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  • Writer's picturePatricia Salkin

First Lawyer President in the Country Noted for Legal Acumen, Integrity, Vigor and Devotion

Founded in 1636, when Harvard College appointed John Leverett (1662-1724) as President in 1707 he became the first lawyer and first jurist to occupy the leadership position at Harvard.

Harvard’s 29th President, also a lawyer, Lawrence S. Bacow, announced he will be stepping down in June 2023. Other lawyer presidents who served at Harvard include: Josiah Quincy III (1829-1845); Lawrence Lowell (1909-1933) and Derek Bok (1971-1999; 2006-2007).

Prior to his presidency, Leverett had been appointed as a Harvard Tutor in 1685. He was also an attorney, a judge (justice of the peace, judge in the Court of Admiralty, justice of the Superior Court, Judge of the Probate Court for Middlesex County) and he served for six years in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the last of which he was the Speaker of the House. According to his papers on file with the Harvard archives, Leverett acted as an Indian commissioner from Massachusetts and attended a 1704 conference to try to persuade the Iroquois to join the Queen Anne’s War (1701-1713) on the side of the British (he was not successful). He served a lieutenant in the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and later as an emissary of Governor Joseph Dudley (MA) to negotiate with Governor John Lovelace (NY) to establish military cooperation on the frontier and for an invasion of Canada.

A published account of the 1707 inauguration of Leverett states:

Mr. John Leverett was Installed in his President’s Office at Cambridge January 14, 1707/8. The Governour and Council and Ministers of the six neighbouring Towns were in the Library; there were the Colledge Charter, Records, Laws, with a seal standing upon them; also the Colledge Keys. Many people were in the Hall below, in the middle of the Hall a Table was set for the Governour and Council to sit at; things being thus prepared, the Governour ordered the Library Keeper to carry down (under his right arm) the Colledge Charter, Books of Record and Laws and the Seal upon them; he ordered the Butler to carry down the Keys in his left hand: then the Governour took Mr. Leveret by the hand, led him out of the Library, after the Books and Keys down into the Hall, where the Books, seal, Keys were laid on the table in the middle of the Hall. The Governour sat down on one side of the Table, and Mr. Leverett over against him; the Council and Mr. Hubbard of New Cambridge also sat at the Table. Then Mr. Hubbard began with a very serious suitable prayer, he being ended, Sir Sewal made an oration in Latin; nextly the Governour made a Speech in Latin, to Mr. Leveret more especially, declaring how the Corporation had chosen him, the Governour and Council approved him, the General Court voted him a salary; so he invested him in his office, pointing to the Books, Seal, Keys on the Table, which he delivered to him as ensigns of his office power. After this, Mr.Leveret made a short speech in Latin to the Governour, then Sir Holyoke made an oration in Latin. In the next place, Mr. Danforth Minister of Dorchester went to prayer; in the last place, part of the 132 psalme was sung, and then the affair was ended. After the business was thus over, they went to dinner in the Hall, and then every one went his way.

According to the Harvard archives: His major accomplishment as president was to help transform Harvard from a divinity school to a more secular institution. When he assumed responsibility together with William Brattle for management of the school when Preisdent Increase Mather left for England in 1688, Leverett and Brattle added the reading of Anglican authors to the curriculum. “As a leader in the Congregational Church, Leverett opposed Increase and Cotton Mather's attempts to impose a new charter containing a loyalty oath which would require faculty members to acknowledge the primacy of scripture. His secular direction prompted Thomas Hollis (1659-1731), a London merchant and devout Baptist to make several generous donations to Harvard. Under Leverett's stewardship, school enrollment expanded, bequests were collected, and Massachusetts Hall was erected (1720). Leverett's autocratic governing style created conflict with College Tutors in the late 1710s and early 1720s that expanded into larger difficulties with conservative members of the Harvard Board of Overseers and the Massachusetts General Court.” Leverett also added the study of Hebrew and French into the curriculum. Leverett died in office in 1724.

With respect to his leadership, the Harvard archives concludes, “John Leverett was noted for being a widely cultivated and broad-minded person. His experience as lawyer, jurist, and politician helped maintain Harvard College's standing during his critical years as president. Leverett brought vigor, integrity, and devotion to the Harvard presidency.” He was the first lawyer president of any institution of higher education dating back to the Colonial Era, and although he was not the first president, Harvard recognized the valuable legal acumen that he brought to the office. Other descriptors, vigor, integrity, and devotion, while certainly not unique to lawyer presidents, are indeed all critically important attributes of a campus leader.


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