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Kirkland, John Thornton (1770-1840)

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John Thornton Kirkland President from 1810-1828

John Thornton Kirkland, Harvard University President from 1810-1828.

Biographical Introduction

John Thornton Kirkland was a son of the Rev. Samuel Kirkland, the well-known missionary among the Indians, and of Jerusha, his wife, whose maiden name was Bingham, and who was a niece of the first President Wheelock. He was born, with a twin brother, whose name was George Whitefield, at Herkimer, N.Y., on the 17th of August, 1770. He was called John Thornton in honor of the celebrated English philanthropist of that name, who had contributed liberally to the support of the Indian mission. Two years after the birth of the boys, in consequence of a liberal donation from the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, their father was enabled to purchase a small house and farm in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the children spent their early years.

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.

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’ 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.

He then returned to Andover as an assistant in the academy, devoting himself for a year to his duties as a teacher, and uncertain whether he should ultimately choose, as a profession, law or divinity. After leaving Andover, he went home to Stockbridge, and began the study of theology under the direction of the Rev. Dr. Stephen West. Dr. West’s views of theology, which were decidedly orthodox, found, however, little favor in the eyes of his pupil; and, accordingly, after a short time he went to Cambridge to continue his studies in a more congenial atmosphere. In 1792 he made a visit to his father, and spent several months with him in work among the Oneida Indians. In November of the same year he was appointed a tutor at Cambridge, in the department of logic and metaphysics, and held the office till January, 1794.

New South Church Boston, 1774 designed by Charles Bulfinch

New South Church Boston, 1774, designed by Charles Bulfinch.

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 Doctor 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; and his election was confirmed by the Board of Overseers on the 23d of the same month. On the 14th of November following, he was inducted into office—a congratulatory address in Latin being delivered on the occasion by Mr. Samuel Cooper Thacher, the librarian of the university, who a few months after succeeded Dr. Kirkland in his pastoral charge.

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 remodeled 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, which was accepted by the corporation with the highest expressions of respect for his character and of gratitude for his services. On the 1st of April he took leave of the students in the college chapel, in a brief and touching address.

Early in September, 1827, President Kirkland was married to Elizabeth, daughter of his former friend and parishioner, the Hon. George Cabot. He left Cambridge in April, 1828, and, after spending the summer in Boston, set out with his wife on a long journey through the southern and western parts of the United States. He passed part of the winter in New Orleans, and was met everywhere with a most cordial welcome. On his return, in the spring of 1829, he embarked from New York, with his wife, for Europe, and spent three and a half years traveling in foreign countries. He reached home in October, 1832.

Granary Burial Ground, Boston

Granary Burial Ground, Boston

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; and though for several years he was often seen in the streets of Boston, and always had a hearty greeting from his friends, yet they could recognize in him only a wreck of the fine person and intellect they used to know. He died on April 26, 1840, at the age of sixty-nine. His funeral was attended on the succeeding Tuesday, when he was laid by the side of his old friend, Mr. Cabot, in the Granary Burying-ground. Dr. Young, Dr. Parkman, and Dr. Palfrey all delivered discourses commemorative of his life and character, which were severally published. Mrs. Kirkland died in 1852.

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

Kirkland’s Harvard University Presidency 

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.

University Hall

University 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.

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.

Divinity Hall 1825

Divinity Hall 1825

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.

Medical School 1819

Medical School 1819

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.

Cambridge Common 1808

Cambridge Common 1808

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

Eulogy in Memory of 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.

First-Person Accounts of Kirkland

The following description of Dr. Kirkland is taken from a letter written by the Rev. Alexander Young, who was a student at Harvard under him, one of his successors in the pulpit of the New South Church, and who conducted Dr. Kirkland’s funeral:

Dr. Kirkland was distinguished above any other man whom I have ever known as an ethical preacher. He possessed a thorough, intimate, marvellous knowledge of man. He detected men’s hidden motives and secret principles of action, and dragged them forth to the light. Such was his wonderful and accurate knowledge of human nature, and his clear insight into the springs of human action, that sometimes, when I have heard him preach, it seemed to me that he had actually got his hand into my bosom, and that I could feel him moving it about, and inserting his fingers into all the interstices and crevices of my heart.

Dr. Kirkland uttered great moral maxims, and profound religious truths without any parade or preparation, without forewarning his hearers that he was now going to bring forward some great thought or some new view, and without reminding them afterwards that he had done so. He was apparently unconscious and careless of those profound sayings of his which contained a world of practical wisdom.

He was remarkable, too, for the comprehensiveness of his views and the universality of his judgments. He generalized on a large scale, and generalized everything. He took a broad and liberal view of all subjects, and had a world-embracing philosophy as well as charity. He could not endure details and cared little for isolated facts. I never met with a man who, in social intercourse, said so many things worthy to be remembered and made so many remarks that you could not forget. His conversation was a succession of aphorisms, maxims, general remarks.

Dr. Kirkland’s preaching was, like his conversation, sententious and full of apothegms. There was not much visible logic, or induction, or method in his discourses; and it was not uncommon for him to bring into the pulpit half a dozen sermons or more, and on the instant construct from their pages a new sermon, as he went along, turning the leaves backwards and forwards, connecting them together by the thread of his extemporaneous discourse. These scattered leaves resembled those of the Sibyl, not only in their confusion, causing many to marvel how he could marshal and manage them so adroitly, but also in condensed and concentrated wisdom. Indeed, condensation was his crowning faculty. It was here especially that he manifested the supremacy of his intellect. He always spoke from a crowded and overflowing mind.

