The Fourth Lie

JH IMG_5561By Ted Zagraniski, MPA/MC’14, Culture Editor

The existence of the fourth lie was suggested by Douglas Shand-Tucci in 2001: “The idea of the three lies is at best a fourth, and by far the greater falsehood.” Who’s to blame for this fabrication?

Campus tour guides might be a natural target for blame. Shand-Tucci called tour guides “smartasses”. I found a guide bringing his group to the subject of the three lies: Daniel C. French’s 1884 statue John Harvard, which stands in Harvard Yard. The guide’s name was Arya, a veteran of many campus tours.

“Us tour guides like to call this statue the Statue of Three Lies,” he told the group.  “If you can’t read it, the plinth says ‘JOHN HARVARD – FOUNDER – 1638’. The first lie is that John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard College. It also says 1638; the College was founded in 1636. And the biggest lie is that this likeness is not even John Harvard.”

As it turns out, those “smartass tour guides” had nothing to do with pinning the three lies to John Harvard. Historians did. It began with Dr. Ellis of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who criticized the planned statue in November 1883 as “a wholly idealized representation … of an historical person of whose form … there are no certifications.” A year later, the Society’s Robert C. Winthrop, Jr., expressed his displeasure that the date on John Harvard’s base implied that the college was founded in 1638.

Then on November 26, 1934, The Crimson claimed that French had selected a student’s body for a model and then sculpted upon it “an idealized head”.

Arya explained the issue: “We lost all records of what John Harvard actually looked like.” If we ever knew, the memory was certainly lost in the Harvard Hall fire of 1764.

In 1883, French instead “chose a lineal descendant [of] the early comers to our shores” as a “model in the general structure of the face.” Why did French choose future U.S. Congressman Sherman Hoar, A.B. 1882 LL.B. 1884, as his model? “He has more of what I want than anybody I know,” wrote French.

Even The Crimson knew in 1884 that for this statue “an ideal model is a fit one; to flatter is not always to falsify.” At that time, The Crimson also explained the rationale for carving of the word “FOUNDER” upon the work.

“It must be understood,” the paper wrote, “that John Harvard, and not the Colony Treasury, gave the college to the state.” This is because John Harvard’s gift – worth about $156,000 today – exceeded the colony’s promissory note by a factor of more than two. As Cotton Mather wrote, John Harvard “laid the most significant stone in the [college’s] Foundation”, and it was for this reason that the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony named John Harvard as the college’s “principal founder” in 1661.

Finally, there is the matter of that date. There is no doubt that the General Court authorized “a Colledge at Newetowne” in 1636 which became “Harvard College” in March 1639. But the intent of the date on the statue is ambiguous; the proximity to the word “FOUNDER” certainly doesn’t help.

If you think the point of the carving is to fix the foundation of Harvard College at a single point in time, then it is a lie. But by that reasoning, so is every other date ascribed to the foundation of Harvard, including 1636. The college grew into being over a period of about six years.

A slightly more nuanced view of the University’s history tells us that John Harvard died (probably) of pulmonary tuberculosis in (definitely) September 1638. It was therefore in 1638 that his money and library passed to the college, and it is probable that, for this reason, 1638 was selected for the inscription.

A narrow view of the three lies is as much a lie itself as any of the three. Sure, it gets laugh on a campus tour. But since we Harvardians are smart enough to internalize a broader factual context, let’s at least advance this notion:

That John Harvard is a monumental work of art representing one of our founders, and that Mr. Harvard’s pioneering gift was bestowed upon us in 1638.

These are broad facts upon which we should all agree. In the words of Jerome D. Greene, A.B. 1896, writing to The Crimson’s editors about John Harvard in December 1934, “There is no myth to be destroyed.”

For his part, Arya is a Harvardian and not a smartass.

As we parted, he said that he would embrace a more fact-based approach to his telling of the three lies. No doubt, both Harvard and French would have approved!

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