries on Yale alumni from the school’s founding in 1701 through the class of 1815. At Princeton, between 1976 and 1991, a team of scholars issued five volumes of sketches of that college’s graduates and non-graduates through the class of 1794. In 2005, the MHS and the New England Historic Genealogical Society brought out a CD-ROM, Colonial Collegians: Biographies of Those Who Attended American Colleges before the War for Independence, that collected all the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton entries through the class of 1774, together with parallel material on the graduates of William and Mary, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Dartmouth, Rutgers, the medical schools at Penn and Columbia, and William Tennant’s Log College, a Presbyterian seminary.
Recent Sibley volumes, both published and in the works, as well as Colonial Collegians testify to the Society’s belief that even after well over a century it has not quite satisfied its commitment to John Langdon Sibley and his Harvard graduates. In the coming years, look for more Sibley volumes in print, including those now in press. And look for Colonial Collegians, currently available in our reading room as a CD-ROM, to be accessible one day as a free reference source on the MHS’s website.
| Published: Friday, 31 August, 2018, 12:00 AM
Massachusetts Historical Review : Its Origins and Legacy
By Katheryn Viens, Research
To most MHS members, the Massachusetts Historical Review is the annual publication that appears in their mailboxes every autumn, with a glossy, colorful cover and intriguing historical content. Few members know its rich history or visualize its exciting prospects for the future. As we typeset the forthcoming issue and develop essays for future volumes, this seems a good time to reflect on the MHR’s heritage and legacy.
In 1859, the members of the MHS decided to launch a new publication. Since 1792, the year after the Society’s founding, members had been “multiplying the copies” of items in the archives by issuing Collections volumes. Now, as the country approached a civil war, Boston was growing dramatically, from a town of fewer than 20,000 in 1790 to a city of almost 180,000. The Society’s collection, too, had ballooned with the 1857 acquisition of the more than 4,600 volumes in the library of Thomas Dowse. The men who made up the Society now represented a wider range of interests, and they decided to apply the best practices of corporate business to the conduct of the MHS.
A new publication would document the Society’s “proceedings” and include an annual report. It would contain transcripts of the lectures that members offered when they gathered for meetings. A commitment to publish these talks could have resulted in a series of dry volumes—but what a roster of historians would appear in the pages of the Proceedings! Over nearly 140 years, until 1998, the deep leather chairs, madeira, and slanting sunlight of the Society’s afternoon meetings yielded the wisdom of Henry Adams, Oscar and Lillian Handlin, Edmund Morgan, and Bernard Bailyn, to name just a handful of the illustrious historians represented in the Proceedings’ pages.
Enter the 1990s. Computers and the internet transformed the way in which the MHS related to the outside world. Alongside our expanding research programs, including fellowships, conferences, and seminars, the Proceedings came to feel constrained. The MHS made the decision to end its publication and invite the wider possibilities of an annual journal that would accept outside submissions and, in its design, serve as an ambassador of the Society’s vibrant mission. The Massachusetts Historical Review was born.
Two decades later, the MHR features scholarship on all historical periods, from across the country and overseas. This takes the form of essays, photo-essays, historical documents, and review articles authored by both eminent scholars and those new to the field. There have been themed issues and a recent special issue on the occasion of the Society’s 225th anniversary, “Massachusetts and the Origins of American Historical Thought.” The forthcoming issue will include essays on the Harlem Renaissance artist Cloyd Lee Boykin, who taught in Boston, colonial Massachusetts Governor Thomas Pownall, and the 1975 Edelin manslaughter trial. Essays demonstrate the influence of Massachusetts across the nation and around the world.
As with the Proceedings, the Research Department acquires and develops the content for the MHR, while the Publications Department handles the copyediting, design, and indexing. Throughout this process, the MHS staff maintains a commitment to scholarly excellence. They send each essay to at least two peer reviewers in a “double-blind” process, and the editors and authors work together to revise and edit the contributions.
Now available online (as are the Proceedings), the MHR has a wider reach than ever before. It takes its place comfortably among a range of professional journals in major research libraries. And it offers a pleasant read in a comfy chair on a quiet afternoon, perhaps alongside a little glass of good madeira.
| Published: Friday, 8 June, 2018, 1:15 PM
Welcome to Our 2018-2019 MHS-NEH Fellows!
