Isaac Royall, Jr. (1719-1781), bequeathed some of his wealth to Harvard College to establish a chair in medicine or law, leaving it to Harvard to decide between the two. Harvard chose law. The first Royall Chair – the first law professorship at Harvard – was not filled until 1815, when Isaac Parker undertook to teach part-time.
Royall’s wealth was built on the labor of enslaved people. Royall and his father listed among their possessions 64 human beings – more slaves than any other household in Massachusetts. The Royalls flourished on this exploitation: Robert Feke’s portrait of Isaac Royall, Jr., his wife, daughter, sister, and sister-in-law, which hangs in this room, boasts his prosperity.
Royall fled to Nova Scotia three days before the Battle of Lexington. He wrote to his friend Simon Tufts with instructions to sell slaves to raise money for his exile in London. In the same will that granted lands to Harvard, he offered emancipation to his slave Belinda (later, Belinda Sutton, freedwoman), promising to pay her support. She had to petition the Massachusetts legislature six times to receive her due.
Harvard Law professor and United States Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story praised Parker – the first Royall Professor – as “a mind with sufficient knowledge of the old law [who] was yet not a slave to its forms” – as the “free spirit” needed to teach law for a newly free country. But law had a dual role in the world shared by Parker, Story and Belinda Sutton, emancipating some while enslaving others. Sutton’s first petition, submitted during the Revolution, observed that leaders of the breakaway colony sought for themselves “that freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human race,” while “by the Laws of the Land [she was] denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.”
- Janet Halley, Royall Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
The Legacy of Isaac Royall, Jr. exhibit objects
Gift of Benjamin Pollard Winslow, Harvard College 1829, 26 May 1862
This iron seal may have been used by Isaac Royall, Jr. in the mid-eighteenth century to emboss his family’s coat of arms on documents and correspondence to ensure their authenticity.
Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society
The Royall family arms featuring the three sheaves of wheat first appeared on a bookplate belonging to Isaac Royall, Sr., in the 1730s. This reproduction is one of two examples from the American Antiquarian Society’s bookplate collection. Also included in their collection are books belonging to Isaac Royall, Jr.
Courtesy of Alexandra Chan, Director of Excavations, Royall House and Slave Quarters dig
This bottle was unearthed during an archaeological dig of the Royall House and Slave Quarters property. It is currently on view at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts.
February 14, 1783, page 1
Massachusetts Archives Collection. v.239: p.12-14, petition of Belinda, February 14, 1783. SC1/series 45X.
Courtesy of Massachusetts Archives
Belinda Sutton, a free woman who had formerly been enslaved by Isaac Royall, Jr., petitioned the Massachusetts legislature six times between 1783 and 1793 for a pension to support herself in her old age. The legislature granted her request in 1783 and directed that she be paid some 15 pounds annually for life. She received only one payment. In the years that followed, she was forced to file five more petitions seeking back payments of the money owed to her.
Portrait of Isaac Royall and family, 1741
Robert Feke (ca. 1707-ca. 1752)
Oil on canvas, 56 3/16 x 77 3/4 inches
Gift of Dr. George Stevens Jones, March 31, 1879
Record ID: olvwork598105
This group portrait was one of the most ambitious works painted in colonial America. With its grand scale, colorful palette, and skillfully painted “Turkey work” carpet, it stands out from the smaller and more muted likenesses typical of early eighteenth-century New England. Though Isaac Royall, Jr. (1719-1781) was only 22 when this portrait was painted, he is presented as a dominant patriarch who literally towers above the women in his family: his wife and daughter (both named Elizabeth) to his right, and next to them, his sister-in-law Mary and sister Penelope.
The portrait depicts one of the wealthiest families in colonial Massachusetts. In 1739, Isaac Royall, Jr. inherited the vast fortune his father accumulated operating sugar plantations and trading slaves between Antigua and Boston. The Royall family lived on a large estate in Medford, Massachusetts, a portion of which is now the Royall House and Slave Quarters Museum. Living with the family were 12-27 enslaved people – many more than the typical 1-2 people in colonial Massachusetts slaveholding households.
Isaac Royall, Jr. continued to profit from slave plantation agriculture and the slave trade throughout his life. At his death in 1781, he bequeathed several properties to Harvard, which the college sold to endow the university’s first professorship of law, now the Law School’s Royall Chair. Established in 1815, the first Royall Professorship of Law belonged to Isaac Parker, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Like many early gifts to the college, Royall’s donation speaks to the inextricable links between Harvard’s fortunes and the profits of slavery.