about Boston Latin School
Leonard Bernstein '1935 from the 1935 Liber Actorum, the Boston Latin School yearbook
Benjamin Franklin, c.1785. Portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation
George Santayana, nd
Photo George Santayana Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York
Portrait by Phylis Batchelder, oil on canvas, Lucius Clapp Memorial, Stoughton Historical Society, Stoughton, Massachusetts
Leonard Bernstein ’1935 attended Boston Latin School, or as the inscription on the pediment over the front door states, the Public Latin School. As a senior, he and his classmates attended an assembly each week in the auditorium, at which the Head of School (then given the title “Head Master”) would read a passage from the Bible and a student would perform a piece of music. Bernstein, in rotation with two fellow seniors, assumed responsibility for the musical presentation. Every three weeks, the senior class of 1935 would balance the fire and brimstone from the Head of School with the passion and brilliance of Leonard Bernstein at the piano. By then, Bernstein could sight-read any piece of music placed in front of him. But to his classmates, he was simply “Lenny,” with Harvard his next stop, and not yet the world-famous composer and conductor.
On his yearbook page, "Lenny" offered the quote: “’Tis the tone that makes the music.” Typical of so many Renaissance students at the school, Bernstein was a member of the French club, the Physics club, the Glee Club (serving as its president during his senior year), Orchestra, including serving as a soloist with the school’s Symphony Orchestra, and co-authored the class song.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson ‘1817 attended Boston Latin School, the school building was under repair. Instead, classes were held in a barn near Haymarket Square.
Benjamin Franklin (entered the school in 1714) attended Boston Latin School as well. He departed before graduating but the experience evidently left a powerful impression on him. Before his death, he created an endowment that would enable the school to prevent medals to the top seven seniors in the graduating class. Each spring, the Head of School announces the Franklin Medal recipients at Prize Night, bestows the medals and then collects them after the ceremony, returning them to the recipients at graduation.
George Santayana ‘1882, like so many Boston Latin graduates, was an immigrant. At the age of eight, Santayana arrived in the United States from Spain. He went on to Harvard and studied philosophy, eventually teaching at the University. His many writings include his 1905 book The Life of Reason, which featured the oft-quoted aphorism, “"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Boston Latin School gave Boston’s School Street its name. In the 18th century, the then Head Master lived in the schoolhouse on the north side of School Street. It should be noted that 2015 excavations of the site by Joe Bagley, the city’s archaeologist, found three of the four walls of the Head Master’s house there. The excavation also unearthed evidence that led to the discovery that the seventh Head Master, Reverend Nathaniel Williams ‘1690 (who led the school from 1708 to 1734), owned with his wife two slaves, identified in his probate (after his death in 1737) only as Richard and Hagar. The fate of Richard and Hagar and their descendants is, to date, unknown.
Several decades earlier, William Stoughton (entered 1640), a church pastor with no legal training, acted as both chief judge and prosecutor at the Court of Oyer and Terminer during the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693). After one of the accused, Rebecca Nurse, was found not guilty by the jury, Stoughton sent the jury back to continue deliberating. Ultimately Nurse was found guilty and executed by hanging.
In part, the high conviction rate during the Witch Trials was due to Stoughton’s willingness in 1692 to allow jurors to hear spectral evidence, when witnesses would claim that the accused appeared and did them harm in a dream or vision. The governor of the colony, William Phips, instructed Stoughton to disregard such evidence and as a result, a number of cases were dismissed and the governor vacated some of the convictions that were already made. However, Stoughton sentenced 19 people to death by hanging and ordered one man to be pressed to death. Several others died in prison. Ultimately Stoughton became lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts colony; the town of Stoughton, Massachusetts (founded 1726) is named for him.
Like so many institutions in this country, Boston Latin School has some history that needs facing.
It is also believed that boys were given the privilege in the 18th century of tilling the Head of School’s garden and chopping his firewood. Along with fellow alumnus Benjamin Franklin, four of those boys—Samuel Adams (entered 1729), Robert Treat Paine (entered 1738), John Hancock (entered 1745), and William Hooper (entered 1749)--were among the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. The school produced three colonial governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—John Leverett (entered 1635), Jonathan Belcher (entered 1689), and Thomas Hutchinson (entered 1716)—eight governors of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—Samuel Adams (entered 1729), James Bowdoin (entered 1734), John Hancock (entered 1745), William Eustis (entered 1761), Christopher Gore (entered 1765), Edward Everett (entered 1805), John Lewis Bates ’1878, and Paul Dever ‘1918, and five Boston mayors-- Harrison Gray Otis (entered 1773), Samuel Atkins Eliot (entered 1809), Nathaniel B. Shurtleff (entered 1822), Frederick Octavius Prince (entered 1827), and John F. (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald ‘1880
Boston Latin School was founded as a school for boys in 1635, when the Massachusetts Bay settler colonialists selected a schoolmaster to teach their children: “At a general meeting upon publique notice…it was generally agreed upon that our brother Philemon Pormort shall be intreated to become schoolmaster, for the teaching and nourtering of the children among us.” From this, Boston Latin School was founded. It was a year before Harvard College came into existence, thereby making it the oldest formal educational institution in what would become the United States.
Today, Boston Latin School is the largest school within the Boston Public Schools, serving more than 2,450 students annually in grades 7-12. The first women were admitted to the School in fall 1972. The School, located since 1922 in the Mission Hill/Longwood area of Boston on land that originally was home to members of the indigenous Massachusett community, serves an economically and culturally diverse population of students from grades 7 to 12 who come from all neighborhoods of Boston. Students are accepted to attend the school beginning in grades 7 and 9.
Boston Latin School’s mission statement states that “Boston Latin School seeks to ground its students in a contemporary classical education as preparation for successful college studies, responsible and engaged citizenship, and a rewarding life.” US News and World Report, as of 2021, ranks Boston Latin School as #1 among Massachusetts high schools and #36 in the nation.
To learn more about Boston Latin School, please visit the school's website.
View of the pediment on Boston Latin School on Avenue Louis Pasteur in Boston
Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1859
From Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Lothrop Motley: Two Memoirs (1904).
Boston Latin School on the north side of School Street, its site until 1748
2015 excavation work by the Boston city archaeologist team at the School Street site.
Photo: Boston City Archaeologist office, City of Boston
Boston Latin School in its new building on Avenue Louis Pasteur, 1920s photograph