On Friday afternoon I attended the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s annual graduate student forum, when a dozen of the region’s grad students studying colonial New England share their works in progress.
One of the panelists this year was Rachel Smith of the University of Colorado, who looked at the disciplinary records of Yale College students during the war years.
One major factor in the college culture was that upperclassmen could order freshmen to run errands—any “proper” errands outside of class time. This system must have been a lot of fun for the upperclassmen, since they got to haze the little guys (college freshmen were typically fourteen years old), and they got their errands done. For the freshmen, it was usually no fun, but they only had to hold out a year and then they could inflict the same torment on someone new.
A few freshmen apparently figured out ways to torment the older guys. In Sketches of Yale College (1843), Ezekiel Belden recorded this anecdote:
A Freshman was once furnished with a dollar and ordered by one of the upper classes to procure for him pipes and tobacco, from the farthest store on Long Wharf, a good mile distant.Benjamin Homer Hall’s A Collection of College Words and Customs (1859) says that five freshmen who entered Yale in 1781 “claimed the Honor of abolishing” the rule on errands. (The Yale Literary Magazine of 1856 disputed that, but also got their dates wrong.)
Being at that time compelled by college laws to obey the unreasonable demand, he proceeded according to orders, and returned with ninety-nine cents worth of pipes and one penny worth of tobacco.
It is needless to add that he was not again sent on a similar errand.
Why did those five freshmen stand up to custom? One factor might have been their ages. Three of them (William Bradley, John D. Dickinson, and M. J. Lyman, whose name gets misspelled as “Lyon” in most versions of this anecdote) were born in 1766 or 1767, and thus entered Yale at the typical age. But two—Matthew Marvin (born 1764) and Amasa Paine (b. 1762)—were already in their late teens, as old as most upperclassmen. That wasn’t completely out of the ordinary, but these guys might have had less patience and more muscle.