This Wednesday, Harvard students demonstrated in solidarity with black student activists who’ve recently led protests at Yale, the University of Missouri, and other campuses across the country. This Thursday, portraits of black faculty members of Harvard Law School were defaced, an incident being investigated as a hate crime. The vandalism prompted an immediate “community meeting” at the law school, during which Dean Martha Minow acknowledged the issue of racism within the school, and students voiced concern that the administration hadn’t risen to address it adequately. Earlier this month students urged a revision of the school’s seal, which harkens back to the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveholder and early benefactor of Harvard Law. They expressed that desire in part by placing black tape on mats displaying the seal, and those very strips of tape appear to have been the material used to deface the professors’ portraits.
In On the Battlefield of Merit, Daniel R. Coquillette and Bruce A. Kimball tell the story of Harvard Law School’s first hundred years. The following excerpt from the book details how the Royall family’s violent reaction to a planned slave rebellion set in motion the events that would lead to Isaac Royall’s gift to the school.
The oldest and arguably the most distinguished chair in American legal education is Harvard’s Royall Professorship of Law. Its distinction comes not from its age or its founder, but from those who have held it. These include distinguished figures in legal education: Paul Freund, Archibald Cox, Benjamin Kaplan, John Chipman Gray, Joseph Beale, Simon Greenleaf, James Bradley Thayer, Vern Countryman, Robert Clark, David Herwitz, and Janet Halley. But it is a historical fact that this chair is directly linked to a slave revolt on the Island of Antigua in 1736.
The revolt had been carefully planned and involved about 2,000 slaves, many driven to desperation by starvation and thirst from terrible droughts. Like most Antiguan slaveholders, the Royalls grew sugar cane. A single nick of the razor-sharp cane knives would cause infected wounds, many fatal. Slaves outnumbered white men four to one in 1723, and by 1729, 2,846 more slaves had arrived, with little increase in the white population. In 1727, 6.5 percent of the public budget of Antigua, which included the island’s defense, was spent on “Executions of Negros, for running away and for felony.” The 1736 uprising was preceded by the Ikem dance, performed in broad daylight by the slaves’ leader, “King” Court, “the chief Person in this affair.” This was “an Akan royal ritual meant to seal the support of one’s countrymen, while also giving public and fair warning to those whom one intended to attack.” The white spectators had no idea of what the dance meant, “thinking it an entertainment put on by and for slaves.” There were also oaths, administered with sacred drinks prepared by “an Obeah man,” an “Akan shaman-type figure, who leant the ceremony spiritual gravity.”
Testimony in the subsequent official British inquiry revealed that “enslaved people had met regularly in the forest for years: that one night, many years before the revolt, more than 2,000 of them had reportedly gathered and crowned Court their king and leader; and that he had since that time assumed that role among the island’s blacks.” The conspiracy was carefully planned, with three “generals” in command of three troops of 400 slaves each, to attack as the whites were celebrating at the King’s Coronation Day Ball. Communication through fire signals with other slave enclaves was set up to coordinate attacks on arsenals and the distribution of arms. The goal was “A new African or Creole government,” which would make “Antigua the first African nation in the New World.”
One of the centers of the conspiracy was four miles from the Royall house in Popeshead. The Royalls were clearly a target. The revolt was discovered by pure chance at the last minute. Retribution was complete and terrible. Five slaves were “broken on the wheel,” six gibbeted alive, and seventy-seven burned at the stake, including Hector, the trusted head slave, or “driver,” of the Royall family. Within a year, the Royalls decided to leave for Massachusetts, bringing at least twenty-seven slaves with them.
Isaac Royall’s father, Isaac Royall Sr. (1677–1739), had come from a humble background in North Yarmouth, in what is now Maine. His family, to avoid Indian attacks, subsequently moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts, where the family graves, including that of Isaac Royall Sr., can still be found. But Isaac Royall Sr. was an adventurer who sought to make his fortune in the slave trade. By 1700, when he was just twenty-three, he was in Antigua, part owner of a Massachusetts-built slaver, ironically called the Mayflower. While Royall Sr. was not the biggest landowner, his dealings in sugar, rum, and slaves resulted in a plantation in the Popeshead region, where a 1712–1713 census recorded twenty-seven white men “fit to bear arms” and 364 slaves. Here Isaac Royall Jr. was born in 1719, and his sister Penelope, in 1724.
The 1736 revolt had followed a number of natural disasters, including terrible droughts, the worst being in 1725, a massive hurricane in 1733, and earthquakes in 1735. “Black leprosy,” tuberculoid leprosy, was common among the enslaved, and in 1736 there was a smallpox epidemic. Isaac Royall Sr. had seen enough. As early as 1732 he was buying land along the Mystic River in what is now Medford, where he moved his family and slaves in 1737 and where he lived until his death in 1739. His tombstone in Dorchester still reads that he was “a faithful Husband, a tender Father, a kind Master, and a True Friend.” What Royall Sr.’s enslaved entourage must have thought of this, fresh from the brutal punishment of at least two of their number, can only be surmised.
