Princeton’s “Saturnalia”: Commencement Prior to 1844

2020 brought changes to Princeton University’s academic calendar, some planned, and some in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. This shift to an earlier start and end of Princeton’s academic year is not its first. Its historically most drastic change in the calendar came about for a surprising reason: Moving Commencement from September to June in 1844 was intended to put an end to people staging what John Maclean called “a kind of saturnalia.”

For most of Princeton’s first century of operations, the academic year began six weeks after Commencement, held on the last Wednesday in September. If we followed this calendar today, classes would have started November 11. Students returned from their vacation for this “winter term,” which ran until April. Between this and the beginning of the “summer term,” students had another five-week vacation. They studied throughout the summer to be ready for Commencement in September.  The terms themselves were much longer than today’s, at about 19-21 weeks each, with recitations on Saturdays as well as throughout the week; mandatory attendance at chapel, religious lectures, and Bible classes on Sundays; and few breaks or holidays.

At the first Commencement of the College of New Jersey—as Princeton was then named, prior to its 1756 move from Newark and it’s 1896 transformation into a university—Governor Jonathan Belcher warned the president, Aaron Burr, to enforce “a wise Frugality” and avoid “the Too Common Extravagances and Debauchery” that tended to accompany Commencements. This first 1748 ceremony was serious and orderly, with speeches in Latin and prayer, but it didn’t take long for “Extravagances and Debauchery” to creep in.

John Beatty was awarded a Bachelor of Arts on September 27, 1769, but his diploma bears the date it was signed (October 5, 1769), rather than the date of the degree. Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC168), Box 2.

William R. Smith, Class of 1773, wrote to his friend Philip Vickers Fithian about the crowd at Commencement: “every mouse hole in the church was cram’d full.” Attendees were dressed in lace and a band from Philadelphia played. The presence of so many young women was highly distracting to Smith, who described it as “murder” for his “heart.” As time went on, more and more people would descend upon Princeton for Commencement, many of whom had no connection to the college and did not actually attend the ceremony. Because it was in the height of political campaign season, politicians took advantage of the crowds and showed up to give speeches. William Henry Harrison shook hands with throngs of supporters in 1836. Vendors set up booths along Nassau Street to sell drinks and snacks. Horses raced down Stockton Street. While graduates strained to hear their own ceremony above the din, a street festival drowned out the speakers.

The graduates had their own “Extravagances and Debauchery.” For a while, the Board of Trustees provided dinner to the students on the day of Commencement and ate in the refectory with them at a separate table. Guests and alumni were also present. In 1826, the Trustees directed the Steward “not to furnish the students with wine or ardent spirits in the Refectory on any occasion” and to stop offering the more elaborate dinner graduates expected for Commencement. The faculty thought this was not a wise decision and took up a collection among themselves to pay for the celebratory dinner, and thus the revelry continued on campus and off.

The center of student social life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was what is now named the Nassau Inn, but around the turn of the 19th century it was usually referred to simply as “Joline’s,” after its owner. John Joline hosted a Commencement Ball every year that attracted people from far and wide. John Melish passed through Princeton on Commencement Day in 1806 and stopped by the ballroom, where he met a woman from Savannah, Georgia, among other guests from significant distances away. He pronounced the attire of the women as “the indication of bad taste,” saying that students called the earrings they wore “Cupid’s chariot wheels.” Melish found the French cotillion music and dancing equally distasteful. Around 1807, William and Washington Irving and James Paulding joined in the festivities. Washington Irving wrote of encountering visitors from New York, Albany, and Philadelphia in Princeton. “Students got drunk as usual.” In 1821, Richard Stockton proposed to the Board of Trustees that they prohibit students from subscribing to public balls or dances, but this move was unsuccessful.

