Harvard’s History of Rebellion and Food Fights

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Student protests seem to be a phenomenon that started in the 1960s, but they are much older than that. The proud history of protests on college campuses got its start in America before there was such a thing as the United States. The subject of the protest was something that is still near and dear to the hearts of every college student: food.

The year was 1766. Harvard students were facing the harsh realities of the pre-Revolution economic downturn. As fresh food became increasingly scarce, the students’ bellies began to revolt. Soon, the student body followed the examples of the students’ bodies. One of the students, Asa Dunbar (who would become the grandfather of Henry David Thoreau), expressed his disapproval of the cuisine by proclaiming, “Behold, our butter stinketh! Give us, therefore, butter that stinketh not.”

The Great Butter Rebellion, as depicted in The Harvard Review.

Dunbar was punished for his gross display of contempt. In a show of support for their fellow student, many of his classmates left their classes and assembled in Harvard Yard. The leadership of Harvard was forced to admit that they had served rancid butter. None of that, however, excused what turned into a month of “violent, illegal, and insulting proceedings” as the students continued to demand more palatable food.

Harvard President Edward Holyoke demanded the names of the leaders of the rebellion. When no one came forward, he suspended more than half of the entire student body. The conflict ended when the Board of Overseers stepped in, readmitting the suspended students and replacing the butter.

Forty-one years later, another bout of civil disobedience erupted within the student body. This time, the offending trigger was cabbage. The Cabbage Rebellion of 1807 began when students kept finding maggots in their cabbage soup. In protest, the unsatisfied diners assembled under a tree at the end of Hollis Hall, which would later be called “Rebellion Elm.” Hoping for the same success enjoyed by the veterans of the Butter Rebellion, they demanded better food. This time, however, their efforts were in vain. Following the suspension of 17 classmates, the students — and the maggot-infested cabbage — returned to the dining hall.

Eleven years after that, food would again spark disobedience in the ranks of hungry Harvard scholars, but this time it would prove to be more violent than the Butter Rebellion or the Cabbage Rebellion. On November 1, 1818, as each of the four classes assembled in their separate dining rooms, the peacefulness of mealtime was rent asunder by unbridled pandemonium. A food fight of nearly biblical proportions erupted, sending distressed diners diving for cover.

The spark that ignited this powder keg was a slice of buttered bread, thrown as a weapon. Students responded to the buttered assault with “hot coffee, tea cups and saucers, plates, and finally billets of wood,” according to Mary Prescott, who summarized witness accounts in a letter to her brother Charles, a Class of 1821 dropout.

Harvard leadership moved rapidly to quash this unseemly behavior. While the mashed potatoes were still being scrubbed off the walls, the entire sophomore class was expelled.

The glorious accounts of the food fight were immortalized by Augustus Peirce, a 17-year-old junior, who commemorated the food fight in “Rebelliad,” a mock-heroic poem that was popular underground reading at Harvard for decades:

“And thus arose a fearful battle,”
The coffee cups and saucers rattle;
The bread-bowls fly at woful rate,
And break many a learned pate.”

Read the rest of “Rebelliad” here.

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Read about some of the most pointless protests in history.