Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Eaton, Nathaniel

EATON, NATHANIEL (1609?–1674), president-designate of Harvard College, born in or about 1609, was the sixth son of the Rev. Richard Eaton, and a younger brother of Theophilus Eaton [q. v.] He was educated on the foundation of Westminster, whence he was elected to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1629 (Welch, Alumni Westmon. 1852, pp. 101–2). His stay at the university was not long enough to admit of his taking a degree, for by 1633 he appears as an advanced pupil of Dr. William Ames [q. v.] at Franeker. In that year was published ‘Inquisitio in variantes Theologorum quorundam Sententias de Sabbato et Die Dominico, quam … proponit, sub præsidio D. D. Guilielmi Amesii, Nathanael Eatonus, Anglus, ad diem Martij hora prima pomeridiana loco consueto,’ 8vo, Franeker, 1633. Eaton, who had in the meantime taken orders and married, accompanied his two elder brothers, Theophilus and Samuel [q. v.], to America in 1637. He was admitted a freeman 9 June 1638. While Harvard College was in progress of building, classes of students were being formed by Eaton as president designate. He was also entrusted with the management of the funds. Every encouragement was given him to continue in office, a grant of five hundred acres being made to him and his heirs on that condition. But, writes Cotton Mather, he ‘marvellously deceived the expectations of good men concerning him, for he was one fitter to be master of a Bridewel than a colledge’ (Magnalia Christi Americana, 1702, bk. iv. pp. 126–7). Thomas Hooker (1586–1647), who knew him in Holland, says ‘he did not approve of his spirit, and feared the issue of his being received here [in America]’ (cited in Young, Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, p. 551 n.) Eaton was in fact a drunkard and something worse, cruel and avaricious. While he unmercifully chastised his pupils, inflicting ‘between twenty and thirty stripes at a time,’ and embezzled the college money, his wife half starved and neglected the hapless boarders committed to her care (see her very curious confession in Winthrop, Hist. of New England, ed. Savage, 1853, i. 373–4). At length a too vigorous cudgelling administered for ‘about the space of two hours’ to his usher, Nathaniel Briscoe, ‘a gentleman born,’ with ‘a walnut-tree plant big enough to have killed a horse and a yard in length,’ brought Eaton under the notice of the court at Boston in September 1639. After some grotesque proceedings, during which the elders found, as the result of many hours' persuasion, that ‘he was convinced and had freely and fully acknowledged his sin, and that with tears, so as they did hope he had truly repented,’ the court dismissed him from his employment, forbade him to teach within their jurisdiction, and imposed a fine of 20l., a like sum to be paid to the unfortunate Briscoe. ‘A pause being made, and expectation that (according to his former confession) he would have given glory to God and acknowledged the justice and clemency of the court, the governour giving him occasion by asking him if he had aught to say, he turned away with a discontented look, saying, “If sentence be passed, then it is to no end to speak.”’ The church authorities at Cambridge then intended to deal with him, but before they took action he fled to Pascataqua in New Hampshire, where he managed, after desperate manœuvring, to get on board a barque bound to Virginia. ‘Being thus gone, his creditors began to complain, and thereupon it was found that he was run in debt about 1,000l., and had taken up most of this money upon bills he had charged into England upon his brother's [Theophilus] agents and others whom he had no such relation to. … And being thus gone, the church proceeded and cast him out.’ His wife and children, except a boy named Benoni, followed him the next year (1640), but the ship in which they sailed was never again heard of (Winthrop, i. 370–6, ii. 26). Eaton drifted back to England and married again. During the interregnum he ‘lived privately’ (Mather, bk. iv. p. 127). In 1647 he appeared before the university of Padua as a candidate for the degrees of doctor of philosophy and medicine, which he obtained. The oration which he delivered on the occasion was published, ‘Oratio habita a Nathanaele Eatono, Anglo, pro laurea doctorali, sibi et perexcellenti D. D. Richardo Danbæo, Anglo, in Academia Patavina publice concessa, 7 Cal. Decembris anno 1647,’ 4to, Padua, 1647. At the Restoration he conformed, and in 1661 was holding the vicarage of Bishops Castle, Shropshire (Wood, Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 674), when, if we may credit Mather (Magnalia, bk. iv. p. 127), he became ‘a bitter persecutor’ of his former brethren, the dissenters. During the same year he, ‘upon the knees of his soul,’ dedicated to Charles II a slight volume of no merit, ‘De Fastis Anglicis, sive Calendarium Sacrum. The Holy Calendar: being a treble series of Epigrams upon all the Feasts observed by the Church of England. To which is added the like Number of Epigrams upon some other more especiall Daies, which have either their Footsteps in Scripture, or are more remarkeable in this Kingdome,’ 8vo, London, 1661. With a return to prosperity Eaton sank into his old habits. He ran deeply into debt, and on being arrested at the suit of Francis Buller of Shillingham, Cornwall, in 1665, he endeavoured to evade the law by perjury and subornation (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1665–6, p. 93). Yet on 18 March 1668 he was preferred to the richly endowed rectory of Bideford, Devonshire (Watford, Hist. of Bideford, pp. 114–15). His affairs coming to a crisis, he was lodged in the king's bench prison, Southwark, and died there in 1674. From the letters of administration granted in P. C. C., 7 Dec. 1674, to Mary Eaton, his widow, it appears that he was allowed to retain possession of his rectory (Administration Act Book, P. C. C., 1674, f. 176).

[Winthrop's Hist. of New England (Savage), ed. 1825, i. 308–13, ii. 22, ed. 1853, i. 370–6, ii. 26; Savage's Genealogical Dict. of the First Settlers of New England, ii. 96–7; Shepard's Memoirs of his own Life in Young's Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, pp. 551–3; authorities cited in the text.]

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