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Riot & Rebellion


The statutes of Harvard College have always been very specific about the matter of undergraduates gathering in great and opinionated numbers for purposes not altogether academic. The law is a good deal more lenient now than it once was but overt disruptions have remained officially unacceptable for three centuries.

Almost every springtime the attention of the student body is brought, in some way or another, to a little pamphlet entitled "Regulations for Students in Harvard College," in which appears the notation: "A student who is guilty of an offense against law and order at the time of a public disturbance or unauthorized demonstration or who disregards the instructions of a proctor or other University officer at such time may have his connection with the University served. The mere presence of a student at a disturbance or unauthorized demonstration makes him liable to disciplinary action."

This is no bemused tongue-in-cheekery: punishment through the ages has been rather stringent. In the times of Harvard's earliest classes, as often as not, it consisted of floggings at the cane of the Headmaster. In recent days it has been little less harsh though slightly more subtle--tear gas bombs have been gently lobbed into the midst of revelers, and the most rebellious have been carted away in the Black Marias of the local constabulary.

The history of stern reprisals is long but the history of riot and rebellion has been longer.

Sour Butter

In the middle of the 1700's, the food served in the College dining rooms produced notable discontent among the undergraduates, then a gentlemanly and tasteful lot. In 1766, this dissatisfaction incited Harvard's first real insurrection, the Great Butter Rebellion. Prompted by the serving of sour butter which President Edward Holyoke at first declined to replace, the disturbances settled unto action were not entirely settled until action was taken by the Board of Overseers.

The Faculty was certain that their defense of the President and his rotten butter was quite well taken but the undergraduate body was even more self-righteous. The rebellion, once over, was eulogized by one of the insurrectionaries in a Biblical epic called the Book of Harvard:

"And it came to pass in the ninth Month, on the 23rd day of the Month, the sons of Harvard murmured and said,

"Behold! bad and unwholesome Butter is served out unto us daily.

"Then arose Asa, the Scribe, and went unto Butter stinketh, and we cannot eat thereof; now give us, we pray the, Butter that stinketh not.

"And Belcher the Ruler said, trouble me not, but begone unto thine own Place; but Asa obeyed him out.

"So when Belcher and others of the Rulers departed, the Sons of Harvard clapped their Hands, & hissed & cried, aha! aha!

"Then Edward the Chief Ruler and the other Rulers consulted together and said,

"Behold Asa the Scribe hath risen up against us, & the Sons of Harvard have hissed & clapped in Derision of us.

"Now therefore let us punish Asa the Scribe, & make him confess before all Harvard.

"Then was the Wrath of the sons of Harvard kindled within them and they gathered themselves together and went to the House of Edward the Chief Ruler, and said, we will not confess, and if our Rulers shall punish Asa we will depart everyone to his own Home and leave the Rulers to the Meditation out of their own hearts.

"Edward said, will ye confess or will ye not; but all the Sons of Harvard held up their Hands, thereby signifying they would not confess.

"So on the 10th month, and on the 11th Day of the Month, the Great Sanhedrim of Harvard [the Board of Overseers] met and many of the Sons of Harvard were prevailed upon by the Threatenings of the Members of the Great Sanhedrim & confessed.

"So after this there were no more murmurings in Harvard, but all was Peace and Quietness as it is to this Day. Cambridge, November 19, 1766."

And Food Again

But the Peace and Quietness lasted for only two years. The Great Rebellion of 1768, like the first insurrection, was incited by the College food and lasted for nearly a month. The riots were now more violent but even more unsuccessful. Penalties were generally severe, though the feeling that the punished were the martyred still lingered.

As the Revolutionary War approached, the groans of hunger were drowned out by a growing patriotic spirit which entranced even the undergraduates of Harvard College. Rioting broke out only once during the days surrounding the Revolution and that was when two Tory students brought tea into the College dining room in 1775.

In 1780 occurred the most successful student revolt in the history of the college; it was also the mildest. A large body of students gathered in the Yard one evening, passed resolutions against President Samuel Langdon, and noisily demanded his dismissal. After reading the charges brought against him, Langdon submitted his resignation without objection.

The next major event took place in 1807, the rotten Cabbage Rebellion, another protest against College food. The student body assembled for the first time under a tree at the end of Hollis Hall which was to become Rebellion Elm, and begged that the food be improved, especially the cabbage. They had marched out of the dining hall in a body and 17 of them were eventually dismissed. The food remained largely the same.

