EXTENDED CLUB HISTORY

The following essay on the history of the Harvard Republican Club was written by HRC Membership Director ('03-'04) Stephanie Kendall '05.


The Honorable Theodore Roosevelt and soon to be president of the United States wrote to Harvard Republicans in 1888: “I am now engaged every night to speak in New York, and so am unable to come over as you request. I am really extremely sorry, for I should particularly like to be present at a meeting of the Republicans under the auspices of dear old alma mater. I am more than glad to see Harvard College Republicans keeping Harvard where she belongs.”(1) Unfortunately, Teddy Roosevelt was unable to attend to the founding meeting of the Harvard Republican Club, but 4,500 came to Tremont Temple in Boston on November 2, 1888 for the club’s public meeting. Filling not only Tremont Temple, but also an additional overflow hall, the meeting’s turnout exceeded the organizers’ expectations. The event drew prominent national Republicans to speak and marked the beginning of collegiate Republican organizations. Students decided to organize the club when they felt actions by some “put the university in a false position, namely as being largely in favor of the democratic party.”(2) Republican students took a stand in the fall semester of 1888 against such actions. The founding of the Harvard Republican Club was a grassroots movement by students to address what they saw as a violation of university principles. The grand founding served three purposes: to express the political opinion of the majority of students – what they saw as Harvard’s true political colors, to protest the breach of academic freedom, and to campaign for Republican presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison. The club is now 115 years strong, and its student-driven enthusiastic spirit continues into modern times.

The 1888 presidential campaign had captured the interest and energy of Harvard. The contest was between President Grover Cleveland, the Democrat incumbent, who favored tariff reform in the direction of free trade and Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison, who vowed to continue to protect American industry from competition from foreign goods. Ten days prior to the public meeting of the Republican Club, a very different gathering was held at Tremont Temple. A newspaper article headlined “The Real Harvard” explains that after the “tremendous” meeting of the Republican club, the earlier meeting, which was “designed to show that the old university had joined hands with the party of Gorman, Cleveland, Barnum, Cunniff and Maguire,” will soon be forgotten.(3) The Harvard tariff reform meeting had come across as a Harvard endorsement for free trade and a Cleveland presidency, which upset Republicans and sparked them to respond. William C. Boyden, the first President of the Harvard Republican Club, said, “Our club had its beginning in an organization to answer the impression which went forth from the Harvard tariff reform meeting. You all heard extensively after that meeting, that the educated sentiment of the country was away from Republicanism.”(4) The Republican students of Harvard did not wish for this to be the impression of Harvard’s politics. In fact, they did not wish for there to an “official” position of the University at all, which violated a long-standing principle of Harvard not taking sides in national politics. However, they believed “if it was necessary for Harvard to go into politics, she should be fairly represented.”(5) The former Governor of Massachusetts, George D. Robinson, who spoke at the founding meeting agreed, “A short time since, less than two weeks, gentlemen from this platform assumed to speak for the educated people of the country. They pretended that from themselves came the utterance for our old alma mater. But we have found, as we investigated, that it was only a trifling minority that spoke.”(6) One major purpose of the meeting was to show that not only did the tariff reform meeting speak not speak for Harvard, but also a majority of Harvard students took the opposite stance.

