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The Great Rebellion of 1823

The Year Half the Senior Class Was Expelled

By Thomas J. Meyer

"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."

The senior year of the class of 1823 brought to a climax their animosity, their pranks and their reckless insubordination. The "Blacks" continued to inform on these antics, and the rest of the class harrassed and vexed this moralistic minority. On March 10, 1823, "A large shower bath belonging to Dorr [a "Black"] was taken from the fourth story of Stoughton, and having been filled with wood, etc. was burnt at midnight in the middle of the College Yard in commemoration of the second anniversary of the Blacklist."

Two weeks later, the recalcitrant undergraduates set on fire the straw around the college pump, and three days after that another fire--this one made of newspapers from the reading room--lit up the Yard.

The spark for the final confrontation was no conflict between principles, but rather a duel between personalities: Robinson and Woodbury, two prominent members of the class. Robinson was an outstanding scholar, a prominent and well-liked member of the class's unruly majority. Woodbury was a "Black"--an informer and, an avowed enemy of Robinson.

In the early spring of 1823, Woodbury attempted to obtain the position of Latin orator at commencement--a role he knew that Robinson was likely to win. With this in mind, he went with his friend and co-"Black", Steams, before the College Government. They claimed that Robinson was the principal promoter of the division in the class, that he had led the class to insult and harrass them, and that he had "expended in dissipation at Boston the money which had been allowed him by Government."

Following this testimony, the administration took action, and with the firm belief that it could thereby calm the unruly actions of the students, it punished Robinson, suspending all favors and monetary aid to him, and forbidding him from performing at the class Exhibition, an annual rate in which members of the graduating class were to perform dramatic presentations and orations.

The majority of the class was determined to take revenge against Woodbury, who, by this point had very few friends or supporters. On Exhibition Day, diarist Dodge recalls the "Black's" speech being "hissed for a full five minutes. The chapel was in perfect uproar."

May Day, two days after Exhibition Day, was a momentous day for the Class of 1823 and an outstanding occasion in the annals of Harvard history. On this morning, the College government called up Robinson, charged him with being the primary cause of the Exhibition Day disturbances, and dismissed him from the college.

Robinson's incensed classmates and comrades assembled at a noon meeting, where they swore not to attend another college exercise as long as Woodbury remained a member of the class.

The college met at two o'clock that afternoon at a public gathering in the Chapel. "As soon as Woodbury entered, everyone instantaneously rose from his seat, and cries of 'out with him, out with the rascal' were succeeded by cheers of boisterous exclamations from every corner of the house."

But when Woodbury refused to leave, an angry classmate advanced and struck him in the face, and the entire class crowded around, picked him up, and "immediately thrust him headlong over the stairs." The president refused to continue the gathering, and later that evening called four students before the government, charged them with throwing Woodbury out of the chapel, and expelled them.

Such drastic administrative actions might have halted further misbehavior in the senior class, virtually on the eve of graduation. But always dedicated and rebellious, and never acting with moderation, the class of 1823 became angrier, more intent on revenge.

The Chapel scene was repeated that night at evening prayers. Students threw Woodbury out, the President refused to continue, and the college adjourned to dinner.

"After tea, the bugle sounded under the Rebellion Tree [an elm in front of Hollis], when 41 out of 70 bound themselves by an oath that they would not return to order till the four expelled members were recalled and Woodbury sent from the College." They also pledged that if Woodbury appeared next morning in chapel, they would not only remove him, but they would "thrash him severely."

This must have greatly frightened the poor, rule-abiding young man, for the next morning. Woodbury was nowhere to be found. He did not show up at morning prayers. Becoming impatient, the rebels left the chapel, and again President refused to continue prayers.

The President announced immediately after breakfast that morning that the college Government had expelled 37 of the student rebels, and would not reconsider its decision. "The government reserved enough for a commencement," wrote Dodge. It was soon learned that Woodbury had left Cambridge the evening before "by Government orders, and was probably by that time in New Hampshire."

Officials showed no signs of reconsideration or flexibility. They had made their decision, and they would not rescind it. They yielded to no appeals from any authority. Not even John Quincy Adams (Class of 1787), then a U.S. Representative and two years from the Presidency of the U.S. could convince his friend President Kirkland to readmit Adams' son. Kirkland wrote to Adams, that the decision of the college Government "exhibits the only view of the subject though most unfavorable to them [the students dismissed] that could have been taken." The Government could find no grounds for mitigating his son's punishment, though they wished to meet the requests of "the Honorable Mr. Adams," he claimed.

The expelled members of the class met at Boston Concert Hall two nights after the great expulsion for what Dodge called a "last, long, affectionate farewell."

The commencement, of course, took place in June, with the 30 remaining students receiving their degrees and one J. T. Woodbury performing the oration.

Harvard College did eventually forgive and forget the rebellious and spirited group that made up the class of 1823. Twenty-seven of those expelled (including John Adams, 39 years after his death) were granted A.B.s "as of 1823."

"The rest," wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison '08, in his "Three Centuries of Harvard," never again appeared on the printed roll of the some of Harvard.

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