The Great Rebellion of 1823

The Year Half the Senior Class Was Expelled

"I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing..." Thomas Jefferson

In these times of relative peace and harmony among Harvard students and faculty, one seldom feels the sort of tension wrought on the Yard by unruly classes of the past.

The College's pre-revolutionary years brought the 1766 "Butter Rebellion" and the plea: "Now give us we pray thee Butter that stinketh not." President Josiah Quincy in 1834 called police into the Yard for the first time to calm rioting sophomores protesting the punishment of a classmate.

In more recent times, four thousand students blocked traffic for 10 days in May 1960 in protest of President Pusey's proposal to print diplomas in English instead of the traditional Latin. Their slogan "Latin si, Pusey, no." And the SDS takeover of University Hall in 1969 resulted in the controversial expulsion of several of the protestors.

But never, perhaps, has student rowdiness and disregard for College authority made a greater impact on the fate of a single class than the one that moved into the Yard in August of 1819.


They were a group of 81 riotous and impetuous youths who entered Harvard College that Autumn. In the first days, "everything proceeded peaceably and in order," reported one student, but four years later the class was to face off in a Great Rebellion, ending on the eve of Commencement with the expulsion of more than half its ranks.

On April 29, 1823 a board of overseers reported that "a schism of two years standing has been the occasion of disaffection and alienation among the members of the senior class, and has required, in some cases, the intervention of the immediate Government."

Certainly, this message came as no surprise to the board, or to President John Kirkland (Class of 1789), who in his 18 years in charge of the University had never seen so many insubordinate actions as in the preceeding four years. Nor was it a surprise to the class itself, bitterly divided into two factions--the majority, which consistently ignored the rules of college decorum with more-than-reckless abandon, and "the Blacks," a minority of 15 or so students who constantly informed on their classmates' antics.

From their entrance on August 27, 1819 until their ill-fated commencement, the class of 1823 gave the College a rowdy and reckless spirit beyond the control of President Kirkland and his faculty, and a violent split which led to a battle forever after referred to as the "Great Rebellion of 1823."

The young men earned their reputation early in their college days; their first major challenge to order and common decency came at the end of freshman year. Kirkland had decided that it was time to stop the tradition previous classes had established of leaving campus en masse to celebrate on the night before the "Annual Examination." Not only did a large number of the class of 1823 defy the President's orders to stay at home, they also outdid their predecessors in the rousing good time they had, joining in an evening of billiards, bowling, eating, singing, and toasting at the Neponset Hotel, 10 miles from campus.

This large-scale disobedience did not please President Kirkland, and two days later he suspended for six months the organizers of the illegal banquet. Pickering Dodge, Class of 1823, who kept a diary of his class's antics, wrote "they left Cambridge amidst the cheers of their applauding classmates."

The unruliness continued the next year when a rather large food fight broke out between the class, now sophomores, and the new freshmen. "Have demolished doors and windows and destroyed all the crockery, china, etc., peace was restored," an entry in Dodge's log reads.

The sophomores began to band together and celebrate in their newly excited rebelliousness. They burned bonfires at midnight in the Yard. A student was suspended for nine months after he dropped a large cannon ball, with an insulting note to his tutor attached, from the fourth floor of Stoughton. In early November, a tutor, attempting to calm the excitement of the vandals, was greeted by a bucket of ink and water dropped over his head. One night later, a large group of students "met at the 'sign of the golden eagle' on the common at midnight, formed themselves into separate parties, armed themselves with clubs and stones and broke [two tutors'] windows, and then the windows of the president's study."

This behavior, though widely popular, was not unanimously supported by the class. Informants helped the administration identify the leading marauders, two of whom were soon after dismissed. But the identity of the informants soon became known and they were thereafter designated with the vindictive label of "Blacks." This small band of boys was ridiculed verbally and in "ridiculous caricatures on advertisement boards."

The schism between the pranksters and the informants deepened throughout the sophomore and junior years. As the unruly acts continued, and the administration received its reliable information, several students were suspended for idleness, disturbances, improper behavior, and "habitual negligence and dissipation."