Past Tense: A Tradition of Protest

FM looks into and beyond Vietnam protests to a storied culture of rebellion on campus challenging everything from saturated fats to Dwight D. Eisenhower.


In 1766—one hundred and thirty years after its founding—Harvard hosted the first recorded student protest in American history: a protest against butter. For decades, the quality of food in the College’s dining halls had been sharply declining. The student’s complaints about the food and particularly about the sourness of the butter fell lamely upon the ears of the College president, Edward Holyoke, Class of 1705.

So, on September 23, Asa Dunbar of the Class of 1767—the grandfather of Henry David Thoreau—mounted his chair and proclaimed: “Behold, our butter stinketh!—Give us, therefore, butter that stinketh not.” The majority of the student body heartily accepted this as their motto and echoed it over the course of the next month as the protests of the Great Butter Rebellion ensued.

In a fit of displeasure, President Holyoke demanded that the students turn in the instigators of the protest—along with Dunbar, the rabble-rousers included the entirety of the “Sons of Harvard,” a student offshoot of the “Sons of Liberty.” Since no student confessed, President Holyoke decided to suspend over half of the student body in hopes that someone would fess up. But again the students maintained their solidarity and said nothing.

Eventually the Board of Overseers stepped in, readmitting the suspended students and replacing the butter. Yet two years later, the dining hall food worsened again and the protests resumed with more aggression and fewer returns.

Following the Great Butter Rebellion, culinary remonstrations became a central component of Harvard’s protest culture, from the Bread and Butter Rebellion of 1805 through the Cabbage Rebellion of 1807 to the “Rebelliad” insurrection of 1819.


The Cabbage Rebellion began after maggots kept showing up in the student’s cabbage soup. The disgruntled vegetable enthusiasts assembled under a tree at the end of Hollis Hall, which would later be called “Rebellion Elm.” The bedraggled students supplicated for better food, but following the suspension of 17 students, the unavailing protest ended in vain.

In 1819 a new generation of students returned to “Rebellion Elm” to make their own demands. Fed up with being poorly fed, the entire sophomore class dropped out of Harvard in the hope that doing so would spur some indignation among the administration. It didn’t and the defected students had to ask to be readmitted; only some were allowed.

These events would later be recounted as a parody epic poem of four cantos entitled “Rebelliad; or Terrible Transactions at the Seat of the Muses.” The poem was privately published and widely distributed among students. The conclusion to the prologue of the poem reads:

The combat deepens. On, ye brave,

And let the cooks the pieces save!

Wave, Goodies, all you besoms wave!

Inspire their souls with chivalry.

Ah! few shall part where many meet

With anything but blows to eat,

And every dish beneath their feet

Shall be a supper’s sepulchre.

Such literary wit returned, foodless, in the fall of May 1952, just as things were getting political. Students gathered in the Yard to campaign for the comic strip character Pogo as a candidate for president. The students mocked Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike!” slogan with their own chant of “I Go Pogo.” The rally soon turned violent and the Cambridge city police arrested 28 students, all of whom were later released.


And then, of course, there was Vietnam. In 1969, Harvard students took over University Hall in opposition to the escalating war in Vietnam. During previous bouts of war, such as World War I and World War II, there had been limited pacifist protests, which often faded dimly as the United States became more involved in the war. This time, however, the students were less patient.

The protest was led by the Harvard chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Members of the group led about 300 students to the home of Harvard’s President, Nathan M. Pusey ’28, and tacked a list of demands to the door. The students targeted Harvard’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Among the demands, they wanted ROTC to be dissolved and they wanted alternative scholarships for students enrolled in ROTC.

The students then crowded into University Hall and chained the doors shut. They pledged to only use nonviolent disobedience, but the University administrators decided to call in the city and state police: with clubs and mace, the police quickly broke up the rally and arrested over 100 students, but the protest did not end without reprieve.

The tenacious students moved to Memorial Church, now joined by outraged faculty. After an extended strike and a boycott of classes, the University eventually caved to the protestors’ demands.

The spirit of Vietnam was echoed in 2001, when nearly 50 students from the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) began a sit-in at Mass. Hall, pleading the administration for a “living wage” for University workers. “I think it’ll work,” one worker told The Crimson as he marched. “It’s worked in the past.” Later that year, Harvard began renegotiating contracts with its workers and raised most wages above the Cambridge living wage level.

Harvard students still take part in protests: pickets for labor rights, rallies for environmental protection, marches for the LGBT movement, and now the occupation of Wall Street and Boston. There will always different causes, met with different amounts of fervor or apathy—but it seems the rancid taste of butter lingers still in the mouths of Harvard youth.