How Students Protested Dining-Hall Food in an Honor Culture

In the Great Biscuit Rebellion of 1852, University of South Carolina students threatened to leave if their demands weren’t met––and the trustees let them go.

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.”

The college had even built a brick wall around campus in “a largely unsuccessful effort to deter students from leaving the campus and engaging in ungentlemanly behavior––such as stealing turkeys from Columbia residents and visiting local taverns.”

Other school rules from that era:

  • “Students are strictly forbidden to visit Taverns, Hotels, or places of Public Amusement, without special permission first obtained by the President.”
  • “From the first of May until the close of the term, the Students shall be dismissed after evening prayers, until 8 o'clock at night; at which time, they shall return to their rooms for the purpose of study, and remain in for the night.”
  • “Students are strictly forbidden to visit Eating-Houses or Grog Shops, on pain of suspension or expulsion, as the nature of the case may require.”

None were as contentious, however, as the mandate to eat on campus.

In Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740-1990,  John Hammond Moore fleshes out the story while citing a somewhat different range of numbers:

As William John Grayson observed in 1807, bad food was a primary cause of student discontent, and various faculty members dealt with recurring protests with middling success. In 1842 the college instituted a bursary system with a bursar hired at a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year to provide meals at three dollars per week. Attendance, however, was compulsory. This operation replaced the infamous "Steward's Hall," run by an unpaid individual whose income was realized by pinching pennies.

Although college authorities praised the bursary, students did not, and in the fall of 1852 over 100 of them joined together and demanded that the trustees abolish the compulsory requirement. The trustees, angered by this ultimatum, refused to do anything until the students disbanded. They proved equally firm, the governor declined to intervene, and many of the protestors packed up and left, reducing the student body from 199 in 1852 to 122 a year later. In a sense, the young men won, because in 1853 the college returned to a voluntary arrangement of earlier decades that permitted students to eat at licensed boarding houses.

In A History of the University of South Carolina, Edwin Luther Green wrote that while President Thornwell agreed that the food offered to the students was poor and sympathized with their grievances, he felt that “to grant the request was to yield to the spirit of rebellion.” Of course, “the spirit of rebellion” would soon alter the fates of those same young men––take Thomas Pinckney Alston Jr, who left USC over the biscuit rebellion, transferred to Harvard, and was therefore featured in the book Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South. USC closed during the Civil War, as all its young men were off fighting. Afterward, it became the first southern state university to admit black students, only to revert to being an all-white institution when the Reconstruction vision of the Radical Republicans was defeated by reactionary racists who would control the state for decades.

All that was still in the future when Thornwell issued the last report of his tenure.

Edward Luther Green relates:

In this report he urged the importance of keeping the college strictly a classical institution, which should turn out scholars, not sappers or miners, or doctors or apothecaries or farmers… Dr. Thornwell considered the first object of education to be ‘the discipline of the mind, to elicit its dormant powers, and to train these for vigorous self-action...’ His favorite idea was to restrict undergraduates to studies by which the mind may be systematically developed… Thornwell exercised over students a wonderful influence… his full sympathy with all the aspirations of youth, his genius and learning, and the conviction that he produced of his own honesty and fairness won him this moral power.

As observers try to make sense of this year’s student activism (and new glosses on student complaints about dining-hall food), it’s thought-provoking to look back at college protests in a time of in loco parentis and a region that operated on an honor culture.

For better and worse, today’s administrators are more inclined to indulge and even celebrate “a spirit of rebellion” in students. (Vietnam War protestors of bygone eras sit on boards of trustees today.) And it would be very surprising to see today’s students withdraw from college in protest, though not necessarily because they’re less rebellious: Many borrowed to begin their college education; they live in a country where getting a college diploma is much more important than it used to be; and when it comes to complaining about the food, something every generation of college students has done, they’ve just got it much better than prior generations.

When I was 21 and griping about my alma mater’s dining hall, I had no idea that a-century-and-a-half before, the sons of white, Southern elites were forced to eat rancid meat and wormy biscuits for dinner. What a privilege it is to live in the 21st century.