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By all accounts, John Thornton Kirkland (1770-1840) was a remarkable man whose special touch conjured up a golden age for all who walked the Yard on his watch. He was the epitome of the gentleman scholar. For no other Harvard president have graduates penned so many affectionate tributes.
Writing to President Eliot in 1871, historian-diplomat George Bancroft, Class of 1817, recalled that among all the varied individuals who had crossed his path, he had encountered “few who were [Kirkland’s] equals, and no one who knew better than he how to deal with his fellow-men. [. . .] There was not in his nature a trace of anything that was mean or narrow. [. . .] He opened the ways through which [the University] has passed onward to its present eminent condition [. . .].”
Leading by example came second nature to Kirkland. Even as a Harvard tutor (1792-1794), he adopted the then-unorthodox approach of treating students as gentlemen in hopes of inspiring them to become gentlemen. Kirkland left no significant literary legacy. Yet his own virtues - clarity and imagination of thought, charm in conversation, sensitivity to beautiful language, and more - inspired an outpouring of student writing.
Despite Kirkland’s polished manner, the Yard (which Kirkland did much to enhance) was not entirely placid. One Sunday evening in 1818, a fierce food fight broke out in recently built University Hall (then partly used as commons for all four Classes). The disciplining of four sophomores prompted classmates (including Ralph Waldo Emerson) to swear allegiance against such "tyranny" under a Rebellion Tree.
In spring 1823, the Great Rebellion - a much more complex student uprising - put institutional reform on the front burner. Accordingly in 1825, the University adopted 13 chapters of Statutes and Laws that changed the curriculum, the classroom (including the introduction of sections and grades), and faculty structure. The new laws also required the president to deliver an annual report to the Board of Overseers. In addition, the Kirkland years saw the establishment of two professional schools - Divinity (1816) and Law (1817) - as well as the completion of Divinity Hall (1826), Harvard’s first Cambridge building outside the Yard.
Kirkland’s undoing began in 1826, when newly elected Corporation Fellow Nathaniel Bowditch launched a review that found Harvard a fiscal fiasco. The Corporation approved wide-ranging economies, including docked pay for the president and pay cuts for professors. In 1827, Kirkland suffered a paralytic stroke. On March 27, 1828, his fiscal nonchalance finally provoked a tongue-lashing from Bowditch. To everyone’s surprise and dismay, Kirkland resigned the next day. Heartbroken seniors penned him a farewell encomium of unexampled love and gratitude.
John Thornton Kirkland
President of Harvard University 1810-1828