In front of university hall at Harvard University stands a bronze statue of John Harvard. Danial Chester French sculpted the statue in 1884. The statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial is one of Mr. French’s better-recognized works. It had been originally placed on a granite pedestal to the west of Memorial Hall but was moved to its present location forty years later. Harvard’s Statue had been unveiled for the University’s 250th birthday in 1885. There is an inscription on the statue that reads, “John Harvard, Founder, 1638.” Though it may come as a surprise, none of it is true. All across campus the students refer to this monument to a great man as “the statue of three lies”.
When the statue was created, there were no pictures of John Harvard known to exist. A student named Sherman Hoar was chosen randomly by French and dressed in the style of the seventeenth century so he could model for the statue. So, this is not a statue of the late John Harvard; secondly, John Harvard was not the founder of the college. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had established the college. It was only later named after John Harvard, who had been an early financial contributor to the college.. The 3rd lie is that the college was actually founded in 1636 not 1638 as the inscription claims.
There a few other odd things about this strange bronze figure. On the left of the granite pedestal is the former seal of the college. Harvard’s current seal has the motto, Veritas, written on three open books. On the statue there is a single book inscribed “TAS” and it is cast page-side down. Some claim that this symbolizes that not all knowledge was accessible through the printed word. However, a more reasonable explanation is that metal casting at the time was not advanced enough produce the image of an “A” over the crack of the open book. To resolve this problem, the book was turned over so that the “A” could be cast. As for the seal on the right side of the granite block, that is the seal of Emmanuel College in Cambridge, England. John Harvard had graduated from Emmanuel College before immigrating to America. Finally, if you visit the statue you’ll notice that the brass of the left shoe appears polished clean. It doesn’t bear the dark brown color caused by oxidation as the rest of the statue. This is due to the fact that students have been carrying on the tradition of rubbing John Harvard’s shoe. It is believed to bring good luck. Since I don’t live near the college, I prefer to visit another institution that bears his name, “John Harvard’s Brew House.” It may not bring me much luck but it always seems to brighten up my night! So I raise my tankard in the air and say cheers to the man who’s name will be forever connect with higher education and beer. Two things that go so well together!
~ Strange New England
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