To encounter the statue, one must penetrate a hundred yards or so into Old Harvard Yard, entering from either the Johnston Gate on Peabody Street, or the gate at Wigglesworth Hall on Massachusetts Avenue. One might also encounter this statue of John Harvard, situated before the western flank of University Hall, after an aimless ramble about the several dozen acres of Harvard’s core campus and famed Yards.
This life-size bronze statue of John Harvard sits atop a sizable stone base, into which are carved three simple lines “John Harvard”, “Founder” and “1638”, each of which constitutes a lie.
First, the seated minister sculpted and cast in 1884 by Daniel Chester French — famed creator of the immense seated figure of Abraham Lincoln inhabiting Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial — is not John Harvard. At the time of the sculpture’s creation, no one really knew what John Harvard looked like. Images of the man that might have been held among his various papers by the college were destroyed, along with a great many other documents and artifacts and virtually all of John Harvard’s personal library, by the disastrous Harvard Hall fire of 1764. So, in John Harvard’s stead, a student by the name of Sherman Hoar (Harvard Class of 1882) was selected as the model for the school benefactor.
And there we find the second lie, for, while John Harvard may have been one of the school’s most significant early benefactors, he was most certainly not its Founder. John Harvard was born in 1607 in Southwark, England, just across the broad Thames from central London. Emigrating with his new bride to Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1637, Harvard took the post of minister of his New England congregation. He died childless of tuberculosis just 2-1/2 years later, bequeathing half his estate and his 400-volume library to the college that now bears his name.
The statue’s third lie is that of the college’s purported founding year of 1638. It was in fact in late 1636 — a mere 16 years after the Plymouth Rock landing of 102 Pilgrims — that the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony founded ‘The College of Newetowne’, making it the oldest college in the New World. A purchase of one acre of city land a year later became ‘College Yard’, the nucleus of what is now Harvard’s Old Yard. About that Yard were constructed Harvard’s first structures: the building that would soon be rechristened Harvard Hall, along with Peyntree House and Goffe House. Upon receipt of John Harvard’s generous donation to the fledgling college, the institution was renamed ‘Harvard College’ in March of 1639. The latter appellation of ‘Harvard University’ was penned by the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.
Though myth holds that some graduating seniors urinate on the famed statue prior to departing campus for good, it is verifiably true that many arriving students — as well as visiting high school and middle school students fervently seeking admission, and their parents — rub the burnished toe of the statue’s extended foot for luck.