In his History of Harvard University, Josiah Quincy, past President of Harvard University, states:

“The General Court appointed twelve of the most eminent men of the colony to take order for a college at Newtown, all of their names dear to New England, on account of their sacrifices, their sufferings, and virtues.  Of the twelve, six were magistrates and six were clergy. The most influential of these were John Winthrop, Thomas Dudley, and Rev. John Cotton. To these names add the name of Sir Henry Vane because he was governor and head of the court that first proposed the college in 1636.”

The proposal to establish a college occurred seven months before John Harvard was headhunted from Emmanuel College, Cambridge University to take over the church in Charlestown in Massachusetts. Soon after arriving, Harvard died of consumption in Charlestown at the age of 31. Although he left no written will, he verbally disposed of his property such that half his estate and all his books would go to the new college.

Earlier in the summer of 1635, Sir Henry Vane arrived in Boston to great fanfare and was invited to live in the home of Rev. John Cotton —to which he added a large extension for himself.  At the time, Vane was but twenty-two years old and found Cotton to be a worthy mentor, friend, and father figure.  Both men were university educated and spoke several languages.  Vane attended Oxford University but dropped out due to his Puritan leanings and was sent to Europe as an ambassador by his father, who was household chancellor to Charles I.  John Cotton had been the head lecturer at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, and was the most distinguished cleric and scholar in New England at the time. He was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and wrote poetry in Greek.  Vane knew Greek and Latin and spoke several European languages.

John Cotton was 50 years old and a father for the first time. His first son, Seaborn, was born on the voyage to America in 1633. The year Vane arrived; Cotton had established the Boston Latin School to provide for the education of the town’s youth.  The school was modeled after the Boston Grammar School in Boston, England that Cotton helped manage as vicar of the town. Having been a Fellow of Emmanuel College and being a new father, Cotton had a vested interest in education. During meals and evenings by the fire, Cotton and Vane likely discussed the need for a college in Massachusetts. The idea incubated for over a year and when Sir Henry Vane was elected governor in 1636, the idea was proposed to the General Court as shown in the following court records:


28 October 1636, The General Court headed by Governor Henry Vane decided that the good people of Massachusetts, through their representatives, would give £400 to the establishment of a place of education “whereof £200 would be paid the next year, and £200 when the work is finished, and the next Court to appoint where and what building.”

15 November 1637 Court Records state, “The College is ordered to be at Newetowne.”

27 November 1637 Court records show, “For the College, the Governor, Mr. Winthrope; the Deputy, Mr. Dudley; the Treasurer, Mr. Bellingham; along with Mr. Cotton (and others) that these or the greater part of them, whereof Mr. Winthrope, Mr. Dudley, or Mr. Bellingham, to always be one, to take order for a College at Newetowne.” In addition, Mr. Nathaniel Eaton, a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, was appointed first professor and master of the college.

2 May 1638 Court records state, “It is ordered, That Newetowne shall henceforth be called Cambridge.”

11 May 1638, the Court granted nearly three acres “to the professor and to the Town’s use forever, for a public school or college; and the use of Mr. Nathaniel Eaton as long as he shall be employed in that work; so that at his death, or ceasing from that work, he or his shall be allowed according to the charges he hath been at, in building or fencing.” And so, the new college opened for classes and Nathaniel Eaton commenced teaching in 1638.

18 March 1639, in recognition of John Harvard’s endowment Court records state, “It is ordered, That the College agreed upon formerly to be built at Cambridge shall be called Harvard College.”

4 September 1639, the Court censured Mr. Nathaniel Eaton for beating an assistant teacher (Nathaniel Briscoe) with a cudgel by striking him some two hundred blows. The next day, other teachers and students testified to similar beatings and to the “ill and scant diet of his boarders” to which Mrs. Eaton confessed that she served students skimpy portions of bad food but denied any knowledge of goat dung being added to their hasty pudding. The Court fined Mr. Eaton £40 and “debarred him from teaching children within our jurisdiction.” Eaton fled to Virginia before it was discovered that he had taken over £200 from college funds and received £500 in cash from worthless bills of exchange sold to merchants. As a result, the court seized his estate and closed the college for a year.

23 September 1642, the first commencement at Harvard College took place as “nine bachelors gave good proof of their proficiency in the tongues and arts.” The General Court also decided that magistrates and teaching elders of the six nearest churches would-be governors of the college and most of these dined with the students at commencement.

27 December 1643, “By order of the General Court all the magistrates and the teaching elders of the six nearest churches were appointed to be forever governors of the college, and this day they met at Cambridge and considered of the officers of the college, and chose a treasurer, H. Pelham, Esq., being the first of that office.”

John Cotton represented the First Church of Boston as a governor of the college.

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Barry Arthur Cotton is an author living in Austin, Texas in the USA and is the 7th great-grandson of John Cotton, the Puritan Patriarch of New England. John Cotton was a Founding Father to America’s Founding Fathers and was pivotal in establishing America’s first public school and its first institution of higher learning, Harvard College. Barry served on the Board of the Winthrop Society for 9 years, was National chairperson & President for 5 years, and was elected President Emeritus in 2010. Concurrently, he served as a Trustee of the Partnership of the Historic Bostons for 14 years and has authored articles for the Winthrop Journal and the Mayflower Quarterly. Recently, Barry contributed several articles to BOSTON: The Small Town with a Big Story published in September 2019. Barry’s website is at THE COTTON CHRONICLES.

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David Roadman
David Roadman
May 1, 2023 9:45 pm

The Cotton family of preachers are responsible fo rthe Salem Witch trials of 1692. Is James Cotton a distant relative?

June 23, 2022 6:12 am

Really interesting. You can see how the shift from Catholicism, which was enshrined in the puritan doctrines, was driving education and reflected the stirrings of consent based choice which together form the two most important principles in what was shaping up to become capitalism.