I must say something of Dr. Kirkland as a man of letters; and here I am ready to admit that he was not a very profound or thorough student. His reading had not been systematic, but desultory. He was rather a general scholar than deeply versed in any particular department. He loved the light and the sunshine of learning. He was not a proficient in any of the natural or exact sciences, nor an adept in abstruse philosophy. He was no antiquary or geologist, no pedant or literary drudge. But he was something more than these—something far higher and better. While he was far from being deficient in any department of general knowledge, no single subject had engrossed his attention and narrowed and cramped his mind. He acquired his knowledge by intercourse and conversation with intelligent and learned men more than from books. He had, too, the faculty of getting all the good out of a book by rapidly turning over its leaves and running his eye over its pages, without reading it in course from beginning to end. By a sort of literary intuition he seemed to compass the meaning of the author.

As president of Harvard College, Dr. Kirkland unquestionably acquired his highest distinction. His influence on the students was at once gentle and powerful. From the very beginning he treated them as gentlemen, and made them regard him as their friend. They saw in him a finished specimen of the Christian scholar and gentleman. He was uniformly kind and courteous to them, tempering his native dignity with a delightful pleasantry.

Dr. Kirkland had the happy gift of quickly discerning the peculiarities of individual characters, and of accommodating himself to them. He never failed to recognize the countenance of a student and to address him by name. Such had been his large intercourse with the world, and his intimate acquaintance with the leading men from all parts of New England, that a young man could hardly come to the college with whom the president could not, at his first interview, converse familiarly about his friends and relatives.

The Rev. Charles Wentworth Upham wrote:

His person was of middle height, and of full dimensions, indicative of an excellent constitution, a healthful condition, and a happy temperament, but not too full for either grace or dignity. His complexion was fair, fresh, and blooming to the last, his countenance perfectly benignant, and radiant with cheerfulness and intelligence. His articulation of voice and general habit of speaking, in private conversation and in public discourse, often had an air of ease and indolence, which would have amounted to almost a disagreeable indication of inertness and sluggishness, had it not been for the current of wisdom, genius, wit, and vivacity, which gleamed through his words and sentences, and gave to his whole manner an exquisite and unrivalled charm. It was strength without effort. Philosophy and eloquence, sense and humor, flowed spontaneously from his lips, and what in other men was the laborious product of mental toil in him was the unconscious pastime of his faculties.

In the earlier part of his public life, while minister of the New South Society in Boston, he attained to this striking ascendency and commanding position among the leading minds of the community. At that time, the Boston churches were illuminated by a constellation of great preachers among whom were Buckminster, of learning most precocious, rare, and wonderful, and of eloquence and genius all but angelic, and Charming, whose fame spread wide to the last, but whose heaven-breathing instructions were, from the beginning, fraught with as much interest and power over his hearers as were afterwards felt and confessed by a listening world. Dr. Kirkland could never have been called an orator—he was indeed very far from it—his defects of manner would have been much felt and criticized, had the matter of his discourses been less striking and valuable.

It would be easy to multiply such testimonies to any extent. President Stearns, of Amherst, wrote:

Of Dr. Kirkland, as a preacher, I have a vivid recollection. I always attended closely to his sermons, and, as elegant productions, full of wise and sententious remarks, expressed with inimitable beauty, they charmed me. His sentences were generally short, often antithetic, terse and to the point, but seemingly mixed and not manifestly consecutive. He appeared to me, in some of his discourses, as a great writer of proverbs, second only to Solomon. It was humorously said that he wrote his sermons on the backs of old letters, and fitted them as he went along. What he said of Fisher Ames, in the incomparable biography of that distinguished statesman, would apply well to his own style: “He aimed rather at the terseness, strength, and vivacity of the short sentence than the dignity of the full and flowing period. His style is conspicuous for sententious brevity, antithesis, and point. Single ideas appear with so much lustre and prominence that the connection of the several parts of his discourse is not always obvious to the common mind, and the aggregate impression of the composition is not always completely obtained. In these respects, when his peculiar excellences come near to defects, he is rather to be admired than imitated.”

Dr. Kirkland’s discourses in the chapel were rarely controversial, nor were they, in any considerable degree, of a sectarian type. I have heard him throw out a remark like this—that the doctrine of the Trinity was now to be classed with the exploded doctrine of Transubstantiation.’ But, generally, so far as I now remember, and judging from my orthodox standpoint, his sermons consisted of short maxims, brilliant apothegms, striking intimations, warnings, or encouragements, in the department of morals, and of special practical benefit to students as guides of life. He would stand in the pulpit almost motionless, and in a careless manner would throw these sparkling gems around him, seemingly unconscious of the brilliance they emitted.

He was not fond of hard work, and has left but few memorials of his real genius. He can hardly be appreciated by posterity as he was by those who knew him personally.

Finally, Miss Elizabeth P. Peabody said of him:

There was nothing keener than his diamond wit; but though, like the sunshine, it revealed the limitations of everything, it was so pervaded with love that, like the sunshine, it cherished every germ of life into its most perfect expression, covering the granite ugliness of nature with the green beauty of charity. Dr. Kirkland did not need to ignore the evil that existed, or exaggerate the good, in order to overflow with kindness; and his kindness was unconsciously exercised and never seemed to remember itself.

He pervaded the large social sphere which his abilities made for him with a subtle light and warmth of wisdom and love that, as I have already said, was like the sunshine, silent, impalpable, but glorifying and cherishing.

To the well-disposed and intellectual part of his hearers his preaching was extremely interesting. Whether it was of a kind to convert a soul, immersed in evil passions, from the error of its ways, is, to my mind, more doubtful.

In his lifetime he often expressed his horror of paralysis. He was in the habit of visiting, for many years, a paralytic professor at Cambridge, and scarcely ever left him without saying, “May I be saved from this death in life, so much worse than death!” but, when this very fate overtook him, he was never heard to complain.