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For nearly six years (1701-1707) after the departure of Increase Mather, Harvard’s chief presiding officer was Vice President Samuel Willard, who resigned because of illness in August 1707 and died in the fall. The presidential installation of John Leverett (1662-1724) in January 1708 marked the end of more than 35 years of institutional instability tracing back to the days of Leonard Hoar.
Leverett was Harvard’s first secular president. With his extensive and varied background in public life, he loomed large, both in and beyond the Yard. He had also taught during the Mather administration (1685-1697) and served as a Fellow of the Harvard Corporation (1685-1700, 1707).
The new president immediately set about ensuring that the College received its due from various bequests. While the curriculum remained virtually unchanged, enrollment soon began to grow. By November 1718, Harvard had 124 resident students, including resident graduates and those staying on to earn a master’s degree. Massachusetts Hall - Harvard’s oldest surviving structure, built as a dormitory in 1720 - dates from this period.
During the Leverett era, the College’s first endowed chair (the Hollis Professorship of Divinity, 1721) was established, the first student club came into being (1719), and the first student publication (“The Telltale,” 1721) appeared. According to Leverett’s diary, the faculty struggled mightily to control unsavory student behavior such as swearing, “riotous Actions,” and card-playing - to which student diaries add attending horse races and pirate hangings in Boston.
Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison offers this capsule summary of the period: “Leverett took the presidency when Harvard was weak and disorganized, after a generation of charter-mongering and of non-resident presidents. He put her finances on a firm basis, and obtained her first endowed chair. But his service to the College and the country lies more in the principles that he maintained and the precedents that he established, than in positive accomplishments. In an era of political and sectarian strife, he was steadfast in preserving the College from the devastating control of a provincial orthodoxy. He kept it a house of learning under the spirit of religion, not, as the Mathers and their kind would have had it, the divinity school of a particular sect. Leverett, in a word, founded the liberal tradition of Harvard University.”
He died in office on May 14, 1724 (= May 3 in the Julian calendar then used by English colonists). Remembering Leverett after his death, Cambridge minister Nathaniel Appleton hailed him as a “great and generous Soul” who was divinely destined for distinction.