The Republican proponents of Protectionism took no small steps to correct the impression of Harvard, but instead they held an impressive meeting that left few in attendance with doubts “as to the party to which the great bulk of Harvard influence given.”(7) The original hall Tremont Temple and the overflow hall the Meionaon were both quickly filled to capacity, and the Boston Daily Advertiser reported that “a line of policeman had to be stretched along the sidewalk to prevent overcrowding.”(8) The enthusiastic crowd stood and waved flags while they sang “Fair Harvard” with the accompaniment of Baldwin’s Cadet Band as the speakers rose to the platform and each speaker was greeted with the Harvard Rah! Rah! Rah! before he spoke. The spirit of the meeting was apparent: “It was emphatically a students’ meeting.”(9) The crowd remained enthusiastic through the three and a quarter hour long meeting for which even the ladies gallery was full, prompting the Advertiser to remark, “It was the most attractive meeting of the campaign.”(10) Republican Club President Boyden reported at the meeting: “The poll of Harvard College gave a Republican plurality of 160, and this magnificent meeting shows where the educated sentiment of Harvard is.”(11) The meeting showed that contrary to the earlier declaration of the tariff reform group, most of Harvard students were Republican, not Democratic. This was a clear intention of the meeting. The Advertiser reported of the tone of the meeting, “It was the reply, the indignant response to a slur, the declaration that a great body of men had been misrepresented. It was a retort, a retort courteous but unmistakable.”(12) Senate Leader Honorable George F. Hoar began his speech to the intensely enthusiastic students, “One of the speakers at a meeting held here ten days ago told his audience that Harvard welcomed them that night to stand with her for Grover Cleveland. You and I are here to deny that proposition. [Laughter and Applause]”(13) Senator Hoar wanted to make it clear that the majority of Harvard students did not support President Cleveland in his re-election bid. He was concerned that some thought that the country ought be governed by a “partnership, consisting of the Solid South, Tammany Hall, the liquor saloons and criminal places of the great cities, and Harvard College.”(14) Hoar and other speakers at the meeting made it emphatically clear that those who represented Harvard as leaning Democratic were misrepresenting the majority of undergraduates and graduate students. They were misrepresenting the alumni who were involved in speaking at and organizing the meeting. Harvard did not belong in dirty politics or the company of Democrats. Hoar continues, “Our venerable and beloved mother will be found in no such company. [Laughter] That discreet matron never goes to such places. She never will go there, unless it be to reclaim and rescue some of her wandering sons who have gone astray.”(15)

Perhaps more importantly than making the political opinions of the majority of the students heard, a purpose of the meeting was to reprimand and correct a violation of the college’s tradition of academic freedom. The students and speakers believed they were involved in an important mission to stop Harvard’s meddling in taking political stances. For the sake of Harvard’s future and for the separation of academia from national politics, the students and the speakers make their collective voice heard. Harvard graduate and Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge spoke most eloquently and extensively against the College supporting one particular party:

Mr. Chairman and Ladies and gentlemen: a meeting in the name of Harvard was held in this hall a few days ago to advocate the election of Grover Cleveland…..We do not gather here to assert that we are the sole and only representatives of the college. All that we lay claim to is the right, common to all her sons, to serve honor, and defend her with loyalty and truth. [Applause] We do not come to give out to the world that Harvard College supports the party to which we belong. Were such the purpose of this meeting I for one would have no part or lot in it. We gather here to protest in the only way open to us against the attempt which has been made to drag the college into politics, and to use her honored name as a make-weight in party strife. [Applause and Cheers] We are not here to declare that the college is Republican, but to stamp as utterly false the assumption that our beloved alma mater is bound to the wheels of the chariot which carries the political fortunes of Grover Cleveland.(16)

Lodge felt it extremely important to point out that this meeting, although enthusiastically Republican, was not to lay claim that the college’s official position was on the Republican side. Instead, he was protesting the actions of the other side that did make such a claim. Granted, in order to protest the violation of college tradition, the organizers made quite a scene of their Republicanism and went to great lengths to declare that the student body was more Republican.

It was more important than the results of this one election, for Lodge at least, to make certain that Harvard did not get into the business of supporting presidential candidates and becoming unnecessarily involved in national politics. A newspaper account reports that organizers were careful to make clear that they were protesting the involvement of the college in politics: “Last night’s speakers were scrupulous to disclaim any purpose to represent their alma mater as an attachment to either party…”(17) The Republican Club did not attempt to speak on behalf of the college, but did make go to great lengths to show that the student body was more Republican. The students felt obligated to take action after the actions of the tariff reform supporters seemed to suggest that Harvard was taking a Democratic stance. It was not, however, the Republicans desire to bring the college into politics. One newspaper reports, “The students who are active in the matter would have much preferred not to take any action as students of the university, but inasmuch as the action of the Harvard Tariff Reform Association has put the university in a false position” the students felt they had no choice but to voice their distaste for the Association’s declaration.(18) The students wanted to protect the school from taking sides and involving itself in politics.