His father’s death left Isaac Royall Jr., at age twenty, the wealthy lord of a small but prosperous estate. An advantageous marriage in 1738 to fifteen-year-old Elizabeth McIntosh had consolidated his fortune, and Royall began his career of public service and elegant hospitality. Buying silver from Paul Revere, importing fine china and furniture, driving around town in a coach with liveried servants, and hosting lavish parties, Royall quickly developed a reputation as a genial and generous neighbor, a “benevolent aristocrat, kindly, tolerant, and protective of his people [slaves].”
In reality, Isaac Royall was a slaveholder, with all the implicit cruelties.
Royall also did all the usual civic duties, which included serving as a justice of the peace, chairman of the Board of Selectmen of Medford, and Medford’s representative in the Massachusetts legislature. (Royall dutifully returned his salary to the town treasury.) In 1752 he was elected to the Governor’s Council, serving until 1774, and he also held a pew at the Anglican churches King’s Chapel and Christ Church, Cambridge, and served as an Overseer of Harvard College, overlapping with Thomas Pownall. He held an honorific military rank, Brigadier General of the Province, and had a collection of guns, which he would display to his guests. As the History of the Town of Medford (1886) states, “Generosity was native with him and shown the salient nature of his character. He loved to give and loved to speak of it and loved the reputation of it. Hospitality was almost a passion with him. No house in the colony was more open to friends; no gentlemen gave better dinners and drank costlier wines. As a master, he was kind to his slaves; charitable to the poor; and friendly to everybody.” And, doubtless, this was Royall’s preferred image of himself.
In reality, however, he was a slaveholder, with all the implicit cruelties. He still held his Antiguan plantations. The local papers repeatedly carried advertisements from Royall, buying and selling horses, cattle, and people. In the Boston Evening Post (March 22, 1762), for example, Royall offered “A Likely Negro Wench to dispose of who understands Household Business, and something of Cookery, also Four of said Wench’s Children, viz three Girls and one Boy.” His famous hospitality began in the huge Slave Quarter Kitchen, which still stands. His elegant house, also still standing, was maintained by slaves, at least eight of whom lived in the main house, with at least two in the room next to the master bedroom. When Royall decided to sell an old and loyal slave of thirty-seven years, George, who was no longer needed, George slit his throat rather than face the uncertainty of being sent to a new master.
And history made Royall appear a coward. As relations with England deteriorated, it was clear that Royall sympathized with the colonial cause, despite his relations by marriage to leading Tories, such as Henry Vassall, who also made their fortunes in West Indian sugar and slaves. He was known to invite members of the local militia, who would be technically under his command, to demonstrate his weapons, and brag about how he would defend Massachusetts. “By principle a patriot,” Royall opposed the Stamp Act, urged the royal governor to avoid military occupation, and, in 1774, resigned from the Governor’s Council and refused to accept appointment as one of the infamous Mandamus Councilors. As the realities of revolution approached, however, Royall lost his nerve.
Depositions held by the Committee of Safety in Medford on April 9, 1778, told the ugly story. Many believed Royall to be “a friend of the American Cause,” but on April 16, 1775, Royall went to visit friends in Boston, intending a short visit. There he probably heard of the expedition against Lexington and Concord and feared the worst. Surely war would bring disaster for the poorly armed and trained Americans, and the outbreak of fighting on April 19 was more than he could face. “While he was sipping his Madeira, the news of the battle of Lexington burst upon the town. The hurry and fright of that day were too much for the old gentleman. He was afraid to return home. Percy and Smith had seen the roads bristling with armed men. So Isaac Royall found himself shut up in Boston, with open rebellion at the town-gates.”
Royall’s first plan was to get to his Antigua plantations, but he had to settle for Halifax. There he joined with many other Tory refugees and set sail for England, never to return. “Peace be with him, for an inoffensive, well-meaning, but shockingly timid old tory!” Samuel Drake observed. “He would fain have lived in amity with all men, ay, and with his King too; but the crisis engulfed him even as his valor forsook him. His fear counseled him to run, and he obeyed.” As his friend, the prominent patriot Dr. Simon Tufts, testified before the Committee of Safety, Royall was simply “afraid...to return home.”
Royall always claimed to have been a good and loyal American, and his letters to Tufts and others show deep homesickness. In 1779, he begged Tufts to “do all in your power to procure me liberty from the General Court to return home as soon as my health will admit of.” The proceedings in Medford relative to his estate also testified to his good relations with his neighbors. It was only in 1778, long after Royall had “gone voluntarily to our enemies,” that his property was provisionally confiscated and reserved by the Committee of Medford for future heirs, under the watchful eye of Tufts. In contrast, the estates of his Tory sons-in-law, George Erving and William Pepperell, were taken under the “Act to Confiscate the Estates of Certain Notorious Conspirators,” passed April 30, 1779. Furthermore, Royall was not mentioned in the initial three lists of proscribed persons under the Acts of September 1778, April 30, 1779, and September 30, 1779. To his death in 1781, Royall claimed that only ill health prevented his return and remained outraged at any slur on his loyalty. As Brooks noted, “Col. Royall was an exception to the great body of Royalists; and, although the General Court dealt with his property as with that of a voluntary absentee, they nevertheless considered that it might be restored on his return to Medford.”
