Term of office: 1774-1780
After the mysterious resignation of Samuel Locke, the mantle of the presidency came to rest upon the shoulders of Samuel Langdon (1723-1797), whose term covered most of the Revolutionary era.
For Harvard, the greatest disruption of the age came shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. On May 1, the Committee of Safety ordered the College to close early as Cambridge turned into an armed camp, with soldiers of the Revolution soon billeted in four Harvard buildings (Holden Chapel, Massachusetts and Hollis halls, and Stoughton College [dismantled in 1781]). Gen. George Washington briefly set up headquarters in Wadsworth House, and a thousand pounds of lead that had once repelled rain and snow on the roof of Harvard Hall went to deadly new use as bullets repelling British troops in Boston.
By September 1775, the Harvard Corporation had decided to resume academic life in Concord. In June 1776, three months after British troops left Boston, the College received permission to return to Cambridge. During the winter of 1777-78, a second physical displacement loomed, when the Continental Army needed quarters for British prisoners of war: Gen. John Burgoyne and his troops, recently captured at Saratoga, N.Y. (Burgoyne and his staff occupied Apthorp House, then a commandeered property and now the master’s residence of Adams House.) Students had to leave Harvard for three months while other arrangements were eventually made.
Amid this epic turmoil, Langdon presided over a much-diminished academic realm. From 1774 to 1780, the Corporation suspended public Commencements. Enrollment declined, and disrupted commerce led to one shortage after another, from books to bread. Harvard finances fared no better.
Langdon’s Revolutionary fervor had made a favorable impression early on. (He had even prayed over the army on the night before the Battle of Bunker Hill.) But his words and deeds soon irritated students no end, what with scriptural harangues stretching to 90 minutes at the expense of Sunday-evening singing.
Things came to a head in summer 1780, when students petitioned the Corporation for Langdon’s dismissal. Langdon admitted his presidential unsuitability and promised to resign. He did so on Aug. 30.