Problematic visitors invaded the campus itself during the ceremony. Campus buildings being empty of those affiliated with the college presented opportunity for thieves, who took what they pleased from dorm rooms. Merchants set up their booths not only on Nassau Street but also on the campus grounds and on the lawn in front of the Presbyterian church where the ceremony took place. John Maclean reported having seen, in his childhood, bull-baiting occurring on campus during the ceremony. “No permission was asked or deemed necessary by those engaged in this cruel sport.” In 1807, the Board of Trustees voted to ban hucksters from selling “liquor or other refreshment, on the day of commencement on the ground of the college…”

Meanwhile, violence broke out. It was a tradition for the Whig Society to invite a guest speaker during Commencement week, which served to fuel controversy. This became most fraught when Andrew Jackson rose to national prominence. Samuel Southard’s speech in 1827 provoked what the Trenton True American called “a number of acts of violence” when a fistfight turned into a full-on street brawl. “The presidential question in some aroused the parties and pushed them forward to pugilistic strife.” The concern over Southard’s appearance was that Southard, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1804, was Secretary of the Navy and Jackson supporters said he was shirking his duties by coming to Princeton on what they saw as an electioneering trip on behalf of the Whigs in the upcoming New Jersey elections. There were many who supported the Jacksonian movement who had come to town and the campaign seized the moment for an organizational meeting. Since too many were present to fit into the tavern selected for the gathering place, Jacksonians rushed the campus and held a boisterous rally under a tree. Some residents supportive of the Adams administration tried to invite Southard to dinner, but he declined. Despite this, some of the Jackson camp threatened that if Southard were to eat dinner in Princeton, “there will be such a Jackson Festival in the little Borough, as will make the old dead that sleep on the battlefield of Princeton, to move in their graves.”

The acrimony between Whigs and Democrats at Princeton’s Commencement was ongoing. In 1835, some were livid about Nicholas Biddle’s denunciation of Jackson’s supporters. Editorials in other states expressed outrage that Biddle (Class of 1801) had been given a platform to call Jackson supporters “degenerate children.” Biddle’s words were, in the estimation of some hearers, shockingly divisive.

It cannot be that our free nation can long endure the vulgar dominion of ignorance and profligacy. You will live to see the laws re-established—these banditti will be scourged back to their caverns—the penitentiary will reclaim its fugitives in office, and the only remembrance which history will preserve of them is the energy with which you resisted and defeated them.

There seemed to be no shortage of reasons for Princeton’s Commencement to cause widespread controversy. Racism and political divisions brought violence from the streets into the church where Commencement took place in 1836, when a former student giving his name as “Ancrum” assaulted a member of the audience after yelling racial slurs. This was most likely Thomas James Ancrum, Class of 1838, who had previously organized a lynch mob against a white abolitionist in Princeton and had been dismissed from the College. Ancrum’s target was a Black graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Theodore Sedgwick Wright. Newspapers across the north denounced this event as a “shameful outrage.”

James Carnahan, Princeton’s president, responded by attempting to minimize the situation, insinuating that Wright had provoked Ancrum by sitting down when others had to stand (“a respectable colored man of New York took a seat on a bench in one of the aisles, while many others unable to find seats, stood during the whole of the discourse”) and claimed that no one he spoke to afterward had seen any violence take place, nor heard any abusive language other than “Out with the negro” (Wright had reported a more offensive term being used, and that Ancrum had “kicked me in the most ruthless manner”). The Pennsylvania Freeman expressed dismay at Carnahan’s downplaying of the events. “We frankly, say, however, that we are at a loss to know which is the greater insult, the outcry and kicks of the southern youngster or the letter of Dr. Carnahan,” pointing out that Carnahan identified Wright only as “respectable,” not as a clergyman “every whit” as worthy of the title “Rev.” as Carnahan himself. The Freeman also took issue with the implications of Carnahan’s defense. “Are the public to understand it as a law of Nassau Hall, that ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ must not be seated in their chapel, even on a bench in the aisle, if they happen to be colored, however worthy or decent they may be, so long as any white men remain unaccommodated?” They pushed Carnahan to say so, if that is what he meant, and to post signs indicating such.

By 1843, Princeton’s Board of Trustees had had enough. In their meeting that September, they voted to move Commencement, as well as the entire academic calendar, up by three months, in the hopes that a June event would be more focused on the students themselves. More distance from elections would cut down on the politically contentious crowds, while holding the event at a time when fewer people would have the availability to travel would decrease the appeal for out-of-town visitors, since unlike the early fall, June was not a time of relative leisure for New Jersey farmers. The fact that the calendar Princeton adopted in the 1840s happened to closely conform to what became the standard “academic year” in the United States was mere coincidence.

 

Sources:

“All the Decency, &c. &c.” Times (Hartford, Connecticut) 21 December 1835.

Board of Trustees Records. (AC120)

Collins, Varnum Lansing. Princeton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1914.

Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal and Letters 1767-1774. Edited by John Rogers Williams. Princeton: The University Library, 1900.