The 'Rebelliad'

In 1819, a fight between freshmen and sophomores raged in the dining hall for several hours finally developing into open revolt when several of the participants were suspended. For the second time, students met under Rebellion Elm and made demands on the College. The entire sophomore class resigned but returned within two weeks to have several of its members sent away again. This insurrection was chronicled in the once famous "Rebelliad; Or Terrible Transactions at the Seat of the Muses," a poem in four cantos which was printed and privately circulated for many years after the revolt.

One of the most curious rebellions of them all was the one which developed in 1823 over a little squabble involving several members of the senior class. One of those men was first in his class and about to graduate as such; another, a bit further down the class list, reported to the President several charges against the moral conduct of the first student, who was then fairly stiffly punished. The senior class gathered under Rebellion Elm to protest the charges and the punishment and threatened the informer with bodily harm. Four of them were suspended, and rioting raged for several days. Cannonballs were thrown from windows of dormitories, and bonfires spread through the Yard. It was a much cruder protest than the earlier ones had been but the penalties were much the same--37 seniors were dismissed from College and denied the degrees they would have received in a very short while.

The student who made the original charges later became a clergyman and was at one time a member of the Massachusetts General Court. Shortly before his death he confessed that the accusations he had made were entirely false.

The last of the nineteenth century rebellions was the most violent one. It started when a freshman refused to obey the instructions of a tutor and was accordingly punished by the administration. His classmates came to his rescue, assembled under Rebellion Elm, and stirred rioting which interrupted classes for two months. Tutors' windows and furniture were smashed, torpedoes were sailed through the Chapel, President Josiah Quincy was hanged in effigy, and explosions violated the virtuous Yard. A number of the rioters received the customary dismissal but at least two were taken to court and tried on a variety of civil charges.


The twentieth century, when judged by its predecessors, has been comparatively mild. In the first decades of the 1900's the only disturbances were wrought by students in small numbers, easily handled by proctors in larger numbers.

At the turn of the century it had been the custom of students living in the Yard to go to the bottom of an entry and call out the names of friends in the building so that they would come out for talks on the steps. One student living in the Yard was particularly devoted to his studies and had no friends to speak of. In the spring it bothered him that so many names were called at his entry but never his own, which as it happened, was Rinehart. Eventually he devised the scheme of going from building to building shouting his own name, hoping to become well known. He was discovered in his plot, and for many years thereafter whenever a civil disturbance was desired the name "Rinehart" was cried through the Yard. No notable revolts ever developed from this practice although the signal was heard in the Yard as recently as three years ago.

The first great riot of the twentieth century started May 18, 1952, when several students met in the Yard to await an appearance of Walt Kelly at a "Pogo for President" rally. Charges of police brutality arose from Cambridge's handling of the riot that ensued, and 28 students were arrested and taken to court. With the assistance of defense attorney Joseph A. DeGuglielmo '29, then Mayor of Cambridge, they managed to escape sentences.

'We Want Vellucci'

In May of 1956, Alfred Vellucci introduced before the Cambridge City Council three unmistakably provocative resolutions in the spiteful breadth of one week: that all of Harvard's property be confiscated and converted into parking space; this failing, that Harvard be declared an independent metropolis separate from Cambridge; and this failing too, that Harvard's liquor licenses be revoked. Although the confiscation proposal was defeated by only a -54 vote in the Council, Vellucci later claimed that he merely wanted to dramatize the city's parking problems and truly did not covet Harvard's land. But in the meanwhile, some 350 undergraduates had formed a vigilante committee and ran through the streets shouting "We want Vellucci," The Vellucci Riot was colorful enough but still somewhat meek.

Two years later, as Vice-President Nixon was returning from the anti-American riots in South America, he Class of '62, then freshmen, scheduled a week of rioting of their own, distributing anonymously mimeographed programs and arranging sundry insurrectionary functions. The demonstrations, intended to include a burning of Gen Ed books on Widener steps and a panty raid on Radcliffe, were designed for the sake of undergraduate "mental health," to let off the steam of a year's study; but the plans fizzled for several nights in a dreary row and were finally, sadly abandoned.

In January, 1961, a large crowd of students stationed in the Yard to watch President-elect John Kennedy leave an Overseers meeting in University Hall managed to trap him for about 15 minutes, demanding a speech and upsetting the United States Secret Service a good bit; but it was not until the spring of 1961 that another true riot occurred. The great revolt of that year was occasioned by the changing of diplomas from Latin to English and became, in its three day duration, the famed Latin Diploma Riots.

The riots of the first night seized the imagination of the Boston newspapers, and their somewhat large headlines prodded hundreds of Greater Bostonians into Harvard Square for the second night. The activities on that occasion were finally quelled by tear gas and the arrest of the more obvious and obnoxious offenders

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