Harvard President Derek Bok, many years later, wrote about the need to protect academic freedom at universities. He writes that in the appointments process it is important to examine the ability of candidates to perform academic and administrative functions, but “the problem is to reconcile such scrutiny with the historic reluctance to endanger academic freedom and risk the errors, the controversies, and the external pressures that can so easily result whenever we begin to assess the qualifications of candidates by judging their opinions on controversial issues of a political, economic, or moral nature.”(19) Bok’s desire to protect the university from taking political or moral stances against certain potential faculty appointments is based in the tradition of the university being separate from being mired in politics. The basis for academic freedom is the desire to build the best university possible without harming free inquiry. This can only be achieved when the university stays out of political debates. The students involved in the founding of the Republican Club believed they were acting with this noble purpose in mind. They did not want the university to get into the habit of taking strong political stances, which would endanger the tradition of a university focused on learning and excellence not on politics. Though this was not the only reason for which they acted, it was the most important one.

The third purpose of the founding of the Republican Club and its public meeting was to campaign in the close presidential election for General Benjamin Harrison. The issues in the election were divided sharply along North/South lines. Loosening tariffs was opposed in the more industrial North, but supported in the more agricultural South. Another major issue for some Republicans was the South’s repression of African-American votes. Republicans felt that elections were not honest when the votes of one race were not being included in the South. The public meeting of the Republican Club was a platform for these campaign issues and an opportunity to cheer on the candidate of those in attendance – Ben Harrison. The importance of the meeting as a campaign event may come as no surprise considering the closeness of the election and impressiveness of the founding meeting. One newspaper went so far as to say, “The Harvard College Republican meeting at Tremont Temple last evening was one of the greatest successes of the campaign.”(20) The prominence of Harvard in the election speaks to the even greater reason why the opinion of the university and the student body mattered in the national scene. Several speakers spoke out of the two important issues in the campaign. Colonel Nathaniel P. Hallowell, who was a companion of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw in leading the 54th regiment during the Civil War, spoke about the need for the Republicans in the North to reach out to the South. He said, “The New South, with her factories and railways, is a child of the North. She will not submit to free trade, nor will she permit her laborers to be cheated out of their political rights by any party.”(21) Reverend Edward Everett Hale also spoke on the issue of political rights in the South and the prominence of Harvard men in the fight for liberty. He speaks of Harvard, “She ought to say, as I think she will say to-night to this country, that while the elegance of her accomplishments was never so finished as it is now, while the range of her studies was never more broad, the instincts of her sons were as true to freedom as they were in the days of the stamp act or Fort Wagner.”(22) Though it is difficult to say whether this meeting made a difference in the election, Ben Harrison was the eventual electoral victor, though Cleveland won the popular vote. The country was largely divided in half between North and South upon the highly regional issues decided by the campaign. The following map shows the final results of the election. Harrison is shown in red and Cleveland in green.(23)




The Republican Club’s conflict with the university continued beyond its original founding act. In 1894 the club was blocked from reserving Sander’s Theater for a speech by now Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. The club, which the Boston Journal described as “a gingerly and active body ” and all other political groups were no longer allowed to use any college hall or room for political purposes by vote of the corporation (this included Sever Hall, where the club routinely held meetings).(24) This rule only applied to the Republican Club, however, because all other political clubs had disbanded. President Eliot was largely blamed for the move, and some believed he may have been acting to keep the university completely non-partisan. A member of the Harvard Republican Club when presented with this possibility responded, “There are a great many more men, however, that think a less frequent expression of his own partisan sympathies would accomplish more toward such a result.”(25) Despite the setback this move caused, the club vowed to find another off-campus location to conduct their activities. They would not let conflicts with the university and the disappearance of other political clubs on campus dampen their spirit and resolve.

