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On June 2, 1829, the University grandly installed Josiah Quincy (1772-1864) as its 15th president. The dazzling Commencement Day ceremony proved a false harbinger. For if John Thornton Kirkland was Harvard’s best-loved chief executive, Josiah Quincy soon plummeted to the opposite pole.
According to his son, Quincy had hoped to create a Harvard that produced “high-minded, high-principled, well-taught, well-conducted, well-bred gentlemen.” Unfortunately, Quincy never got his finger on the inner pulse of student life. Within five years, his rough touch tripped off one of the most destructive and divisive student disorders in Harvard history.
During the winter of 1833-34, an argument between a student and a tutor (possibly a professor) prompted disciplinary action against several students. Classmates protested in word and deed, breaking the tutor’s windows and furniture, and ringing the College bell at night. By May 29, the College felt compelled to send the entire sophomore Class home.
Having found no one to charge for some $300 in window damage, Quincy called on the Middlesex County grand jury to investigate. The interjection of outside authority proved a fatal violation of ancient academic protocol. The ensuing student riots produced mounds of broken glass and furniture, bomb damage in the chapel, a black flag fluttering over Holworthy Hall, and an effigy of Quincy dangling from the Rebellion Tree (so designated by student rioters of 1818). The grand-jury investigation yielded no actionable results. Undergraduate enrollment nosedived, as many existing students left and prospective students looked elsewhere.
To make matters worse, Quincy took the grading system (introduced by the reforms of 1825) and transformed it into a rigid and much-hated “Scale of Merit,” which consisted of an eight-point spread applied to every recitation in class, with various demerits for behavioral infractions. Quincy himself kept score.
On the positive side, Quincy championed academic freedom and produced a valuable “History of Harvard University” (1840). While researching this two-volume work in the Harvard Archives, Quincy discovered an original sketch of the VERITAS seal in College record books from the winter of 1643-44. For reasons unknown, the motto had never before been used. Meanwhile, Harvard had adopted two other mottoes. Atop a huge tent in the Yard on Sept. 8, 1836, a white banner publicly displayed the VERITAS seal for the first time during the Harvard Bicentennial (which also brought the first singing of “Fair Harvard”). The Harvard Corporation officially adopted the motto in 1843, setting off a four-decade tug of war between VERITAS (“Truth”) and the previous motto CHRISTO ET ECCLESIAE (“For Christ and Church”).
With Quincy’s support, Harvard also established its first research division, the Astronomical Observatory, in 1839. Six years later, Quincy retired and returned to Boston.