By Lex Buckley, Research Dept.
The Massachusetts Historical Society’s Research Department is pleased to announce our two 2018-2019 MHS-NEH Long-Term Fellows, Mara Caden and Brent Sirota. Mara Caden will be researching the mint and early economic conditions in New England, and revising her book manuscript, which comes out of her Yale University dissertation, “Mint Conditions: The Politics and Geography of Money in Britain and Its Empire, 1650-1750.” Brent Sirota is an associate professor at North Carolina State University, and will be researching and writing his second monograph, Things Set Apart: An Alternate History of the Separation of Church and State, examining how people in the 18th- and 19th-century British Atlantic maintained their religion separate from the state after 1689.
Caden and Sirota join a renowned group of current and former MHS-NEH fellows. The long-term fellowship began in 2002, and the National Endowment for the Humanities has helped to support long-term fellows every year since. NEH support has allowed the MHS to have fellows spend four to twelve months as not only researchers, but as part of the scholarly and collegial fabric of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Our 2017-2018 fellows have presented at MHS seminars and brown bag lunches, and prior fellows have presented at MHS conferences and elsewhere in the city of Boston during their tenure here, and often return to the MHS to serve on committees for seminars, conferences, and future fellowship selections. As well as taking the opportunity to share their research and historical expertise in these formal settings, our MHS-NEH fellows—many of whom are established scholars in their fields—also foster an intellectual atmosphere at the Society by taking local graduate students and short-term fellows under their wing. They attend other researchers’ presentations, invite them for coffee, and offer advice on archives to visit, collections to search, and ways to read documents, artifacts, and silences. Our long-term fellows come from History, English, Political Science, Drama, and other fields, and their innovative methods and deep understandings of their field have broadened research horizons for younger fellows and students for over a decade.
Of course, such erudite scholars also use their long-term fellowships to research and write, and have published impressive works on a wide variety of subjects. From the fellowship’s first year in 2002-2003, we had Walter Woodward, who was working on Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676. There is 2003-2004 fellow Woody Holton’s research project, “Minds Afire,” now the book, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution; Lisa Wilson’s A History of Stepfamilies in Early America; Lisa Tetrault’s The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898; Vincent Carretta’s biography of Phyllis Wheatley; Martha Hodes’s Mourning Lincoln; Linford Fisher’s The Indian Great Awakening; and many, many more stellar works produced and forthcoming. (Keep an eye on our fellows’ publications page to read what comes out next!)
In sum, we couldn’t be more excited to have Caden and Sirota join an already prestigious array of long-term fellows in enriching the field with the scholarship they’ll produce here, and enriching the MHS with the expertise that they’ll share with young fellows and researchers during their stay. And we couldn’t offer any of this without the generous support and encouragement from the National Endowment for the Humanities!
(For more on the National Endowment for the Humanities, see their webpage. For more on our long-term MHS-NEH fellowships and past recipients, please visit http://www.masshist.org/2012/research/fellowships/long-term.)
| Published: Friday, 16 March, 2018, 10:36 AM
History by the Numbers: A Gomes Prize Ceremony conversation between 2017 recipient Tamara Thornton and MHS President Catherine Allgor
By Alexis Buckley, Research Department
In 2016, the MHS founded the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize, awarded annually for the best book on the history of Massachusetts. The prize honors the memory of the Reverend Professor Gomes, a Harvard scholar and a respected and beloved Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society for almost thirty-five years. Peter Gomes believed in the transformative power of engaging with the past, and held an especial fondness for the history of his native state. He extolled the role of the imagination in creating a better world.
About two centuries earlier, another Massachusetts native himself set out to create a better world. His name was Nathaniel Bowditch, and above all he believed in the power of numbers. Thus it’s only fitting that the 2017 Gomes Book Prize was awarded to historian Tamara Plakins Thornton for her biography, Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life. Thornton brings to life the Atlantic-facing maritime world of Bowditch’s hometown, the bustling port of Salem. She also reveals Bowditch’s role in creating the numbered and sorted bureaucratic society familiar to us today, from creating navigational tables, to organizing the collections of Salem’s East India Marine Society—now the Peabody Essex Museum—and the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, to introducing a numerical grading system at Harvard. As Thornton demonstrates, Bowditch took his faith in numbers and transformed the world.
