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John Thornton Kirkland

From Papers of John Thornton Kirkland, Harvard University.

Jonh Thornton Kirkland
President from 1810-1828

John Kirkland’s reputation in the pulpit helped elevate him to the presidency of Harvard University in 1810. During Kirkland’s administration, known as the Augustan Age of Harvard, the school’s intellectual influence was felt throughout the nation. Harvard University became national in scope, attracting students from all over the country, including the Southern and Middle states. Farm boys, young aristocrats and planter’s sons mixed with country boys from the towns of New England and the youth of Boston. This lead to an increase in the worldliness and intellectual sophistication of the student body.

Harvard University expanded rapidly under Kirkland’s leadership. Fifteen new professorships were formed, and the Law School (1817) and the Divinity School (1819) were founded. New buildings were added to the school grounds. Holworthy Hall (1812), University Hall (1814), the Massachusetts Medical College (1819), and Divinity Hall (1825) were constructed. Moreover, other buildings were enlarged and renovated. The Library took over the entire second floor of Harvard Hall and extensive repairs were undertaken in Holden Chapel, Harvard Hall, Stoughton Hall, Hollis Hall, and Massachusetts Hall.

Kirkland was instrumental in the establishment of new areas of instruction in chemistry, mineralogy, anatomy, physiology, and elocution. Furthermore, during Kirkland’s administration, the lecture method of instruction was introduced into the classroom and the first student electives were offered.


University Hall
Medical School 1819;
Divinity Hall 1825

Finally, Kirkland took a leading role in the cleansing of Harvard Yard. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Yard was cluttered with a brew house, wood yard, privies, roaming sheep, and a college pig pen. Under Kirkland’s stewardship, this eyesore was replaced with elm trees, regular pathways, and a proper lawn.

Although considered a popular president with many accomplishments to his credit, Kirkland’s last years as President ended in controversy. The early 1800s were a time of student disorder and general rebellion against authority. When student riots and fights broke out on campus in 1823 over who was to give the commencement address at gradation, Kirkland expelled half the senior class just before commencement. The public reaction against this campus disorder was the removal of the school’s $10,000 annual state subsidy in 1824. This financial loss created a budget deficit, but more importantly, it exposed Kirkland’s lack of management skills in administering the finances of the University.

While Kirkland’s management of the University’s finances were under increasing scrutiny, he suffered a slight paralytic stroke in August 1827. Increasingly ill, Kirkland resigned.

After leaving Harvard University, Kirkland and his new wife, Elizabeth, traveled extensively in the Southern United States, Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near East. Returning to Boston from his overseas trips in 1832, Kirkland’s health began to deteriorate, and he spent the last years of his life living quietly. Although Kirkland’s administration of Harvard University ended unpleasantly, he was remembered by his students as a gentleman and a scholar who helped raise the standards of scholarship at Harvard University at the beginning of a new century.

—From Papers of John Thornton Kirkland, 1770-1840, Harvard University Archives.


Cambridge Common 1808

President Kirkland

From Heralds of a Liberal Faith

John Thornton Kirkland was a son of the Rev. Samuel Kirkland, the well-known missionary among the Indians, and of Jerusha, his wife.

In March, 1784, when he was thirteen years old, John Thornton was taken by his father to Andover, and placed in Phillips Academy, then under the care of Dr. Eliphalet Pearson. In consideration of his father’s circumstances, the Hon. Samuel Phillips, afterwards Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts, received him into his family, and paid all the expenses of his course preparatory to entering college. After spending two years at the academy, he was admitted to Harvard in April, 1786, at the age of fifteen.

New South Church Boston, 1774
Designed by Charles Bulfinch

In the winter vacation of 1787 he enlisted for thirty days in the armed force which, under the command of General Lincoln, quickly succeeded in putting down Shays’s rebellion. During his whole college course he was distinguished as a scholar, and was also very popular because of his good nature and generosity. He graduated with high honor in 1789.

Mr. Kirkland almost immediately after he was approved by the Boston Association was unanimously called to be pastor of the New South Church in Boston, and was ordained on the 5th of February, 1794, Dr. Tappan preaching the sermon and Mr. Kirkland’s father giving the charge.

In the year 1802, when he was only in the thirty-second year of his age and the ninth of his ministry, he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Princeton. The degree of Dr. of Laws was conferred upon him by Brown University in 1810.

Such was the reputation which Dr. Kirkland acquired in the community and so commanding the influence which he exerted that when the presidential chair in Harvard College was vacated by the death of Dr. Webber, he was chosen president by the corporation, August 7, 1810.

The presidency of Dr. Kirkland marked, in many respects, a brilliant period in the history of the University. Under his administration the course of studies was remodelled and enlarged, the qualifications for admission greatly advanced, the Law School established, the Medical School reorganized; four professorships in the academic department endowed and filled, three new and substantial buildings erected, the library doubled by accessions from various sources, and the college grounds greatly improved by beautiful shade-trees. To Dr. Kirkland’s influence with the rich men of Boston there was scarcely a limit; and this influence he failed not to exert to the utmost in favor of an institution with which he had so many grateful associations.

In August, 1827, he suffered a stroke of paralysis and on the 28th of March, 1828, he tendered his resignation.