Royall’s popularity was to prove most important to Harvard Law School. For, exiled in Kensington, he made a will on May 26, 1778. It contained generous gifts to his friends, to the church and clergy in Medford, and to the Medford schools, together with a devise of land to the town of Worcester. But it also contained a gift to Harvard College that was to ensure Royall’s lasting fame. The provision reads, “All the remainder of said tract of land in said Granby containing eight or nine hundred acres more or less...I give, devise, and bequeath to the overseers and corporation of Harvard Colledge...to be appropriated towards the endowing a Professor of Laws in said Colledge, or a Professor of Physick and Anatomy, whichever the said overseers and Corporation shall judge to be best.”
The will only came to probate in 1786. This delay may not have been accidental. Due to his popularity in Medford, Royall was covered under the “Absentee Act” of April 30, 1779, which provided some procedural protection against confiscation, and it appears that Royall’s devoted friend Simon Tufts—essentially the trustee of Royall’s property—was waiting out events. It was a good strategy. The Treaty of Paris of September 3, 1783, contained provisions that at least promised recovery of loyalist property, and Jay’s Treaty of 1794 further raised hopes. In 1795 Harvard hired a lawyer to begin to locate the land in Royall’s bequest in preparation for sale.
The task proved devilish. In 1786 and 1787 Shays’s Rebellion had taken place in the region around Granby, and the ill feeling against loyalists, absentee landowners, and their well-to-do and politically connected friends persisted. The Harvard lawyer found Royall’s land stripped and occupied by squatters. In 1796, $2,000 was all that could be obtained from the Granby estate. In 1805 the Massachusetts legislature passed a resolve to restore Royall’s bequests to his loyalist descendants, and this indirectly made the remainder of Royall’s bequest to Harvard more marketable. In 1808 the Winchendon land was sold for $838, and in 1809 the Westminster land was sold for $100. Out of the struggle, Harvard’s lawyers secured a grand total of $2,938 by 1809. The college invested the money with remarkable success, despite economic adversity, and by 1815 there were a capital fund of $7,593 and interest on hand of $432.
This amount could not fully endow a professorship, however. The rate of return was roughly 6 percent, so the fund was worth no more than $482 per year without reinvestment. Because the college treasurer customarily paid out 4.5 percent on Harvard’s endowments, the actual yield for the professorship would have been about $340. The Harvard Corporation split the difference in its vote of September 4, 1815, that established the Royall Professorship of Law and set “four hundred dollars of the income of the legacy” to serve as “compensation for the Professor’s services.”
By comparison, the Judiciary Act of 1789 set $1,200 as an annual salary for the federal judges of the District of Massachusetts and $3,500 for an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court Act of 1801 provided $2,000 annually for the First Circuit. In 1819 Harvard had about twelve full professors (apart from those in law and medicine), and their salary was $1,700, later dropped to $1,500 in the mid-1820s. Consequently, $400 could not support a full-time salary for a law professor in 1815. In the 2010s, the amount would equal about $70,000.
In retrospect, it was lucky for the Law School that the gift in Royall’s will could not be effected until thirty-three years after his death and eleven years after the receipt of the initial $2,000. It was not just about having enough money. In 1775 Harvard designated a bequest from Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of £1,000 to support “two Professors of Anatomy and Surgery, and of the Theory and Practice of Physic.” This was followed by further bequests of £1,000 in 1790 from Hersey’s widow and £500 in 1793 from his brother “for the encouragement and support of a Professor of Surgery and Physic.” After Royall’s death in 1781, the college was therefore occupied with appointing three medical professors and founding its medical school in 1782 and 1783.
Royall’s will gave Harvard the option of a “Professor of Law” or a “Professor of Physick and Anatomy.” In 1782 this would have played right into the development of the new Medical School. By 1815, the Medical School looked relatively secure, a professional school established within a college aspiring to be a university and staff ed by a faculty of professors, whose titles emphasized the union of “theory and practice” in medicine. Meanwhile, reacting to the appointment of a liberal theologian to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard College in 1805, orthodox Calvinists founded Andover Theological School in 1808 as the first professional school in the United States requiring a bachelor’s degree for admission. But that school was not associated with a college or university, and Harvard responded by establishing Harvard Divinity School in 1816 as the first university theological school in the United States.
At that point, the stars were aligned. Two of the three long-standing “liberal professions” now had a university professional school at Harvard. The seven members of the Harvard Corporation included four lawyers, as well as three clergymen. The Royall bequest was at hand. Urged by Massachusetts Chief Justice Isaac Parker, the Corporation decided to extend the conception to law.