J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 22, 2019

“A snow ball was sent against the chapel windows”

As I wrote back here, in December 1788 Harvard professor Eliphalet Pearson began to keep a “Journal of disorders &c.”

It’s possible Pearson had assembled a similar notebook previously and it just doesn’t survive. But I think internal evidence strongly suggests that this journal was a response to an extraordinary spate of student disturbances in the 1788-89 academic year.

The most prominent study of this document is Leon Jackson’s “The Rights of Man and the Rites of Youth: Fraternity and Riot at Eighteenth-Century Harvard,” published in the History of Higher Education Annual in 1995 and then slightly anachronistically in The American College in the Nineteenth Century. (Thanks to Boston 1775 reader Ed Bell for alerting me to the second, more easily read publication.) Jackson treats the record as an undifferentiated whole, documenting a “day after day” litany of drinking, vandalism, and rudeness.

I think it’s more striking that the disorder of the 1788-89 year tapered off abruptly. From June to December 1789, Prof. Pearson recorded only one more disciplinary item in his journal, and he added only one in all of 1790. (Both involved Benjamin Foisson Trapier, a younger brother of Paul, who ended up never graduating.) The journal has no entries for 1791 or all of 1792 until December.

Thus, while we can look at the overall nature of Harvard student disturbances as Jackson did, we should also ask why those events clustered and died off. What made 1788-89 such a troublesome time for the Harvard faculty?

The first incidents Pearson recorded involved a faculty member breaking up a party in a dormitory, the faculty punishing one of the students involved, then that entire class protesting at prayers or lecture by making noise or throwing things. This happened with the juniors, then the sophomores. But tutors had broken up such parties before without seeing such a backlash. Why was this winter different?

Historians have paid a lot of attention to Harvard student activism in the pre-Revolutionary decade: the vandalism of Gov. Francis Bernard’s portrait in 1765, the “Butter Rebellion” of 1766, the identification of a “rebellion tree” in 1768, and so on. The political atmosphere of that period seems to have made the students unusually militant about their own grievances.

Was the same dynamic at work in 1788-89? The economy was still pretty bad. The Shays Rebellion had occurred a couple of years before. The national government was changing. Did that social environment produce a more militant student body? One problem with that theory is that the Harvard student body came largely from the socioeconomic class opposed to popular resistance.

Another possible factor was individual dynamics. I noted yesterday how a couple of the troublemakers in early 1789 came from South Carolina. Before the Revolution, those boys might have gone to Britain for their college experience. Now they were in Cambridge. Were scholars from outside New England more apt to push back against the Harvard establishment?

Pearson named some particular troublemakers, but he also described entire classes protesting en masse. Even before this winter, John Quincy Adams had noted how the freshman class disrupted the sophomore class recitations simply for the sake of rivalry. Such group behavior seems to have been a form of bonding among the boys.

Leon Jackson’s main finding concerned fraternal organizations such as Phi Beta Kappa, which came to Harvard in the early 1780s. Several other student social groups appeared at this time. Jackson said that students who were in fraternal societies were less prone to bad behavior. Looking over the names in Pearson’s journal and on the Phi Beta Kappa roll, I agree that there’s only a little overlap. One exception, appearing on both lists, was Charles Adams.

It’s also striking to me how much the disorder that Pearson chronicled focused on religious services. Classes started by “scraping” the floor to make noise when professors were speaking but soon escalated to throwing coins and pebbles. Professors came into the chapel to find the furnishings in a heap. Chapel windows were broken, in one case the glass striking a faculty member inside. Was there a theological dispute fueling the trouble? Or was attacking that building just the easiest way to target faculty?

That focus on religious services gives a more significant cast to an event that Prof. Pearson recorded on 26 Mar 1789:
Sunday at evening prayers, while the President was praying, a snow ball was sent against the chapel windows, by Adams 1, as by him confessed to Mr. Webber.
The president of the college was Joseph Willard (1738-1804). Samuel Webber (1759-1810) taught mathematics and natural philosophy; he would succeed Willard as president of the college. And “Adams 1” was Charles Adams.

Remarkably, this incident didn’t get into the faculty minutes. There was no official punishment for Adams. Maybe there would have been if the snowball had broken the window. Or if Adams hadn’t convinced Webber that he was sorry, or had been throwing at someone else. Or if Adams wasn’t doing well in his classes and close to graduating.

I must also note that in spring 1789, Adams’s father had become the second highest elected official in the U.S. of A.

TOMORROW: Back at the Blue Anchor Tavern.

(The picture above comes from the Museum of the American Revolution’s depiction of an earlier snowball thrown in Harvard Yard, in the winter of 1775-76, as recalled by Israel Trask.)

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