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UAI 15.880

Kirkland, John Thornton, 1770-1840. Papers of John Thornton Kirkland, 1788-1837 and undated : an inventory

Harvard University Archives


Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: UAI 15.880
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Creator: Kirkland, John Thornton, 1770-1840.
Title: Papers of John Thornton Kirkland, 1788-1837 and undated.
Date(s): 1788-1837 and undated
Quantity: 2 cubic feet (3 document boxes, 1 half-document box, 1 legal document box, 1 half-legal document box, 1 portfolio folder)
Language of materials: English
Abstract: The Papers of John T. Kirkland, 1788-1837 and undated, chiefly document his activities as a Unitarian minister from 1794 to 1810 and as president of Harvard University from 1810 to 1828. The records include correspondence, letterbooks, notebooks, meeting minutes, diaries, commonplace books, sermons, and writings. A limited amount of material about Kirkland's student days at Harvard and his personal life are also included in the collection.

Acquisition Information:

The Papers of John T. Kirkland were acquired by the Harvard University Archives through donation and purchase. Whenever possible the archivist noted the terms of acquisition in the folder list below. The acquisitions are as follows:
  • Bella C. Landauer, 1939
  • Frances W. Ramsey, Jr., 1962
  • Houghton Library, 1949
  • Houghton Library, 1962
  • Philip Spaulding, 1937
  • T. Roland [Bernes], 1965
  • Thomas F. Cadwalader, 1957
  • Mrs. William C. Morris, 1952
  • Accession number: 12864; 1994 May 5
  • Accession number: 13251; 1995 December 11
  • Accession number: 14262; 2000 December 20
  • Accession number: 18342; 2011 August 4
  • Processing Information:

    Most of this material was first classified and described in the Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980. In September 2001, Barbara Meloni processed the materials gathered in accession number 14262 and Kate Bowers created an online finding aid. In 2005, Dominic P. Grandinetti re-processed these papers. Re-processing included the integration of outstanding accessions, the rearrangement and rehousing of the material in the appropriate containers, the establishment of a folder list, and the modification of the 2001 finding aid. In December 2011, minor adjustments to the physical arrangement of the collection and corresponding updates to the finding aid were made by Dominic P. Grandinetti.
    Published versions of the documents in this collection are noted in the folder lists.
    Additional preservation and description of the Papers of John T. Kirkland was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

    Researcher Access:

    Permission of the University Archives is required for access to the Papers of John T. Kirkland. Researchers are advised to use published versions of these papers, both because of the fragility of the originals and their eighteenth and nineteenth-century orthography. Please consult the reference staff for further details. Additional restrictions may apply.

    Copying Restriction:

    Copying of fragile materials may be limited.

    Online access:

    All of the papers have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

    Preferred Citation:

    Kirkland, John Thornton, 1770-1840. Papers of John Thornton Kirkland, 1788-1837 and undated. UAI 15.880, Harvard University Archives.

    Related Materials

    In the Harvard University Archives
    In the Hamilton College Library, College Archives
    Samuel Kirkland Papers, 1741-1808 (Archives 0000.190): includes manuscript materials related to Reverend Samuel Kirkland (1741-1808), missionary to the Oneida Indians and founder of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy, which became Hamilton College. A portion of the collection's correspondence (including some of John T. Kirkland letters) has been digitized.

