Today's Reading

Aaron Bancroft accepted all of these beliefs, but he rejected the orthodox Calvinist view that humans were inherently depraved and that their fates were predestined: that God had already decided if individuals were damned, and there was nothing they could do in their lifetimes to alter this fact. Instead, Reverend Bancroft believed that God had given humans the ability to discern right from wrong and that they could improve their moral selves through reason and conscience to achieve salvation. "He considered reason as a primary and universal revelation of God to men of all nations and all ages," George would later say of him. "He was sure of the necessary harmony between reason and true religion, and he did not scruple to reject whatever seemed to him plainly in contradiction with it."

Like most other New England intellectuals with such views, Aaron Bancroft became a Unitarian and later would be the founding president of the American Unitarian Association. During George's childhood, Unitarianism spread like wildfire through New England's political, intellectual, and business elite. Unitarians governed the publishing houses, the literary journals, the Athenæum in Boston, and Harvard itself. Through this network, Aaron published and distributed his sermons widely—John Adams praised them as "a chain of diamonds set in links of gold"—as well as his magnum opus, 'The Life of George Washington', a widely read biography released when George was seven.

This legacy—reason bound to religiosity, a passion for shaping the mind through words and letters, a faith in humankind—was passed down to young George, who would hold it close for the rest of his very long life.

It also opened the doors of Exeter and Harvard to the boy, who intended to follow his father's path and become a minister.

• • •

FOR ALL OF ITS PRESTIGE, George did not find Harvard so different from Exeter. Indeed, by later standards, the college was little more than a glorified boarding school.

Most parents sent their teenage boys there not to train them for a particular profession but to keep them out of trouble. The college offered a solution to adolescent temptation, sin, and wickedness in the form of an unrelenting schedule of compulsory classes, lectures, meals, and homework, all overseen by stern, morally upstanding tutors and professors, many of them trained ministers. There were no academic departments, just a single curriculum consisting of thirty-three scheduled subjects that every student took in the same order during their four years of study. Most of these "subjects" were actually an intensive study of one or two texts, with instruction given during four-hour-long recitation sessions. Church services were mandatory, with stiff fines for anyone who was tardy, absent, or, most worryingly, engaged in "indecent or irreverent behaviour." Students were forbidden to travel to Boston—accessible via an eleven-seat stagecoach that made the six-mile round trip from Harvard Square only twice a day—except for Saturday afternoons, and they had to be back by eight that evening so as to pass the Puritan Sabbath eve in the required way: quietly in one's dimly lit dorm room. Tutors patrolled the grounds at night, looking for transgressors.

Many of George's 301 fellow undergraduates found ways to rebel.

Some spent their Saturday afternoons in Boston taverns or whorehouses. Others sought admittance into one of the undergraduates' covert clubs—the Hasty Pudding, Porcellian, or Pierian—where they cooked, drank, played sports or musical instruments, discussed books and newspapers and indulged in all sorts of other unsupervised and, therefore, illicit activities. They organized elaborate pranks, and shared famous past exploits with one another, like how the breakfast water in the dining hall had been tampered with one morning in 1791, causing the disruption of the annual commencement ceremonies when more than a hundred undergraduates simultaneously vomited on their parents, teachers, and peers. They lit bonfires and barrels of pitch in Harvard Yard, or wrote insulting messages to teachers, affixed them to cannonballs, and dropped them from the rooftops as their intended recipients approached. Occasionally they simply rioted, throwing bread, crockery, or buckets of ink and water at one another.

George did not participate in these high jinks. While his roommate and other boys took dance lessons, skated on ponds, frolicked in Boston or at the tiny tavern on Fresh Pond, George focused on his studies and obeyed the rules. He befriended his teachers and President John Kirkland, who occasionally invited him to his house for dinner.

Reverend Andrews Norton, who oversaw the library, taught biblical criticism, and was known as the "Unitarian pope," became a confidant and mentor. George's freshman-year Latin instructor, nineteen-year-old Edward Everett, would become a lifelong friend and role model, plowing a path that would lead George to see places and do things his father would never have dreamed of. Fellow students considered George a dull teacher's pet and mockingly referred to him as "Doctor Bancroft."

He excelled at what was then Harvard's most important subject, the now-forgotten discipline of "moral philosophy." This encompassed what we would today call psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and metaphysics—a comprehensive examination of human nature and how it could be perfected by rationally aligning itself with God's discernible plan. In such studies George discovered the intellectual foundations of his father's worldview: that faith and reason were compatible, that scientific investigation could reveal God's plan, and that ethical self-improvement and discipline would enable men to hasten it along. Harvard's Unitarian clergymen "tried to teach the means of leading a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation," the historian Henry Adams would later write. "For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were waste of thought... Boston had solved the Universe."

• • •

This excerpt ends on page 13 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book OLIVE THE LIONHEART: Lost Love, Imperial Spies, and One Woman's Journey to the Heart of Africa by Brad Ricca.
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