Samuel Eliot Morison on the History of Harvard University

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“First Flower of Their Wilderness”

The Founding of Harvard College
Samuel Eliot Morison
Harvard University Press, 1996 (reprint edition)

Harvard University was founded in 1636 and it is the oldest university in what is now the United States. Its traditions and organizational structure have had a profound influence on the development of higher education in America, and many of its graduates have been prominent figures in the history of the nation and the world. Samuel Eliot Morison, a member of Harvard’s class of 1908 and one of the great American historians of the mid-twentieth century, wrote this book as a tribute to his alma mater on the occasion of its 300th anniversary. It was first published in 1935 and has been kept in print ever since.

Most universities have some sort of brochure or booklet that “tells their story,” but this is no simple volume of that kind. In Morison’s hands what might have been a narrow institutional account becomes a work of remarkably comprehensive scholarship. The founding of Harvard itself doesn’t even appear until page 161, not until after Morison has treated the founding of universities in the Middle Ages, the story of Oxford and Cambridge in England, the intellectual development of early modern Europe, the rise of Puritanism, the social and economic climate of the early American colonies, and daily life in seventeenth-century New England.

The text is beautifully supplemented with many early woodcuts and engravings, as well as with modern maps and overlays showing the history of Harvard’s buildings and grounds. And even beyond the main text, several lengthy appendices describe early New England immigrants who had university training, seventeenth-century publications on the history of the college, and the Spanish universities of Latin America that were modeled on the University of Salamanca. (Harvard is the oldest university in North America, but not in the Americas; that distinction today goes to the University of San Marcos in Lima, founded in 1551.)

If you enjoy the intellectual history of Europe, the history of education, the history of colonial America, stories of daily life in the seventeenth century, or if you are a Harvard graduate, you will derive much pleasure from Morison’s rich and graceful volume.

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