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These are the 11 people who were president of Harvard before the US became a country

Wadsworth House still stands in Harvard Yard.
Wadsworth House still stands in Harvard Yard. ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/File 2010/Globe Freelance

Before the United States was even a country, Harvard had already seen 11 presidents of the then-fledgling institution.

Amid the news that Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust will step down next year after serving 11 years as president, here’s a look back at some of the men who led the elite college before America declared its independence in July 1776.

Henry Dunster, 1640-1654

A native Englishman, Henry Dunster arrived in Boston in August 1640 and was unexpectedly asked to take the helm as first Harvard president, according to the university’s website. Dunster was responsible for helping draft the college’s incorporation papers and was also overseeing the school when Harvard changed the required years of undergraduate study from three to four.


However, Dunster’s resignation came amid controversy. He opposed the practice of baptizing babies — believing instead in adult baptism — and “intervened publicly at the baptism of [a] local infant,” according to Harvard’s website. He also was on “the wrong side in a transfer of certain financial powers from the Corporation to the Overseers.”

Charles Chauncy, 1654-1672

Similar to Dunster, Charles Chauncy was known for getting into trouble over his religious beliefs. During his time at Harvard, Chauncy “demanded that students adhere to a rigorous program of religious devotions,” according to Harvard’s website. However, he also believed in “Galileo’s modern astronomical perspective,” was regarded as “the leading scholar in the New England of his day,” and spoke several languages — including Arabic.

Chauncy was also known for lobbying for a higher salary than the £100 he was paid (he had a wife and eight children to support), but he never succeeded. He died in office in 1672.

Leonard Hoar, 1672-1675

Leonard Hoar had a grand vision for the university but only served a short, controversial term, as both his personality and actions apparently rubbed many people the wrong way.


“Students mocked his words and deeds, and tutors resigned in disgust,” Harvard’s website states. “At one point, Hoar’s heavy-handed discipline resulted in the flogging of a student by a jailer who was later removed for cruelty.”

Hoar wanted to transform Harvard “into a major research institution, complete with chemical laboratories, a botanical garden and an agricultural-research station, and a mechanical workshop.” However, Hoar’s vision proved too grand for the time, and such an undertaking didn’t actually happen until the 19th century, according to Harvard’s website.

He resigned in March 1675, and Urian Oakes stepped up into the role of acting president. Hoar died shortly after his resignation.

Urian Oakes, 1675-1680 (acting president); 1680-1681

After serving as acting president for five years, Harvard finally named Oakes the president in 1680. However, Oakes died while he was still in office, in August 1681.

Under his supervision, Old Harvard Hall was completed as a replacement for “Old College,” Harvard’s first new building at the southern end of Harvard Yard, according to the school’s website.

John Rogers, 1682-1684

After Oakes’s death, two candidates turned down the leadership spot at Harvard before John Rogers accepted the position. Rogers, who immigrated to New England when he was 6 years old, was known as “a sweet-tempered, genuinely pious, and accomplished gentleman given to long-windedness at daily prayers.”

However, Rogers died “most inauspiciously” two years later while still in office, according to Harvard’s website.

Increase Mather, 1685-1686 (acting president); 1686-1692 (rector); 1692-1701 (president)

Although Increase Mather had been considered for the presidency before Rogers had, two other candidates again turned down the position after Rogers’s death before Mather accepted. During his tenure, though, Mather spent only months in Cambridge, as he lived in Boston’s North End — where he also served his congregation, according to Harvard’s website.


He was also mired in political controversy as England and colonists fought over the college’s charter. In 1701, “Mather’s political rivals in Boston got the upper hand and pushed him out on a technicality,” according to Harvard.

John Leverett, 1708-1724

Vice President Samuel Willard led Harvard for several years before he resigned in 1707 because of an illness, and he died shortly after.

John Leverett took the helm in early 1708 and was the college’s first secular president, according to Harvard’s website. Under his reign, the first student club was established, as was the first student publication.

“In an era of political and sectarian strife, he was steadfast in preserving the College from the devastating control of a provincial orthodoxy,” a Harvard historian wrote. “He kept it a house of learning under the spirit of religion, not . . . the divinity school of a particular sect.”

He died in office.

Benjamin Wadsworth, 1725-1737

Bejamin Wadsworth.
Bejamin Wadsworth.Harvard University/File/Harvard University

Again, Harvard offered the president position to two ministers before offering the job to Benjamin Wadsworth.

During his presidency, Wadsworth House (Harvard’s second-oldest standing building) was built, the college laws were overhauled, and the curriculum was improved.

However, records show that Wadsworth was no disciplinarian, according to Harvard.


“The faculty records, which begin with Wadsworth’s administration, are full of ‘drinking frolicks,’ poultry-stealing, profane cursing and swearing, card-playing, live snakes in tutors’ chambers, bringing ‘Rhum’ into college rooms, and ‘shamefull and scandalous Routs and Noises for sundry nights in the College Yard,” a Harvard historian wrote.

He died in office in 1737.

Edward Holyoke, 1737-1769

Edward Holyoke.
Edward Holyoke.Harvard University/File

Edward Holyoke, known for his fairly liberal administration, served the second-longest presidential term in Harvard’s history at 32 years. Holyoke led the school as many key players from the Revolutionary War received their education.

Under Holyoke, the curriculum was modernized, and Harvard revamped “the old educational system under which a single tutor taught all subjects to a given class,” leading instead for instructors to teach more specialized subjects, according to the school’s website.

Samuel Locke, 1770-1773

Many were excited with the choice of Samuel Locke to head up the school in 1770; he was called a contemporary, as well as “a man of strength, penetration, and judgment,” according to Harvard’s website.

However, he resigned three years later, and the details as to why were sparse.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the reason came to light: Locke had impregnated one of his maids.

Samuel Langdon, 1774-1780

Harvard played a key role in the Revolutionary War under Samuel Langdon’s presidency, which started shortly before the battles of Lexington and Concord. The school closed early “as Cambridge turned into an armed camp,” and revolution soldiers were housed in several Harvard buildings, with George Washington using Wadsworth House as headquarters. Harvard Hall’s lead roof also was repurposed as bullets for the colonists’ guns.


Harvard resumed academics in Concord in 1775 and moved back to Cambridge in June 1776. In the winter of 1777, students had to leave for a few months as Harvard housed British prisoners of war.

Langdon was a fan of the revolution, which “made a favorable impression early on,” according to Harvard’s website. However, “his words and deeds soon irritated students [to] no end, what with scriptural harangues stretching to 90 minutes at the expense of Sunday-evening singing.” Students petitioned for his resignation in 1780, and Langdon “admitted his presidential unsuitability and promised to resign.”