The debate tradition had started with Harvard’s first commencement in 1642, but the Pearson-Parsons disputation was unusual for eliciting so much comment that its transcription was published, making it the college's first graduation debate recorded in full and verbatim. Debate teams today prepare both side of the argument, the better to answer their opponents' objections to their reasoning. Sides are chosen by a coin toss. What each debater personally thinks about an issue isn't revealed publicly, and the same can be said about what Pearson and Parsons thought. What is known is that after graduation, Parsons trained to be a physician , while Pearson got a job teaching at one of the first public grammar schools established in Andover. His Bromfield School undoubtedly conformed to the typical early New England schoolhouse type: a one-room shanty where the teacher would hear student readings from the Bible and recitations from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Breaking up the monotony, the local minister and his wife would sometimes visit. In Andover, that would have been Reverend Jonathan French and Mrs. French.
Did Pearson get his job in Andover the same way French may have gotten his? Pearson and Samuel Phillips (and Parsons, too) had become friends when they schooled together in Byfield, at the Dummer Charity School (later Governor Dummer Academy, now the Governor’s Academy), and the three also knew each other at Harvard, although Phillips was graduated two years earlier. In any case, while Pearson was teaching, he took up the study of theology and practice-preached. Years later, Pearson’s son Henry Bromfield Pearson wrote that his father had a “weakness of sight” and that is why he failed to be "settled" as a minister.  Phillips, meanwhile, was buying up Andover property piecemeal at one of the highest elevations in town. This would become the setting for his “Phillips School," later known as Phillips Academy.  On January 24, 1777, a deed states, he bought two tracts of land from Samuel Wardwell, whose namesake ancestor happened to be one of the three Andoverites hanged as witches in 1692.  There were many more acres to go, for Phillips, still in his mid-twenties, had a lofty vision for his school, whose purpose was set forth in its Constitution. It was designed "for the purpose of instructing Youth, not only in English and Latin Grammar, Writing, Arithmetic, and those Sciences, wherein they are commonly taught; but more especially to learn them the Great End and Real Business of Living."  With the funding secured from his father and a deed of gift from his uncle John Phillips, the school opened for class on April 30, 1778.
Of the school’s first fifty-one students, males only, of course, thirteen came from Andover, the rest from the surrounding region. They were aged six (Josiah Quincy III of Boston) to twenty-nine (James Anderson of Londonderry, New Hampshire).  That youngest boy was the son of Josiah Quincy Jr. and Abigail Phillips, a member of Phillips's extended family. The child was sent away to school in the first place because his father had recently died, and he and his mother were living with his maternal grandfather, Abigail’s father, William Phillips, “a man of tyrannical & unamiable [sic] character, and it was desirable to remove an active & noisy boy from his household.”  Alas, Josiah was delivered from one tyranny into another, at P.A. “I was compelled to sit with four other boys on a hard bench four hours in the morning, & four in the afternoon & study lessons I could not understand,” he wrote.  Compounding the problem was the headmaster chosen by Phillips: Pearson.
P.A. students called him the “Elephant," inspired not only by his name but by his ponderous size and gait. His personality gave students cause to ridicule him, too, and I can't help but wonder if its unpleasant features, rather than his poor eyesight, were what prevented a parish from taking him on as a minister until death did them part. As described by Quincy, he was a “distant & haughty” figure. “I have no recollection of his ever having shown any consideration for my childhood,” he wrote. “Fear was the only impression I received from his treatment of myself, or others.”  Compelled by Pearson to learn by heart Cheever’s Latin Accidence — a.k.a., An Elementary Grammar, for Beginners in the Study of the Latin Language, compiled by Ezekiel Cheever — Quincy opined that Pearson’s “stern and severe temper caused him to adapt this [English] system & to inflict suffering on his pupils.”  Pearson, for his part, told Quincy’s mother that her son didn’t have the intellectual capacity for Harvard, his aspiration, and advised her to take him out of P.A. and place him in a counting house. Quincy, however, did enter Harvard, at age thirteen, graduated with highest honors in 1790, and in 1829, became the college's fifteenth president.
