King’s College Diplomas and John B. Pine

At the RBML, we recently installed a small exhibition on diplomas awarded by King’s College, as Columbia was known from 1754 to 1784. The exhibition in the Chang Octagon includes reproductions of diplomas awarded from 1763 to 1773. How did these materials make it to the University Archives? For some, we are indebted to the dedicated alum and Columbia historian John B. Pine.

In the Commencement Collection (Box 33, folder 14), we have a small selection of letters from and to John B. Pine as he was collecting Columbia memorabilia and, in particular, old diplomas. John B. Pine was an alumnus (Columbia College 1877, Law 1879), longtime clerk of the Trustees and a devoted Columbia historian. From at least 1900 to 1914, Pine sent letters to the descendants of King’s College graduates and inquired about their ancestors’ diplomas, asking whether they had been preserved as part of the family papers. 

John Jay’s AM Diploma from King’s College, 1767. John Jay Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Based on the correspondence, Pine’s campaign was ambitious and quite broad: some descendants contacted did not have said diplomas; while others only shared a last name with a graduate and were not related. As he explains in the letters, Pine was hoping to obtain a series of diplomas with the signatures of all the previous Columbia University presidents. Pine was mostly successful in completing his collection. In March 1900, Pine reached out to William E. Verplanck to inquire about the diplomas of Samuel Verplanck, who was a member of the first class to graduate from King’s College in 1758. Verplanck responded that he did not feel inclined to part with those materials ‘at present’ and that even if he had such a thing, the family papers were in his home in Fishkill, NY, which was closed for the season. In 1914, Pine reached out again. He told William E. Verplanck that Columbia had just acquired the 1770 diploma of John Rutgers Marshall and that the University now had diplomas with the signatures of all the past presidents, except for Samuel Johnson, King’s College first president from 1754-1762. (In fact, Pine made the same announcement and appeal in the pages of the November 20, 1914 Columbia Alumni News). This time, Verplanck, who replied from Fishkill-on-Hudson, said that he did not have the diploma in his possession nor did he know where it could be found. A dogged Pine continued his search and even reached out to another Verplanck descendant: William Gordon Verplanck.

Pine was not successful in finding the Samuel Verplanck diploma with Samuel Johnson’s signature, but the diploma did survive. The only known diploma with President Samuel Johnson’s signature is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The diploma was included as part of the family’s donation in 1940, including the furnishings of the Verplanck Room in the American Wing. (The diploma used to be displayed in the room but is not currently on view.) Verplanck was not presented with a diploma at Commencement in June 1758, but requested and received one in March 1759, because Samuel Johnson did not award diplomas. The practice of giving out diplomas at Commencement only started with his successor, President Myles Cooper, in 1763. We are forever grateful to J.B. Pine and the subsequent Columbiana curators who collected and preserved these materials. 

List of graduates sent to the engrosser, 1772. Columbia College Papers, University Archives.

The King’s College Diplomas exhibition currently on display in the Chang Octagon features reproductions of some of the earliest diplomas, from 1763 to 1773. It also includes related documents: a draft of an honorary degree, a program from the 1771 Commencement, a receipt for an AM diploma and even the lists of names sent to the engrosser or copyist to create the year’s diplomas, even in the turbulent 1776 when the College had recently closed.