George Washington in Minas Gerais

A Harvard Diploma (Twice) Across the Atlantic

by | Apr 8, 2007

French compilation of U.S. constitutional documents from 1778 owned by Brazilian anti-colonial conspirators is examined by Kenneth Maxwell in Ouro Preto, Minas gerais. Photo by Tomas Amorim

One of the books seized from the Minas conspirators in 1789 was an edition of American documents and state constitutions translated into French and collected under the title Recueil des Loix Constitutives des États-Unis de l’Amérique. Printed in 1778, the volume was organized by the otherwise unidentified Regnier, who lifted the Recueil’s translations and commentaries verbatim from Les Affaires de l’Amérique et de l’Angleterre, a European periodical which reported on the American revolutionary effort. Yet because the Recueil is a relatively slim volume when compared to the vast amount of published material in the Affaires, Regnier’s voice is present in the Recueil despite his piracy, in the decision over which documents to include, and the sequence in which they appear in the volume.

Opening the Recueil with the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and a series of recommendations from the newly-formed Continental Congress, Regnier elected to initially emphasize above all else the unity of the revolting American states. Washington’s diploma arrived in Brazil couched within the Recueil’s initial documents, each symbolically exhibiting a different facet of an emerging national unity. As such, the diploma fits into this project by concretely providing the personage of a military figurehead, a counterpart to the political authority of Benjamin Franklin, to whom the Recueil is dedicated.

Presented to Washington on April 4th, 1776, the degree formally celebrates the general’s “services to the Republic” in ousting the occupying British from Boston, and “saving this country from the dangers which threatened it.” During the stand-off, which had ended weeks earlier, the Harvard faculty and student body were forced to evacuate Harvard Yard and relocate to Concord. Initially, the British troops lodged themselves in Harvard facilities, but soon Washington’s troops would come to be based there; George Washington himself was installed in Craigie House.

It was amidst accolades from surrounding towns and legislatures that on April 3rd, Harvard’s president, Samuel Appleton, alongside fellows of the Harvard Corporation, voted unanimously to present George Washington with the degree of Doctor utriusque Juris, tum Naturae et Gentium, tum Civilis. This honorary degree, the first of its kind to be conferred by the University to a non-graduate, was the second LL.D. to have ever been granted by the institution. While celebrating the crucial military victory, it also marked Harvard’s return to Harvard Yard.

The degree was penned in Latin by Appleton himself and meant to be presented to Washington the following day, who by that time had already left for New York. The text of the diploma was nevertheless published, in English and Latin, in a host of area newspaperslater that month. Before formally bestowing Washington with the degree, the text details his credentials (among them, a “deep knowledge of civil Law & the Art of war”), portraying him as the classic embodiment of civic virtue (“he renounced his tranquil life […] & sacrificed his pleasures” in service of his “patriotic ardor”), and expressing gratitude that “our University may […] see itself reestablished in its ancient splendor.”

Incidentally, in the same entry of the Harvard Corporation Records for the April 3rd meeting, directly following the Latin text of Washington’s degree, the members of the Harvard Corporation drafted a letter to the Representatives of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay asking retribution for the damages incurred on Harvard property as a result of the British and American occupation:

We cannot doubt but that the Hon. Continental Congress will consider it a debt of Justice to make good these losses and damages which the College has sustained for the accommodation of the Continental army and by the British forces.

This explicit departure from the tone of Washington’s diploma sheds light on the degree to which its conferring was a highly public and political act. From its initial dissemination in local newspapers to its eventual catapulting across the Atlantic into the Affaires, Regnier’s Recueil, and the hands of the Minas conspirators, the diploma had never been physically presented to Washington. As if to confirm this strange disconnect, the French translation of the diploma repeatedly refers to the academic institution of the “University of Cambridge in New England” as “Harward.” Nevertheless, the diploma’s inclusion in the Recueil was in many ways an extension of the Harvard Corporation’s decision to bestow Washington with the degree, continuing their work in etching out a national figurehead from the uncertain beginnings of a nation.

Spring 2007Volume VI, Number 3

Gabriel Rocha, a Junior concentrating in Literature at Harvard College, is a Research Assistant for the Brazil Program at DRCLAS.

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