Granary Burial Ground, Boston

Early in September, 1827, President Kirkland was married to Elizabeth, daughter of his former friend and parishioner, the Hon. George Cabot. In the spring of 1829, he embarked from New York, with is wife, for Europe, and spent three years and a half traveling in foreign countries. He reached home in October, 1832.

Notwithstanding his life was prolonged and his health and spirits benefited by his long and interesting foreign tour, yet his constitution had undergone a shock from which recovery was hopeless. He died on April 26, 1840, at the age of sixty-nine. He was laid by the side of his old friend, Mr. Cabot, in the Granary Burying-ground.

—Abridged from Heralds of a Liberal Faith, vol. 1, edited with an introduction by Samuel A. Eliot. (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1910).

Eulogy: Rev. John Thornton Kirkland

By Alexander Young

On the maternal side he was a descendent of Captain Miles Standish, the renowned military leader of the Pilgrims who in 1620 landed from the Mayflower on the rock at Plymouth. On his father’s side he was one of a long line of Christian ministers who devoted themselves to the perilous work of preaching the Gospel to the aboriginal inhabitants of this land.

Samuel Kirkland, the father of the president, set off for the country of the Senecas, in the interior of the State of New York. No missionary had ever before dared to venture among that remote and savage tribe. The hardships he endured are almost incredible. For two months, Mr. Kirkland lived without bread, flesh, or salt.

In September, 1769, he married Miss Jerusha Bingham. The subject of this discourse, with a twin brother, George Whitefield, was born on the 17th of August, 1770.

In March, 1784, at the age of thirteen, he was brought by his father to Andover. After spending two years at Andover, he was admitted, at the age of fifteen, into the Freshman Class of Harvard College. He was graduated in 1789, with distinguished honors, at the age of nineteen.

A brief biographical sketch written by himself “a little after I graduated Harvard”: The years of my childhood have passed swiftly and sweetly away. All was innocence, enjoyment, and hope, except now and then a disappointment. I was not then haunted with anxieties and fears. I was not then corrupted by vice or vitiated by art. At the Academy I was diligent in my studies and regular in my behavior. I had not been long in College before I began to relax in principle and conduct. I did not, however, lose my thirst for knowledge or sense of honor. I was never so completely devoted to my studies as I ought to have been. I wasted much time, much money, some virtue, and some health!

Immediately after Commencement he returned to Andover, where he spent a year as an assistant in the Academy. He had not then decided on the choice of a profession, but was yet wavering between Divinity and Law.

In 1792, while still prosecuting his theological studies, he received the appointment of tutor in the department of Logic and Metaphysics. Mr. Kirkland preached, for the first time, in the parish, August 23d, 1793. He was chosen by the New South Church in Boston unanimously as their pastor.

Mr. Kirkland was now placed in an eminent position. He soon drew around him an intelligent and discriminating congregation, in which were some of the leading men of the times. His preaching was characterized by an affluence and profundity of thought; he was equally acceptable to the less informed.

So early and rapid was the growth of Mr. Kirkland’s professional reputation, that in the year 1802 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Princeton.

He lived on the most intimate terms with all the leading men of his time in this part of the country—with Ames, and Cabot, and Parsons, and Gore, and Lowell, and Prescott, and Quincy.

We come now to regard Dr. Kirkland as a man of letters. At the outset, however, I am ready to admit that he was not a very profound or thorough student. Dr. Kirkland’s favorite study, the one in which he excelled, and had made the greatest proficiency, was unquestionably Ethics. He acquired his knowledge by intercourse and conversation with intelligent and learned men, rather than from books.

With his characteristic modesty, Dr. Kirkland used to say that he was elected to the presidency, not for what he had done, but for what it was supposed he could do. It was with great hesitation and unfeigned reluctance that he accepted this honorable appointment, which severed the tie that bound him to an affectionate and beloved people . He was inducted into office on the 14 th of November, with great enthusiasm and joy.

The presidency of Dr. Kirkland was the Augustan age of Harvard College. He gathered around him a body of professors and tutors, unrivalled in their several departments, such as the College has never seen collected together before or since. The breath of intellectual life was infused into the dead body of the College, and it was animated with a new spirit. Under his administration the course of studies was remodelled and enlarged, and the qualifications for admission and the standard of scholarship were raised. The Institution became, for the first time, in reality as well as in name, a University. The Law School was established, the Medical School resuscitated and reorganized, the Theological School erected into a separate department. The college was crowded with students, as it never had been before. Never was it so prosperous and so popular.

Having presided, for eighteen years, with so much honor to himself, and so much benefit to the public, over the highest literary institution of the country, Dr. Kirkland is at length compelled to leave it. Before resigning his office, President Kirkland had been married, on the 1 st of September, 1827, to Miss Elizabeth Cabot, the only daughter of his former friend and parishioner, the Hon. George Cabot. He left Cambridge in April, 1828, and after spending the summer in Boston, started in October on an extensive tour through the United States. On his return, in the spring of 1829, he embarked from New York, with his wife for Havre, and spent three years and a half abroad, in a very extensive course of travel. He returned home in October, 1832, and has spent the residue of his days in this city, in quiet and retirement.

After an illness of about a week, he died at six o’clock on the morning of the last Sabbath, April 26 th, at the age of 69.

Abridged from A Discourse on the Life and Character of the Reverend John Thornton Kirkland by Alexander Young. Delivered in the Church on Church Green, Boston, MA, May 2, 1840.

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