Harvard’s History – The “John Harvard” Statue

By: Joe Luongo

Campus Sherpa Staff Writer, Harvard University

At the heart of Harvard University’s campus, right in the center of Harvard Yard is arguably Harvard’s most famous and sought out landmark: the “John Harvard” Statue (yes, the quotation marks are there for a reason). This bronze statue depicts a man sitting on a chair reading a book upon a base and was sculpted in 1884 by Daniel Chester French. It is believed to be the third most photographed statue in the United States, which I can attest to as there are tourists constantly taking pictures 24/7 blocking my route to class. The only two statues in the whole country believed to be photographed more are the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial, with Lincoln also being sculpted by French. The statue originally resided in front of Memorial Hall, but was moved to the front of University Hall in 1924, in Harvard Yard, where it is today.

As ironic as it may be, the flagship attraction at one of the most prestigious schools in the world, whose motto is “veritas” which literally means “truth” in Latin, is known as the statue of three lies. The inscription on the front of the base of the statue reads “John Harvard, Founder, 1638”, with all three being false.

The first lie is that John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard University; he was only a benefactor. The Massachusetts Bay Colony founded Harvard University originally as “Newetowne College” in 1636. It was only renamed Harvard University when John Harvard passed away and left the school 400 books and £779 in 1638, which leads to the second lie: Harvard was founded in 1636, not 1638 as the statue depicts. There are also a few books placed underneath John Harvard’s chair to resemble his donation.

The third and perhaps worst lie is that the statue is not even John Harvard. When the second Harvard Hall burned down in 1764, the school lost all of the portraits of John Harvard, so no one really knows what he looked like. So, who is this imposter taking John Harvard’s identity?

At Harvard, there is a tradition of naming upperclassmen houses after former Harvard presidents. Kirkland house is named for President Kirkland, Mather House is named for President Mather, Lowell House is named for President Lowell and so on and so forth. However, there was a president named Leonard Hoar who served from 1672-1674. For obvious reasons, Harvard did not want to have a house named for this president as it would be called “Hoar House”, but they still wanted to honor President Hoar in some way, preferably without his last name. A descendant of President Hoar, Sherman Hoar, was a graduate of the Class of 1882, right before the statue was sculpted. Sherman Hoar was chosen to be the model for the statue as a way to commemorate President Hoar without his last name.

On the right side of the base of the statue, there is the seal of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, where John Harvard was educated. On the left side, is Harvard’s seal, the red shield with three books with “ve-ri- tas” written across them. However, this seal is slightly different, as the bottom book, the “tas” book, is face down while it is usually face up like the other two books. This is because it was easier to cast the “a” in “tas” on the spine of the book, rather than the crease.

If you visit Harvard, make sure to get a picture with “John Harvard” (Sherman Hoar), but I would not recommend touching or rubbing the foot. There is a superstition that if you touch/rub the foot, you will have good luck or get into Harvard. You will notice it is very discolored, and as a student, I can tell you it is not from people touching it…and I will leave it at that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *