The Governor’s Academy celebrates Founder’s Day today, in honor of the school’s opening 248 years ago. Founded by bequest of Governor William Dummer, The Academy is America’s oldest boarding school. It has operated continuously since 1763 on the site of the ancestral Dummer home in Byfield, Massachusetts.
In 1712, while Massachusetts was still a British colony, Dummer was presented 330 acres of land by his father, Jeremiah Dummer, a renowned silversmith and ship owner. William, who was appointed Lieutenant Governor in 1716, also served as acting Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for several years. In his will, executed upon his death in 1761, the childless governor bequeathed the house and the Mansion House, where he and his wife spent summers, for the purpose of “erecting, building and finishing a Grammar Schoolhouse.” A committee of five Byfield residents and the Byfield parish minister appointed a head of school; appointment to this position was for life, unless and until the Board of Overseers of Harvard College felt the Master displayed immorality or incompetency and should be removed.
On Tuesday, March 1, 1763, the school opened its doors to its first 28 students. Founded more than a decade before the Revolutionary War, The Governor’s Academy was the first private school in the nation to be established independently of any affiliation to a specific church.
Master Samuel Moody, the first head of school, taught Samuel Phillips whose family later founded Phillips Academy at Andover in 1778 and at Exeter in 1781. Though Moody was reputed to be quite stern at times, most felt he manifested “certain qualities of intellect, heart and temperament, which made it comparatively easy for him to curb or to stimulate the youthful mind.
And some of those minds played significant roles in the early years of America. Among Master Moody’s charges were Edward Preble, commander of the USS Constitution; the future Senator Rufus King, a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Chief Justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Court Samuel Sewall and Theophilus Parsons, Samuel Osgood, a delegate to the Continental Congress who was appointed First Postmaster General of the United States by President George Washington in 1789; Samuel Webber, president of Harvard College from 1806-10; and Wentworth Cheswell, a man of color who was considered a Revolutionary War hero for his all-night ride from Boston to warn his community of Portsmouth of the impending British invasion.
In addition, Paul Revere created the first school seal; Samuel Adams and John Hancock signed the school’s Incorporation Charter; and John Quincy Adams served as Secretary to the Board of Trustees. Visitors to the campus today can enter Boynton House, built in 1764, and purportedly inhabited by a ghost; and Mansion House, built in 1713, and home to past and present headmasters, including Reverend Henry Durant, the founder of the University of California. A granite rock erected in 1708, and known simply as “The Milestone,” directs travelers to Boston (33 miles south) and Newburyport (5 miles north), much as it did 300 years ago.
Today, just as in the past, The Governor’s Academy educates the leaders of tomorrow. Not all will become household names, but they all will be men and women of character and substance, with the motivation and intellectual skills to help guide our society in this new millennium.