The history of Princeton University Commencement Ceremonies

Every year leading up to the final weeks of classes, commencement and reunions, we receive questions related to the history of commencement activities. In this post we dive right into that subject!

The original commencement of the College of New Jersey was held in Newark, New Jersey on November 9th, 1748. There was a procession, an address from President Aaron Burr followed by graduate disputations, and finally, the awarding of the degrees. You can read more in this Princetionian article from 1932 and this satire, The First Commencement by Lewis Morris Jr.

Nathanial Scudder's College of New Jersey - Master of Arts Degree from 1759 - from the Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC138)

Nathanial Scudder, 1751, College of New Jersey – Honorary Master of Arts Degree from 1759 – from the Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC138)

The Commencement Records (AC115) has a rich description of the history of commencement addresses. One of the earliest Valedictory addresses was given by Ashbel Green’s address in 1783.  These addresses were first given in 1760 by a high ranking student. Through the years valedictory addresses have tried to sum up the experience of college life in relation to the world the seniors were about to enter.

Salutatory addresses date back to the first commencement in 1748. Though no actual addresses appear in the files until 1903, newspaper articles occasionally elaborate on them. This address was traditionally delivered by the highest ranking member of the senior class and is Princeton’s oldest student honor. The salutatorian delivered this half-hour address in Latin, in keeping with the serious tone of the formal proceedings of commencement. Today the Salutatory, while still in Latin, is quite short, and each student receives the speech (with prompts in it for laughing and exclamations), in hopes that the audience will be suitably impressed with their Latin skills.

Class Day exercises are held by the students on Cannon Green and are generally filled with wit and wisdom, mocking both faculty and students alike. The earliest “program” can be found in 1856, though as the years go by the programs become much more colorful and elaborate. By 1913 they are bound in leather and contain numerous photographs, a schedule of commencement events and cannon exercises as well as the class roll.

The baccalaureate service is one of Princeton’s oldest traditions, and the earliest program dates from 1889. The earliest recorded address was delivered by Samuel Davies in 1760 entitled “Religion and Public Spirit.” Baccalaureate is held the Sunday before commencement. Also included are printed programs to senior dinners and balls which were given during commencement celebrations. In Box 1, Folder 1 of the Commencement  Records (AC115), you can find more about Baccalaureate sermons in the paper by Daniel Edward Sack titled, The Last Lecture: Baccalaureate sermons at Princeton University, 1876-1969.

Commencement programs themselves appear in 1792 with a schedule of the day’s events.

Here we see one of the earliest programs in our collection from 1844 when students completed degrees in 2 years.

AC115_1844 Program 1AC115_1844 Program 2

As the years advance the programs grow in length and scope. In 1913 they expanded to several pages giving greater detail to the exercises and listing all graduates and prize winners. Today the program runs some 48 pages and contains the names of graduating seniors and advanced degree recipients. Also included are the names of the processional participants, honorary degree recipients, lists of students earning departmental honors, undergraduate awards, prizes, and commissions, fellowships, retirements, and winners of the President’s distinguished teaching awards. Background information on the history of the trustees of the university, the Commencement Committee and the Senior Class Steering Committee is also provided.

 

A Princeton Companion, by Alexander Leitch explains more about the changes of commencement.

“Princeton held its first commencement in the Newark, New Jersey “meetinghouse.“ Upon moving to Princeton in 1756 commencement services were held in Nassau Hall until 1764 when they were moved to the First Presbyterian Church. In 1892 they were moved to Alexander Hall and in 1922 moved a final time to outside the front of Nassau Hall, where they are still held today. In the event of rain, commencement is moved to Jadwin Gymnasium. Observed in the fall until 1843, the celebration was moved to the spring in 1844.

Commencement activities continue for nearly a week, beginning with alumni returning to campus for alumni/faculty forums on the Thursday afternoon before commencement. Saturday afternoon the annual alumni P-Rade occurs, as well as class reunions usually held outdoors under tents. On Sunday students and their families attend a baccalaureate service in the morning, the president’s garden party in the afternoon and a concert in the evening. Monday is devoted to Class Day exercises, departmental receptions and a senior dance. Formal commencement exercises occur on Tuesday. An academic procession to Nassau Hall begins the festivities, followed by an invocation, the conferring of bachelor degrees, recognition of honors graduates, the valedictory speech, the conferring of master, doctor and honorary degrees, remarks by the president, and the singing of “Old Nassau.”

(From http://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2009/07/15/pages/9577/)

The tradition of short, typically lighthearted speeches from two or three graduating seniors at Class Day began in 2001, when class president Justin Browne ’01 added them to the program, along with a “celebrity” guest speaker. “A lot of the [Commencement events] are just pomp and circumstance,” Browne said, “so we wanted to make Class Day speeches something fun that students get to do for themselves.”

In the coming weeks we will be posting a number of complementary posts related to Commencement Week activities, including a number of newly digitized items that will be posted on our Reel Mudd Audiovisual Blog.

2 thoughts on “The history of Princeton University Commencement Ceremonies

  1. Pingback: 1993 Baccalaureate Speaker Garry B. Trudeau | The Reel Mudd

  2. Pingback: Name Dropping: A list of famous Commencement Week speakers at Princeton | Mudd Manuscript Library Blog