The 1853 commencement at the University of South Carolina was extraordinary for conferring diplomas on just 11 graduates, less than a fifth of that year's original class.
The missing students were campus activists of that era. And their complaint was familiar. “Food was a major source of student dissatisfaction,” Elizabeth Cassidy West wrote in her short history of the institution. “Students were required to eat at the campus dining facility, which frequently served wormy biscuits and rancid meat.”
Collegians had complained for years.
In 1827, 75 students withdrew from the campus dining system in protest. Under threat of punishment, many agreed to return to the dining hall. Others were expelled.
A quarter-century later, history repeated itself during the Great Biscuit Rebellion of 1852: Out of 199 students at USC, “109 signed an honor-bound agreement that if the compulsory system was not abolished they would quit the college." The trustees of that era were averse to losing so large a proportion of their students, but even more averse to giving in. And so, most of the students left the institution.
The graduating class of 1853 was hardest hit.
The biscuit rebellion occurred during the tenure of USC’s President James H. Thornwell. He was chosen to lead the institution in the hope that he would quiet campus unrest, like an 1850 dispute between a chemistry professor and his students that led the latter to conduct a book burning. The school had long been roiled by efforts to discipline students. "The board of trustees adopted strict regulations regarding student behavior that forbade drinking, gambling, and cock fighting,” West wrote, “all common social activities in 19th century South Carolina.”