Thornton joined us at the Society on Thursday, Jan. 25, to receive the 2017 prize. Like any good historian, she came in early to spend the day in our reading room, diving into the research for her next project. (Not to mention using collections well numbered and sorted! Our library staff would make Bowditch proud.) Come evening, after Ellis Hall had been transformed for the award ceremony, she received her award check and a certificate beautifully framed and matted with century-old French endpaper. She then took to the stage to commence a conversation on what it means to be a historian and a biographer.
Who better to join Thornton in this conversation than our new president, Catherine Allgor, another historian cum biographer? Allgor’s biography of Dolley Madison followed her work Parlor Politics, on the founding women of the early republic, much as Thornton’s biography of Bowditch followed her monographs on handwriting and the making of country life by the nineteenth-century Boston elite.
Fortunately for those too far away—or too cold!—to attend the program, the conversation was filmed and is now available for you to watch online. Allgor and Thornton spoke about transitioning from writing monographs to writing biographies, and the advantages they had in having already written books that made them familiar with their subject’s world: in Dolley Madison’s case, it was Washington D.C. and all its politicking; for Nathanial Bowditch, it was the surprisingly cosmopolitan city of Salem. More specifically, Bowditch lived in a world of merchants and shipping, where—instead of the Latin and Greek needed for Harvard—young men bound for occupations as clerks and navigators learned math and penmanship. Of course, Thornton and Allgor continued, writing biography also means considering the role of inborn personality and temperament in relation to the influence of the subject’s era.
MHS President Catherine Allgor and Gomes Prize recipient Tamara Thornton, in conversation.
Thornton and Allgor also discussed their efforts to find points of familiarity with their subjects while keeping in mind that the past remains a foreign country. Allgor enjoyed taking a fresh look at Washington politics in its infancy through Dolley Madison, and considering how the politics we know today are contingent on so many nineteenth-century choices that people such as Madison made. Thornton described the uncategorized society that Bowditch transformed, with numbers and forms, into the world we live in today.
And, of course, the two biographers discussed Bowditch’s love of numbers. He was inspired by the rules and regularity of the solar system, and sought to recreate that wherever he could. He saw the world, Thornton said, in “pluses and minuses.” He loved the certainty of numbers. If you were incorrect, inaccurate, immoral, wrong: all of these things were the same to him.
There is more to be heard on the video, about finding sources and excluding them, about Bowditch’s views on the places he sailed to around the world, and about strange and unexpected discoveries in the archives! But I will keep this entry short enough to fit on one of Bowditch’s blank forms, and merely suggest that you watch the video, then pick up Tamara Thornton’s award-winning book and take your own trip to Nathaniel Bowditch’s ordered world.
If you’ve published a book on Massachusetts history copyrighted in 2017, we invite you to submit your work for consideration to receive this year’s Gomes Prize, and we look forward to telling all of you what the 2018 competition brings!
| Published: Friday, 2 February, 2018, 10:09 AM
Margaret Hall’s WWI Memoir: The Book, the Talk, the Exhibition
By Jim Connolly, Publications
I’ve posted on the Beehive a few times about Margaret Hall, a Massachusetts woman who volunteered with the American Red Cross in France during World War I. So you may know (and if you didn’t, now you do!) that her memoir and selected photographs from her war experience will be published for the first time in the Society’s forthcoming book, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall. The MHS will publish the volume on 14 July 2014.
Come celebrate the release of Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country on Tuesday, 15 July 2014, when the volume’s editor, Margaret R. Higonnet, will give a talk titled “‘What is Focus?’ Margaret Hall’s Battle Country.” The program will run from 6:00 to 7:30 PM following a pre-talk reception at 5:30 PM. This event is free but requires an RSVP. Register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.
And while you’re in the Society’s 1154 Boylston Street building, you can take in our current exhibition, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War. Until then, you can get your Margaret Hall fix from July’s Object of the Month.
| Published: Friday, 11 July, 2014, 8:00 AM