The Harvard Charter of 1650

Harvard Charter of 1650, UAI 15.100, Harvard University Archives

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History and Transcription

  • Harvard College was founded by a vote of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts on October 28, 1636 that allocated "400£ towards a schoale or colledge." Subsequent legislative acts in 1642 established the Board of Overseers, but it was the Charter of 1650 that created the Harvard Corporation as the College's primary governing board and defined its composition and authority.
  • The 1642 legislation formalized the authority of the Board of Overseers over the College. Of the Overseers, only the president of Harvard had any direct contact with the College's day-to-day affairs, and because the Board was composed of ex-officio members disbursed throughout the Boston area, it was difficult for the Board to meet and govern effectively. On May 23, 1650, President Dunster delivered a petition (no longer extant) to the General Court requesting the establishment of a corporation to manage the College. The Court agreed and a Charter was passed on May 30, 1650 and signed by Governor Thomas Dudley on May 31, 1650.
  • The Charter of 1650 established the Harvard Corporation board consisting of seven individuals: the President, five Fellows, and a Treasurer. The Corporation had the authority to manage the College's finances, properties, and donations, act as a legal entity in courts of law, select officers and servants, and create orders and bylaws for the College, with the approval of the Board of Overseers. The Charter named the Corporation as the "President and Fellowes of Harvard College" and transferred to them, in "perpetual succession," the duties of managing the College.
  • The first changes to the Corporation’s structure – including an expansion of the number of Fellows, the establishment of terms of service for Fellows, and the creation of standing committees – were implemented in 2010.
  • The Charter of 1650 is part of the insignia of the office of the Harvard presidency, along with the oldest surviving record book, College Book I, the University's seals, and silver ceremonial keys. The first documented transferring of the insignia occurred during the inauguration of President Leverett in 1708, when the College "Library Keeper" carried the charter, seal, and records in the ceremonial procession, and the insignia was presented to Leverett by the governor of the colony. The symbolic transfer of the insignia during presidential installations has continued as a tradition, with the insignia presented by the governor of Massachusetts through 1865. After the University ceased to be under the Commonwealth's control, the outgoing Harvard president and members of the Board of Overseers made the presentation.



The Charter of the President and Fellows of Harvard College,
under the seal of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, and bearing the date May 31st, A. D. 1650

Whereas, through the good hand of God, many well devoted persons have been, and daily are moved, and stirred up, to give and bestow, sundry gifts, legacies, lands, and revenues for the advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences in Harvard College, in Cambridge in the County of Middlesex, and to the maintenance of the President and Fellows, and for all accommodations of buildings, and all other necessary provisions, that may conduce to the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness: It is therefore ordered, and enacted by this Court, and the authority thereof, that for the furthering of so good a work and for the purposes aforesaid, from henceforth that the said College, in Cambridge in Middlesex, in New England, shall be a Corporation, consisting of seven persons, to wit, a President, five Fellows, and a Treasurer or Bursar: and that Henry Dunster shall be the first President, Samuel Mather, Samuel Danforth, Masters of Arts, Jonathan Mitchell, Comfort Starr, and Samuel Eaton, Bachelors of Arts, shall be the five Fellows, and Thomas Danforth to be present Treasurer, all of them being inhabitants in the Bay, and shall be the first seven persons of which the said Corporation shall consist: and that the said seven persons, or the greater number of them, procuring the presence of the Overseers of the College, and by their counsel and consent, shall have power, and are hereby authorized, at any time or times, to elect a new President, Fellows, or Treasurer, so oft, and from time to time, as any of the said person or persons shall die, or be removed, which said President and Fellows, for the time being, shall for ever hereafter, in name and fact, be one body politic and corporate in law, to all intents and purposes; and shall have perpetual succession; and shall be called by the name of President and Fellows of Harvard College, and shall, from time to time, be eligible as aforesaid. And by that name they, and their successors, shall and may purchase and acquire to themselves, or take and receive upon free-gift and donation, any lands, tenements, or hereditaments, within this jurisdiction of the Massachusetts, not exceeding the value of five hundred pounds per annum, and any goods and sums of money whatsoever, to the use and behoof of the said President, Fellows, and scholars of the said College: and also may sue and plead, or be sued and impleaded by the name aforesaid, in all Courts and places of judicature, within the jurisdiction aforesaid.


And that the said President, with any three of the Fellows, shall have power, and are hereby authorized, when they shall think fit, to make and appoint a common seal, for the use of the said Corporation.

And the President and Fellows, or the major part of them, from time to time, may meet and choose such officers and servants for the College, and make such allowance to them, and them also to remove, and after death, or removal, to choose such others, and to make, from time to time, such orders and by-laws, for the better ordering, and carrying on the work of the College, as they shall think fit: Provided, the said orders be allowed by the Overseers. And also, that the President and Fellows, or major part of them with the Treasurer, shall have power to make conclusive bargains for lands and tenements, to be purchased by the said Corporation, for valuable considerations. And for the better ordering of the government of the said College and Corporation, Be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the President, and three more of the Fellows, shall and may, from time to time, upon due warning or notice given by the President to the rest, hold a meeting, for the debating and concluding of affairs concerning the profits and revenues of any lands and disposing of their goods, (provided that all the said disposings be according to the will of the donors) and for direction in all emergent occasions; execution of all orders and by-laws; and for the procuring of a general meeting of all the Overseers and Society, in great and difficult cases; and in cases of non-agreement; in all which cases aforesaid, the conclusion shall be made by the major part, the said President having a casting voice, the Overseers consenting thereunto. And that all the aforesaid transactions shall tend to, and for the use and behoof of the President, Fellows, scholars, and officers of the said College, and for all accommodations of buildings, books, and all other necessary provisions, and furnitures, as may be for the advancement and education of youth, in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences. And further be it ordered by this Court, and the authority thereof, that all the lands, tenements, or hereditaments, houses, or revenues, within this jurisdiction, to the aforesaid President or College appertaining, not exceeding the value of five hundred pounds per annum, shall, from henceforth, be freed from all civil impositions, taxes, and rates; all goods to the said Corporation, or to any scholars thereof appertaining, shall be exempted from all manner of toll, customs, and excise whatsoever. And that the said President, Fellows, and scholars, together with the servants, and other necessary officers to the said President, or College appertaining, not exceeding ten, viz. three to the President, and seven to the College belonging, shall be exempted from all personal civil offices, military exercises, or services, watchings, and wardings: and such of their estates, not exceeding one hundred pounds a man, shall be free from all country taxes, or rates whatsoever, and none others.

In witness whereof, the Court hath caused the seal of the colony to be hereunto affixed. Dated the one and thirtieth day of the third month, called May, anno 1650.