From the Boston Latin School John entered Harvard College, graduated A. B. in 1680, and A. M. in 1683. His student notebook includes selections from the Anacreontics of Cowley, a Latin salutatory oration to Governor Andros, and syllogistic disputations.
In 1685 Leverett was chosen fellow and tutor of Harvard College, which during the next fifteen years (President Mather being an absentee) was governed and instructed largely by Leverett and William Brattle. These young men, while insisting on "Righteousness, Faith and Charity, " were less concerned with religious forms or polity than with preparing students for life. One pupil afterward declared that they had "made more Proselytes to the Church of England than any 2 men ever did that liv'd in America"; and another spoke of the "enlarged catholic Spirit" cherished in him by Mr. Leverett. Hence the tutors were accused of subversive teaching. Leverett's support of his former pupil Benjamin Colman opened a breach between him and the Mathers; and in a shake-up of the college government, occurring in 1700, he was dropped out.
Leverett had already prepared for this eventuality by studying law, and by entering politics as representative from Cambridge, in 1696-1697. One of his pupils complained of being obliged to recite "at five o'clock in the winter mornings that Mr. L. might seasonably attend the General Court at Boston". In 1699 he was appointed justice of the peace, and began practising as attorney; in 1700 he was chosen speaker of the House. Gov. Joseph Dudley, an old friend, appointed him in 1702 judge of the superior court, and judge of probate for Middlesex County.
Leverett was elected to the Provincial Council in 1706, as of Eastern Maine, where he had inherited a great land grant, the Muscongus Patent of 1630; in order to procure capital for settling this tract, he organized the Lincolnshire Company in 1719. Governor Dudley sent him on three missions: in 1704 to the Iroquois; down East in 1707 to rally the dispirited Port Royal expedition--a forlorn hope indeed; and to Governor Lovelace at New York in 1709. In the meantime Leverett's friends had recovered control of the Harvard Corporation, which on October 28, 1707, elected him president, eight votes to five. This choice provoked a political commotion. Governor Dudley only obtained the customary legislative grant of £50 for the president's salary, by reviving the supposedly defunct College Charter of 1650, which flattered the legislature and eliminated from the Corporation those fellows opposed to Leverett. After the deal went through, he was inaugurated president January 14, 1708.
Widely cultivated, comparatively broad-minded, and impressive in person, he governed the College "with great Sweetness and Candor tempered with Convenient Severity". Few alterations were made in the formal curriculum; but students were introduced to recent Anglican divinity, to Henry More's Enchiridion Ethicum; and were offered instruction in French. Colman wrote that after residing at Oxford and Cambridge he could assert that "no Place of Education can well boast a more free air than our little College may". Student life grew gayer, the first college club and periodical were started, and Commencements became uproarious. These tendencies raised a cry of idleness and extravagance against the students, in which young Benjamin Franklin joined. Cotton Mather, who called Leverett the "pretended president, " and the "infamous drone", accused the students of reading "plays, novels, empty and vicious pieces of poetry, and even Ovid's Epistles, which have a vile tendency to corrupt good manners". Numbers increased so that Massachusetts Hall had to be built.
President Leverett was elected in 1713 fellow of the Royal Society, to which Thomas Robie, one of the tutors, contributed astronomical and other scientific observations. Leverett was energetic in securing to the College former benefactions which had been neglected by his predecessors, and in procuring new ones: notably those of Thomas Hollis, whose professorship of divinity (1721) was kept free from religious tests by the determined stand of the president and fellows. From 1713, when the College Corporation refused to appoint Governor Dudley's son to the vacant treasurership, Leverett had a clerico-political fight on his hands. Judge Sewall accused him of neglecting religious exercises; Cotton Mather instigated an investigation of the College in 1723. The Corporation, in order to protect themselves, had coopted liberal divines to vacancies in their fellowship, instead of following the ancient custom of admitting college tutors to the governing body. This gave the Mather and Dudley factions a popular political issue which they improved against the College, and only by subtle politics and the support of Governor Shute was Leverett able to prevent a complete shake-up.
He died suddenly on May 3, 1724. Benjamin Wadsworth succeeded to the presidency, and continued the liberal policy inaugurated by Leverett.
Fellow of the Royal Society
Quotes from others about the person
“"To his firmness, and that of his associates the institution is probably in a great measure indebted for its religious freedom at this day. "”
Leverett married first, in 1697, the widow Margaret Berry, daughter of President Rogers (most of their children died young); and second, the widow Sarah (Crisp) Harris, who bore him no children but lived to have two more husbands.