Last Words

Posted On September 04, 2018 | 07:06 am | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (September 2018)

"The fulfillment of this vision of high intellectual adventure seen through the open gates of Dumbarton Oaks will add lustre to Harvard, to the academic tone of our country and to scholarship throughout the world." Mildred Barnes Bliss, Preamble to her last will and testament, July 29, 1966.

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss established the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in 1940 and continued to support and enrich the institution throughout their lives. On July 29, 1966, Mildred Bliss executed her last will and testament, a copy of which is held in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. She prefaced the itemized disposition of her estate with a Preamble, her last words on what was undeniably the singular greatest undertaking and achievement of her life – the creation and nurturing of Dumbarton Oaks, her “home of the Humanities.” She wrote:

The desires expressed in this will are the result of much thought and the decisions have been made with deliberation. The legal language is designed to state the devises and bequests so clearly that no misunderstanding of my intention may occur. However, as interpretations of accepted terminology vary from time to time, I hereby direct that if any question should arise as to my intention, the interpretation of this will shall be governed by the following principles, which I do hereby most solemnly declare.

Since my husband and I conveyed Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard in 1940, the expanding activities inherent in the development of an important institution of learning have resulted in mounting costs which gave us increasing concern. But the bequests to Harvard by my husband and me for the support of Dumbarton Oaks will, I believe, provide reasonably adequate funds for the realization of its destiny. In applying the gifts to Harvard, I call upon the present and future President and Fellows of Harvard College and all those who determine its policies, to remember that Dumbarton Oaks is conceived in a new pattern, where quality and not number shall determine the choice of its scholars; that it is the home of the Humanities, not a mere aggregation of books and objects of art; that the house itself and the gardens have their educational importance and that all are of humanistic value.

Those responsible for scholarship at Dumbarton Oaks should remember that the Humanities cannot be fostered by confusing Instruction with Education; that it was my husband’s as well as it is my wish that the Mediterranean interpretation of the Humanist disciplines shall predominate; that gardens have their place in the Humanist order of life; and that trees are noble elements to be protected by successive generations and are not to be neglected or lightly destroyed. I charge those responsible for carrying forward the life at Dumbarton Oaks to be guided by the standards set there during the lifetime of my husband and me. The distinction of the scholars themselves as well as of their writings; the interpretation of the texts and the arts; the quality of the music performed; the free discussion within the limits of good deportment, and the whole tempered by the serenity of open spaces and ancient trees; all these are as integral a part of Humanism at Dumbarton Oaks as are the Library and the Collections. The fulfillment of this vision of high intellectual adventure seen through the open gates of Dumbarton Oaks will add lustre to Harvard, to the academic tone of our country and to scholarship throughout the world.

These, then, are the fundamental substrata of my intention.

First page of the Last Will and Testament of Mildred Barnes Bliss, July 29, 1966. Dumbarton Oaks Archives.