Underneath the many coats of paint that cover the Tufts Cannon lies a controversial political history that started one of Tufts’ most well-known traditions.
The rules of painting the Civil War artifact, according to the Tufts Admissions website, are simple: it can only be painted at night, and if more than one student or group of students wants to paint it that same night, the first group must stand guard until the sun rises to avoid leaving their artwork vulnerable to usurpers who may paint over it.
The Cannon is a replica of a model used on the deck of the USS Constitution, a ship launched in 1797 by the U.S. Navy. The City of Medford had received the Cannon from the National Park Service as a sign of appreciation for local children who had raised money to restore the USS Constitution, but could not initially find a proper location to display it. Accordingly, in 1956, the Cannon was placed in its current location on the green between Ballou Hall and Goddard Chapel in its former unpainted form as a gift from the Medford Historical Society.
In the 1960s, Tufts’ campus became a hotbed of student activism, and widespread antiwar sentiments on campus ultimately led to the temporary removal of the Cannon, seeing as some viewed the artifact as a symbol of imperialism and war.
However, a group of alumni successfully petitioned to reinstate the Cannon after the Vietnam War ended, and it was returned to its location on top of the hill in 1977, still unpainted, according to a Winter 2006 Tufts Magazine article.
However, it was not long before the monument became the center of controversy yet again, as it was first recorded as being painted in the fall of 1977 in relation to a controversy surrounding the presidential family of the Philippines at that time. The New York Times reported that The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy had accepted a $1.5 million grant from the authoritarian Filipino regime of President Ferdinand E. Marcos that fall, to be allocated for the newly formed Ferdinand E. Marcos Chair of East Asian and Pacific Studies.
In the midst of protest over the grant by hundreds of students and faculty, the Cannon was painted for the first time in recorded history by students opposed to the acceptance of the grant from Marcos. Marcos ultimately withdrew the grant for the Fletcher School in 1981.
This display of protest was then painted over by a student who disapproved of defacing the Cannon, according to a historical piece compiled by the Tufts Anti-Authoritarian Collective, a former student group that once distributed Tufts’ Disorientation Guides.
The practice of painting the Cannon was not initially approved by all members of the Tufts community, according to former history professor Daniel Mulholland. Mulholland, who arrived at Tufts in 1968, immediately became involved in the activism taking place on campus. He served as the keynote speaker for an alternative commencement ceremony in 1970 that some graduating seniors organized to protest the official commencement ceremony.
Mulholland recalled the practice of painting the Cannon as an explicit act of protest that was initially not sanctioned by the university, and that some students also denounced. He explained that the Cannon was used in the naval ROTC ceremonies and was generally considered something to be respected.
“It was a sacrilegious act to paint the Cannon,” he said.
Former University Provost Sol Gittleman recalled that over the years, students sometimes left the site of the Cannon a mess with paint cans and paint splattered all over the ground. Gittleman, who arrived at Tufts in 1964, witnessed the evolution of the Cannon’s role on campus.
“The Cannon was used like a message board,” he said. “I’ve seen marriage proposals, ‘I love you’ … it changed weekly and sometimes daily.”
He also noted that the painting of the Cannon started during about the same time that students began “chalk-ing” the campus as a way to advertise student organizations and events.
Later, another major controversy surrounding the Cannon took place in 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks. For several weeks, the Cannon was painted with the word “peace.”
In October 2001, on the night of the first bomb strikes against Afghanistan, several members of the former conservative student publication, The Primary Source, painted over the Cannon with an American flag. That same night, three members of another former student organization, the Coalition for Social Justice and Nonviolence, got into a fight with the editor of the Primary Source, landing the students a disciplinary warning.
Despite its controversial history, the Cannon’s presence and its painting have become an accepted part of campus culture. Over time, Tufts has funded the sandblasting of the Cannon so that it may retain some semblance of the landmark’s original shape. Today, painting the Cannon is a university-sanctioned activity, with one exception: during commencement ceremonies, when the Cannon is painted black out of respect for the graduating class, according to Gittleman.