1.Peter Galison, “21 July 1773: Disputation, Poetry, Slavery,” Critical Inquiry 45, Winter 2019, 381; his source: “Massachusetts Slaves,” The Youth’s Companion, December 19, 1907, 652.
2.Theodore Parsons and Eliphalet Pearson, A Forensic Dispute on the legality of enslaving the Africans, held at the public commencement in Cambridge, New-England, July 21st, 1773. / By two candidates for the bachelor's degree (Boston: Printed by John Boyle, for Thomas Leverett, near the post-office in Cornhill, MDCCLXXIII ), 11-12.
3. Forensic Debate, 31.
4. In 1779, however, while serving as a ship's surgeon on the privateer brig Bennington during the American Revolutionary War, Parsons disappeared at sea, aged twenty-eight. See https://colonialnorthamerica.library.harvard.edu/spotlight/cna/catalog/990122641550203941 Retrieved January 20, 2021. And:https://archive.org/stream/storybyfieldane00ewelgoog/storybyfieldane00ewelgoog_djvu.txt Retrieved March 4, 2021.
5. On Pearson's failure to be settled (the old word for securing a ministerial position), see John Lewis Ewell, The Story of Byfield, a New England Parish (Boston: George E. Littlefield, 1904), 142-145. For the comments of Pearson's son, see Phillips Academy Archives, Head of School Records, Eliphalet Pearson, Box 2, Folder 10, “Henry Bromfield Pearson, 1795-1867,” undated manuscript copy of “Respecting Dr. Eliphalet Pearson.”
6. Phillips Academy is “commonly called simply Andover,” writes Paul V. Turner in his essay,“The Campus as Palimpsest,” in Academy Hill: The Andover Campus, 1778 to the Present (Andover: Addison Gallery of American Art and New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 1. It’s certainly true in the wider world, but Andover townspeople don’t refer to it that way, preferring P.A., since the term "Andover" also designates the town itself as well as, sometimes, Andover High School. And P.A. is what I will call it here.
7. As quoted in an obituary for William Wardwell that was published in the New England Historic Genealogical Society's Memorial Biographies (1890-1897) (Boston: NEHGS, 1908), 9: 352: "His ancestry is given briefly as follows: Thomas Werdall came from Ipswich, England, and took oath as a Freeman in Boston, 1635. Samuel Wardle, his son, was born in Boston, married Sarah Hawkes, and removed to Andover. Solomon, his son (or grandson), had nine children." It is know that Samuel Wardle (aka Wardwell) married Sarah Hawkes, it was this Samuel who was executed during the Salem Witchcraft hysteria in 1692.” Also: “There were two Wardwells that immigrated to New England pre-1635. One was Thomas Wardwell, the other was William Wardwell. Samuel the victim of the hysteria was the son of Thomas of Boston.” Andover’s That Samuel is also assumed to have been the inspiration for Matthew Maule, who is accused of being a witch in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables.
8. See https://archive.org/stream/constitutionofph00philiala/constitutionofph00philiala_djvu.txt Retrieved April 26, 2022.
9. Biographical Catalogue of the Trustees, Teachers and Students of Phillips Academy, Andover, 1778-1830 (Andover: The Andover Press, 1903), 25-26. Completed and stereotyped in 1892, it was reissued with additions for the 150th anniversary of the school.
10. PAA, Eliphalet Pearson Papers, Box 2, Folder 15, labeled, “Bibliographical Sketch of E. Pearson by a Critic.” (Hereafter, Quincy.) The sketch is an unsigned, typewritten manuscript, undoubtedly written by Josiah Quincy III. Similar words and sentiments can be found in Life of Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts, by his son Edmund Quincy (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867), 26. “Mr. Phillips was advanced in life, of a stern and peremptory temperament. I was noisy, heedless, and troublesome, and it was for his interest as well as for mine that we shied be separated.”
11. Quincy, 25.
12. Ibid., 24.