Throwback Thursday: When George Washington Received the First Harvard Law Degree

The general was rewarded for evicting the British from Boston.

Any local student of history will remember that George Washington, head of the newly formed Continental Army, once drove the British out of Boston.

Fewer students of history might remember that on April 3, 1776, for this service, he was rewarded the first-ever law degree from Harvard College.

In 1937, the Harvard Crimson reflected on the honor, recalling:

It was voted to him by the Corporation and Overseers of Harvard University, in accordance with the prevailing spirit after he had driven the British from Boston in March 17, 1776, and “as an expression of the gratitude of this College for his eminent services in the cause of his country and to this society, on April 3, 1776.

It’s hard to know how Washington felt about the honor because he didn’t record a diary at the time. (Perhaps he felt as joyful as did Oprah.) But history does suggest that Washington looked favorably on the Massachusetts school in general. He even considered sending his stepson there, and rejected the idea only out of the hope that they might remain near. In a 1799 letter, he wrote:

My opinion has always been that the university in Massachusetts would have been the most eligible seminary to have sent him to; first, because it is on a larger scale than any other; and secondly, because I believe that the habits of youth there, whether from the discipline of the school, or the greater attention of the people generally to morals and a more regular course of life, are less prone to dissipation and excess than they are at the colleges south of it, it may be asked, if this was my opinion, why I did not send him there? The answer is as short as to me it was weighty; being the only male in his line, and knowing (although it would have been submitted to) that it would have proved a heart-rending stroke to have him at that distance, I was disposed to try a nearer seminary of good repute.

Honorary degree or not, it’s a sentiment that most parents can relate to these days, though most would probably still consent to let their kid travel far if it meant a Harvard degree. But then again, most parents don’t have the benefit of being the first president of the United States.

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