Skip to main content
Increase Mather (1639-1723) had been the Governing Boards’ first choice to succeed Urian Oakes. After the death of John Rogers, however, the job offer first went to Joshua Moody, a minister from Portsmouth, N.H. Moody declined. The second possibility, one Michael Wigglesworth, promptly removed himself from consideration.
Not until March 1685 did the Corporation offer the position of president pro tempore to Mather. He might with equal justice have been declared “president in absentia,” for in the 16 years during which Mather headed the College under three distinct titles, he spent mere months living in Cambridge. Mather commuted by ferry to Cambridge from his home in Boston’s North End, where he continued to serve his congregation. Indeed, during the last four years of his rectorship, Mather was not even in the country, much less in Cambridge: he was engaged in political lobbying in England.
To make matters even more tenuous, a court decision had voided and vacated the Royal Charter for Massachusetts Bay Colony in October 1684, thus uprooting many legal arrangements made under the old charter. For the College, this meant that the Charter of 1650, the document that created the Harvard Corporation, was in legal limbo at best and defunct at worst.
Shortly after Mather returned to Boston in May 1692, the Charter of 1650 enjoyed a brief restoration. “Mather brought to Boston a new Province Charter for Massachusetts Bay, and the new General Court proceeded to reincorporate the College,” as Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison explains. “In this, as in several subsequent short-lived college charters, Mather’s object was to keep the College under control of the Congregational Church, and free of political influence.”
For the duration of Mather’s presidency, power struggles raged back and forth across the Atlantic over the crafting of a College charter that could balance colonial desires for autonomy against royal demands for control. A small flotilla of charters real and imagined all sank beneath the waves.
Finally in 1701, Mather’s political rivals in Boston got the upper hand and pushed him out on a technicality. The General Court gave Mather an ultimatum: resign the ministry and move to Cambridge, or give up the presidency. In midsummer, having spent six most unpleasant months in Cambridge, Mather fled back across the Charles, where his congregation welcomed him with open arms. Considering the presidency thus vacated, the General Court put Samuel Willard in charge as vice president of the College.
In July 1702, Mather himself confessed to his diary that “[t]he Colledge is in a miserable state. [. . .] The Lord pardon me in that I did no more good whilest related to that society.”
Acting President of Harvard University, 1685-1686; Rector (a unique title), 1686-1692; President, 1692-1701