More than 170 years ago, then-President of Harvard University Josiah Quincy III, class of 1790, gave new meaning to the concept of “zero tolerance.” The namesake of Harvard’s own Quincy House shocked students and faculty alike when he expelled the College’s entire sophomore class in May of 1834.
Many Quincy House residents learned this notorious history for the first time yesterday evening at Josiah’s 238th birthday celebration in Quincy dining hall. Cake, a history lesson from House Master Lee Gehrke, and a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” colored the celebration.
Quincy was a statesman in the Massachusetts legislature, Mayor of Boston, the founder of Quincy Market, and the 15th president of Harvard.
Gehrke mentioned that during Quincy’s time in the House of Representatives, he tried to have President Thomas Jefferson impeached. The movement failed by a vote of 171-1.
His reign at Harvard was not much more successful.
“Like the Obama Administration, Quincy inherited a lot of problems,” Gehrke said to the buzzing dining hall.
Gehrke said many local clergymen felt Harvard had become a place for “unruly, lazy, immoral young men,” a description which elicited cheers and whistles from the crowd.
“Of the approximately 250 men in the college in 1821, 26 of them were diagnosed as having a venereal disease,” Gehrke said. “Quincy was determined to do something about this.”
Quincy’s crackdown involved threatening to expel a freshman whose primary offense was refusing to do his Greek homework. In defiance, the student left Harvard.
Quincy then expelled a student who sophomores suspected was dismissed because he was a southerner, Gehrke said. Juniors proceeded to burn an effigy of Quincy in Harvard Yard a few weeks before commencement.
That was the last straw for Quincy: he dismissed seven freshmen, one junior, seven seniors—and the entire sophomore class.
“People in the development office at the time must have been horrified,” Gehrke said. “To think of losing all that donor money in years to come.”
Several sophomores admitted they were ignorant of Quincy’s colorful past until last night.
“It’s funny to remember that each house was a person, and each house has a history,” Quincy resident Daniel F. Selgrade ’12 said.
Other residents listen eagerly every year.
“Josiah Quincy has this spirit about him and every single person who lives in this House feels it,” said Quincy resident Honor S. W. McGee ’10. “He took a stand and said ‘get your act together,’ and so we proudly eat cake and celebrate his life.”
—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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