Though the issues of the Republican Party changed through the years, the Harvard Republican Club has continued for 115 years. More often than not, it has had strained relations with the university and has sustained itself as a counter-opinion through times of majority student support and when they existed in the minority. In more modern times, the proportion of Republican students has shrunk, but the same grassroots enthusiasm has remained strong. In 1892, the Republican Club met Harvard Square in Parade Cap and Gown to watch the election returns.(26) In 1952, watching election returns was slightly modernized with an event that boasted dancing and free beer.(27) The club in the 1950’s continued to hold big speaking events just like the original club, but it seems that social events expanded slightly including one particularly interesting flyer that spoke of a mixer with the “Lovely Lonely Ladies of Wellesley.”(28) Faced with an increasingly liberal campus Crimson, the Republican Club published its own weekly newspaper with a more conservative bent, The Harvard Times-Republican. The Harvard Times-Republican reported in September of 1956 that the Republican Club was largest of the political groups on campus.(29) As Harvard became occupied with more Democrats, the Republican Club remained active and continued to provide an alternative opinion on campus. The image of Harvard to the outside world was increasingly liberal, which prompted students and alumni of the Harvard Republican Club to have a rally in Washington to prove that there is a strong and enthusiastic group of Republicans at Harvard. In a move eerily similar to the club’s founding, the Republicans organized to “dispel the impression that Harvard produces only Democrats.”(30) On June 11th, students and alumni gathered in Washington, DC to prove their alma mater bipartisan with a luncheon sponsored by Republican Senator Leverett Saltonstall in the Senate reception hall.

In 2004, the club remains an active and enthusiastic grassroots student effort to provide a counter-opinion on Harvard’s campus. The club continues to hold speaking events and debates. Its founders would likely be proud to hear that for two years running the Harvard Republican Club has even held the time-honored Republican tradition of a Lincoln Day Dinner in Eliot Dining Hall. Interestingly, the Harvard Republican Club recently debated the Harvard Democrats on the very issue that sparked the founding of the organization – trade. This time, Republicans fought vehemently on the side of free trade with no regulations whatsoever. It seems that while the specific issues for which the Republicans at Harvard fight are dramatically different, the reasons for which they continue to raise their voices remain the same. It is likely the enthusiastic student spirit that has sustained the club for 115 years. In first words of the first President William C. Boyden at the first meeting of the Harvard Republican Club, for these 115 years, they’ve just tried to show: “There are some Republicans at Harvard.”(31)



1. Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to T.H. Gage, Jr., November 1, 1888, “Harvard Republican Club” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

2. Newspaper article “Harvard Republicans.” October 24, 1888, “Harvard Republican Club” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

3. Newspaper Article, “The Real Harvard” November 3, 1888, “Harvard Republican Club,” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

4. Address of W.C. Boyden. Report of the Proceedings of the Harvard Republican Meeting held at Tremont Temple, Boston Friday evening November 2, 1888. William H. Wheeler, Printer: Cambridge, 1889. “Harvard Republican Club,” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

5. Introduction. Ibid.

6. Address of the Hon. George D. Robinson. Report of the Proceedings of the Harvard Republican Meeting held at Tremont Temple, Boston Friday evening November 2, 1888.

7. “The Real Harvard.”

8. “What Harvard Says.” Boston Daily Advertiser. November 3, 1888. “Harvard Republican Club” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Boyden.

12. Advertiser.

13. George F. Hoar, Report of the Proceedings of the Harvard Republican Meeting held at Tremont Temple.

14. Ibid.

15. Hoar.

16. Henry Cabot Lodge, Report of the Proceedings of the Harvard Republican Meeting held at Tremont Temple.

17. “The Real Harvard.”

18. “Harvard Republicans” October 24, 1888.

19. Derek Bok. “Reflections on Academic Freedom: An Open Letter to the Harvard Community.” Supplement to the Harvard University Gazette. April 11, 1980.

20. “The Real Harvard.”

21. Nathaniel P. Hallowell, Report of the Proceedings of the Harvard Republican Meeting held at Tremont Temple.

22. Edward Everett Hale, Report of the Proceedings of the Harvard Republican Meeting held at Tremont Temple.

23. Map of the Presidential Election of 1888. Department of the Interior

24. “Gagged.” Boston Journal. May 4, 1894, “Harvard Republican Club” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

25. Boston Journal.

26. Flyer. “Harvard Republican Club” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

27. Flyer. “Harvard Young Republicans Club” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

28. Ibid.

29. The Harvard Times-Republican. September 1956. “Harvard Times-Republican” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

30. “Harvard GOP’s To Hold Rally in Washington.” The Boston Globe, Thursday April 5, 1962. “Harvard Young Republican Club” Harvard University Archives: HUD.

31. Boyden.