    Related Materials

    In the Hamilton College Library, College Archives

    Biographical Note

    John Thornton Kirkland (1770-1840) served as the fifteenth President of Harvard University from November 14, 1810 to April 2, 1828.
    Kirkland was born to Samuel Kirkland and Jerusha (Bingham) Kirkland on August 17, 1770 in Herkimer, New York. His father was a Congregational minister and missionary to Indians who founded the town of Kirkland, New York and established Hamilton Oneida College (later known as Hamilton College). Kirkland's early education took place at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He later graduated from Harvard College (AB 1789) and returned to teach at Phillips Academy and study divinity. However, Kirkland found the Calvinist doctrine too restrictive and decided to return to Harvard University and joined the Unitarian denomination. While studying divinity at Harvard, Kirkland served as a tutor of logic and metaphysics (1792-1794). Kirkland was ordained as a pastor of the New South Church in Boston, Massachusetts in 1794, serving until 1810.
    A respected church leader, Kirkland was elected president of Harvard University in 1810. Under Kirkland's leadership Harvard expanded rapidly and evolved from a college to a university. Fifteen new professorships were formed, and the Law School (1817) and the Divinity School (1819) were founded during Kirkland's administration. New buildings were added to the school grounds; Holworthy Hall (1812), University Hall (1814), the Medical College (1816), and Divinity Hall (1825) were constructed. 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. New areas of instruction in chemistry, mineralogy, anatomy, physiology, and elocution were added to the college curriculum; the lecture method of instruction was introduced into the classroom; and the first student electives at Harvard were offered. Kirkland also played a leading role in the improvement of Harvard Yard which was cluttered at the time with a brew house, a wood yard, privies, roaming sheep, and a college pig pen. Under Kirkland's stewardship, the Yard was replaced with elm trees, regular pathways, and a proper lawn.
    Kirkland's last years as Harvard president ended with controversy. Student disorder on campus was common in the early nineteenth century. When student riots and fights broke out at Harvard in 1823 over who was to give the commencement address at graduation, Kirkland expelled half of the senior class. As a result of Kirkland's actions, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts rescinded 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 University's finances. A fiscal crisis led to a financial retrenchment at Harvard and undermined Kirkland's authority. Over the next year, Kirkland's salary was reduced, his student secretary's job was eliminated, professors' salaries were cut, teaching loads increased, non-resident teachers were fired, and the University sloop, the Harvard, was sold. Harvard's financial accounts were brought under strict control and Kirkland's laxity in managing the financial affairs of the University was ended. In August 1827, Kirkland suffered a slight paralytic stroke. No longer able to meet the increasing challenges of administering Harvard's affairs, Kirkland resigned in March 1828.
    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. Kirkland died on April 24, 1840.



    The records are arranged in seven series:

    Scope and Content

    The Papers of John T. Kirkland, 1788-1837 and undated, chiefly document his activities as a Unitarian minister from 1794 to 1810 and as president of Harvard University from 1810 to 1828. The records include correspondence, letterbooks, notebooks, meeting minutes, diaries, commonplace books, sermons, and writings. A limited amount of material about Kirkland's student days at Harvard and his personal life are also included in the collection.
    The bulk of the collection contains Kirkland's records such as correspondence, diaries, commonplace books, notebooks, and meeting minutes, from his tenure as president of Harvard University, illustrating Kirkland's administration and supervision of Harvard at a time in which the school was evolving from a college to a university; increasing its faculty, expanding its curriculum, and introducing progressive modes of instruction. The records demonstrate Kirkland's role as a liaison between the Fellows of Harvard Corporation, members of the Board of Overseers, professors, tutors, students, staff, and the public. Moreover, the records offer insight into the complex problems at Harvard in the early nineteenth century, as well as illustrate the challenges faced by early university or college presidents. The records document the daily responsibilities of Kirkland as Harvard president; and they demonstrate Kirkland's regulation of student behavior, student absences and vacations, and class meetings. They highlight Kirkland's responsibility to provide adequate meals to students; his supervision of the college library, grounds, and other buildings; and his ongoing contribution to the development of the college curriculum. The records demonstrate Kirkland's execution of the rules and regulations established by the Corporation and detail his supervision of various Harvard officers and committees. The records also underscore Kirkland's role as an ordained minister and as a teacher of morality and religion to promote the spiritual welfare of students at Harvard.
    The collection includes records such as sermons, diaries, and notebooks, which document Kirkland's religious studies at Harvard and his activities as a Unitarian minister. Kirkland's reflections, musings, and notes on religious themes and topics are found in these records. The records help illustrate Kirkland's religious beliefs and shed light on his style and character of preaching. Additionally, the records provide a glimpse into the kind of divinity instruction a student received at the end of the eighteenth century at Harvard.
    The collection also includes a limited amount of material documenting Kirkland's family and personal life. The Kirkland-Lothrop family correspondence consists mostly of letters from 1823 to 1828 written to Kirkland's nephew, Samuel Kirkland Lothrop. Although chiefly documenting Lothrop's student life at Harvard and his relationship with his family, the correspondence also offers a glimpse into the personal life of John T. Kirkland and his rapport with his extended family. Kirkland's personal correspondence from 1804 to 1834 contains a few letters referring to his ministerial activities and other routine matters. Kirkland's travel diary describes a visit to Spain, Egypt, and the Mediterranean with his wife Elizabeth after his retirement from Harvard. Although mostly in draft and fragmentary form, Kirkland's writings housed in Series VII offer an indication of his public interests, particularly in the fields of education and religion.


    This document last updated 2017 September 11.

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