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©President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2011
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Call No.: HUC 6781.16
Creator: Davis, John, 1761-1847
Title: John Davis Commencement poem collection, ca. 1780s
Quantity: .1 cubic feet (1 flat box)
Abstract: This collection contains five handwritten copies of Harvard graduate John Davis's 1781 Commencement poem. John Davis later served for forty years as a United States Court Judge in Massachusetts, and was Harvard's Treasurer from 1810 to 1827. The poem was delivered by Davis as part of the Commencement exercises on July 18, 1781, during the College's first public Commencement since the Revolutionary War interrupted the annual tradition in 1773. The poem imitates a classical style popular among Harvard Commencement poems of the late 18th century but is unusual in its focus on the Revolutionary War. The copies of Davis's poem were likely made between 1782 and 1785 by students, and may have been created because of the poem's popularity or as a class assignment.
Note: This document last updated 2013 April 29.
In the Harvard University ArchivesIn the Massachusetts Historical Society
- John Davis papers, 1627-1846 (Ms. N-1097).
- John Davis letters, 1778-1796 (Ms. N-1099).
On July 18, 1781, Harvard celebrated its first public Commencement ceremony since 1773 when the Revolutionary War interrupted the annual tradition. The Commencement of 1781 occurred at a tense time in Harvard's history: the country was still entrenched in war, Harvard's President Samuel Langdon had been dismissed in August 1780 and his successor Joseph Willard would not be inaugurated until September 1781, and in May and June 1781 the College had been vandalized during riotous behavior by students and members of the local community raising concerns about security during a public event. On June 12, 1781, some members of the senior class unsuccessfully petitioned the Board of Overseers to cancel the public Commencement ceremony, and on July 31st, Harvard Overseer John Eliot (Harvard AB 1772) reported in a letter to Jeremy Belknap (Harvard AB 1762) that he himself had been "very set against a public Commencement, thinking that the consequences would be rather bad as to rioting & wantonness." Plans for the public Commencement continued, however, and the Corporation arranged for two Justices of the Peace and the County sheriff to attend for "the prevention of disorders."The Commencement occurred peacefully on July 18th, presided over by Edward Wigglesworth, the Second Hollis Professor of Divinity, and attended by the Governor of the newly created Commonwealth of Massachusetts, John Hancock (Harvard AB 1754). The ceremony took place in the Cambridge Meeting House and the Boston Gazette of July 30th noted that the exercises "gave pleasure to a numerous and brilliant assembly of gentlemen and ladies, and evidently show, that amidst the calamities of war, this University has not failed to pay a strict attention to every branch of useful and polite literature."Among the day's exercises, graduate John Davis had been selected to compose and deliver a poem, and Eliot reported to Belknap in his July 31st letter that "Young Davis, who spoke the poetry is a genius of ye first magnitude. His lines were Vergilian." Davis's verses combined classical allusions with references to the Revolutionary War. Davis also used the public venue to memorialize College leaders who had died during the war years:Tis her own son, her much lov'd Wadsworth fallsHear faithful sighs return yon distant knell / Ah! painful sighs-- 'tis Eliot's passing bellScarce for his grave our weeping sires return, / When shrouded Winthrop meets his funeral urn.Dark was the day that gave his dying breath / And dark the night that clos'd his eyes in death.Still it returns--the mournful scenes appearMemory bids weep but Williams check the tearNor these alone the starting tear demands;War shakes her walls and scatters all her bandLoud shouts arise and horrid armour ringsWhere tuneful Muses spread their peaceful wingsLoud thro' her groves the shout of armies runs,And Harvard mourns for her departed sons.Davis's verse refers to Harvard tutor John Wadsworth (1730-1777; Harvard AB 1762) who died of smallpox on July 12, 1777, Reverend Andrew Eliot (1718-1778; Harvard AB 1737), minister of the New North Church of Boston and Corporation member, who died on September 13, 1778; the second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy John Winthrop (1714-1779; Harvard AB 1732) who died on May 3, 1779; and Professor Samuel Williams (1743-1817) who succeeded Winthrop as the third Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1780.
John Davis (1761-1847), a United States Court judge of the district of Massachusetts, was born on January 25, 1761 in Plymouth, Mass. He received an AB from Harvard in 1781 and an AM in 1784. Davis practiced law and served in state government before being appointed comptroller of the United States Treasury in 1796. In 1801, he began a forty-year tenure as a United States Court Judge for the district of Massachusetts. Davis was a Fellow of Harvard College from 1803 to 1810 and served College Treasurer from 1810 to 1827. He also served as President of the Massachusetts Historical Society from 1818 to 1843. Davis died on January 14, 1847.
- Letter from John Eliot to Jeremy Belknap, July 31, 1781 in the"Belknap papers" in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1891, Sixth Series, Volume IV.
- "BOSTON, July 30." in the Boston Gazette of July 30, 1781, page 2.
- Davis, William Thomas. Plymouth memories of an octogenarian. Plymouth, Mass.: Printed by the Memorial press.
This collection contains five handwritten copies of graduate John Davis's Harvard Commencement poem delivered on July 18, 1781. The copies do not have transcription dates, but were probably made between 1782 and 1785, and may have been created due to the poem's popularity among students or as a class assignment. Three of the copies are inscribed with the names of Harvard men: Benjamin Parker and John Remington, both members of the Class of 1782 (Volume 1), John Simpkins, Class of 1786 (Volume 2), and David Daniells, presumably David Daniels of the Class of 1776 (Volume 3).Harvard faculty selected graduates to speak at Commencement ceremonies, and besides an original poem, specific students were selected to deliver the salutatory address and orations in English, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, as well as participate in debates. Davis's rhyming poem follows a format popular among Harvard Commencement poems of the late 18th century that imitated classical styles, presented an idealized progression of the advancement of knowledge and society, and memorialized the recently deceased. Davis's poem is unusual in its focus on the Revolutionary War. The poem refers to the deaths of Harvard tutor John Wadsworth (1730-1777; Harvard AB 1762), Reverend Andrew Eliot (1718-1778; Harvard AB 1737), and the second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy John Winthrop (1714-1779; Harvard AB 1732), and also mentions the third Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy Samuel Williams (1743-1817).