- Historic Sites
The Lower Depths Of Higher Education
Do today’s turbulent college campuses make you long for the good old days? The facts may dampen your nostalgia
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
“Mr. Francis, the superintendent of public buildings, brought me a small vial of gunpowder found in one of the privies with twine and cord wound about it; to increase the exploding, a small roll of paper was stuck in the cork by way of match,” wrote the Reverend Edward Everett, new president of Harvard, in his diary for 1846. He recorded in the same year:
Dr. Ware commences his lectures to the Freshman class (two in number) on Wednesday. It is necessary I understand to send in a proctor to prevent the Professor from being pelted with chestnuts … In the evening, at about twenty before nine, I was told by my servant that University Hall was on fire. Found the south door burned through at the bottom and cotton and spirits of turpentine … I hear that incendiary outrages were much more frequent in [President Josiah] Quincy’s time [1829–45] than now. Every outhouse, shed, workshop, and wooden fence near the Yard was marked for destruction. Stones were occasionally thrown into the President’s office through the windows when the Faculty were in session.
However, the new president’s turn came. A bundle of flaming straw was placed within his doorway, but happily was discovered in time. Not long afterward he resigned his post, being weary of “fighting wild beasts in this my new Ephesus.”
Rioting was a beloved tradition at Harvard. There was the Rotten Cabbage Rebellion of 1807, provoked by an excess of maggots in that amiable dish. In 1823 the students met under the Rebellion Tree in front of Hollis Hall; each plucked a twig and set forth to battle for a greater voice in something. The facuity won and expelled forty-three seniors out of a class of seventy just before commencement. In 1834 the black Hag of rebellion was raised over Holworthy Hall. After an orgy of explosions and furniture smashing President Quincy called in the civil authority and banished the entire sophomore class for a year. For a time the “grouping” of students was forbidden so rigorously that a proctor reported a solitary student as evidently waiting to be joined by another, thus to constitute an illegal group. True, there were many peaceful years, broken only by innocent diversions such as the attachment of “pull-crackers” to the covers of the chapel Bible so that the book, when opened, would explode in the preacher’s face.
The Yale students too were effervescent. After a rebellion in 1830 the faculty banished half the sophomore class. The celebrated scientist Benjamin Silliman (who during some earlier troubles had never ventured from his laboratory without two loaded pistols) blamed the uprising on democracy: “its spirit infests our seminaries of learning.” In 1843 a tutor tried to seize a window-breaking student and was fatally stabbed. But the Yale esprit de corps is strong; the undergraduates’ real adversaries were the townsmen rather than their teachers. In a theatre riot in 1854 a towny was killed. His companions seized two cannon from an artillery company and assaulted South College. “The general opinion seemed to be that the students were entirely in the right, that the dead man deserved his late,” says a true-blue Yale historian. The slayer could not be discovered.
Four years later occurred a great battle with the New Haven firemen. The students wielded heavy canes; the firemen, hose wrenches and speaking trumpets. The firemen’s leader was shot and killed. No one was indicted. “The general college sentiment rather deprecated the shooting as needless and unjustifiable,” says the Yale historian, striving to be fair.
Princeton celebrated six rebellions between 1800 and 1830. The riots of 1807 began as a protest against the suspension of three students for drunkenness. The president closed the college and suspended 125 out of its 200 students. The outbreaks of 1814 were memorable. The chapel Bible had its inside cut out to hold a pack of cards. A pistol was fired at a tutor’s door. A hollow log packed with gunpowder exploded in Nassau Hall, breaking windows and cracking the walls. The Great Rebellion of 1817 followed. An observer reported:
Satan fell like lightning from heaven, all college exercises were suspended for several days, and half the country was given a new topic of discussion. The tutors were imprisoned in their rooms, the doors of Nassau Hall were nailed up; a bonfire was made of the college outbuildings; the bell was rung continuously; windows were smashed in the upper floors, and billets of firewood fell in all directions on the heads of officers who tried to break their way in. Nassau Hall was in a state of siege.
Thanks to expulsions and to the timorousness of parents, the enrollment at Princeton soon dropped to a low of seventy-one.