Hageman, John Frelinghuysen. History of Princeton and Its Institutions. Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott, 1879.

Historic Princeton: The Story of a Revolutionary Town and Guide to Princeton University and Sundry Landmarks of Interest. Princeton: Princeton Municipal Improvement, Inc., 1940.

Irving, Washington. Salmagundi. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1860.

“Jackson Meeting at Princeton.” Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey) 10 October 1827.

Maclean, John. History of the College of New Jersey from Its Origins to the Commencement of 1854. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1879.

Melish, John. Travels in the United States of America, in the Years 1806 & 1807, and 1809, 1810, & 1811. Printed by the author, 1812.

Princeton University Commencement Records (AC115)

Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC138)

“Shameful Outrage at Princeton, N.J.” Pennsylvania Freeman (Philadelphia) 12 November 1836.

Wallace, George Riddle. Princeton Sketches: The Story of Nassau Hall. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.

 

For further reading:

Yannielli, Joseph. “White Supremacy at the Commencement of 1836.” Princeton and Slavery website.

This Week in Princeton History for June 17-23

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a gas shortage causes headaches in town, the baseball team begins a tour playing against New England colleges, and more.

June 18, 1882—Marquand Chapel is dedicated.

Marquand Chapel, ca. 1880s. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP29, Image No. 688.

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This Week in Princeton History for June 10-16

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a delayed cookie shipment arrives, Commencement moves to a new home, and more.

June 12, 1996—Cookies mailed to Princeton-in-Asia intern Laura Burt on November 1, 1995 finally arrive unopened in Wuhan, China.

June 13, 1894—Commencement Exercises are moved from the First Presbyterian Church (which will later be renamed Nassau Presbyterian Church) to the new Alexander Hall (also known as Commencement Hall) for the first time, where they will be held until 1922.

The 1894 program for the College of New Jersey’s 147th annual Commencement (later named Princeton University but we often find “Princeton College” on official documents rather than its official name; see caption below for June 15th’s entry for more details. (Princeton University Commencement Records (AC115), Box 3.)

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This Week in Princeton History for November 9-15

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the school holds its first Commencement, a “food revolt” causes tension between students and administrators, and more.

November 9, 1748—The College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) holds its first Commencement in Newark, where six students are granted the degree of Bachelor of the Arts. The New York Gazette reports “That Learning, like the Sun in its Western Progress, had now began to dawn upon the Province of New Jersey…”

November 11, 1985—Director of University Health Services Dr. Louis Pyle ‘41 speaks to the University Council on medical and administrative issues arising from a new national concern: the spread of AIDS. Though no cases have been found at Princeton, Pyle believes it is only a matter of time before UHS begins facing the issue head on, and refers to the syndrome as “medicine’s most challenging current problem.”

November 13, 1978—Princeton administrators warn 180 students who have signed a petition threatening to cancel their meal plans if food quality does not improve that they will not allow contract cancellations related to what is known as the Wilson College “food revolt.” (Students organized under the slogan “The food is revolting, so why aren’t you?”) In response, hundreds more will sign the petition, for a total of 715 students.

Dininghalls1970s_AC112_BMP192

Princeton University dining hall, ca. 1970s. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP192.

November 15, 1877—The Princetonian editorializes, “We regret that Yale has again been constrained to make herself obnoxious,” in response to Yale’s refusal to modify the rules of American football to have 15 players per team rather than 11.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

Princeton’s 250th Anniversary Commencement with speaker President Bill Clinton

On June 6th, 1996, as part of the University’s 250th Anniversary celebration, U.S. President Bill Clinton delivered the principal address at the 249th Commencement ceremonies, a departure from the Princeton tradition of having the University President deliver the ceremony’s major remarks.

The video includes the entire commencement program starting with the procession (00:02), then the remarks of Princeton University President Harold Shapiro (4:40), the Latin Salutatory of Charles Parker Stole (6:40), Provost Jeremiah Ostriker (10:47), Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel (13:00), the Valedictory of Brian Patrick Duff (21:25), Dean of the Graduate School John Wilson (25:31), Dean of the Faculty Amy Gutmann (29:28), University Board of Trustees chair Robert H. Rawson ’66 (32:39), and the presentation of Clinton’s honorary degree (33:00).
At (41:58) President Harold T. Shapiro gives a history of U.S. Presidents participating in Princeton Commencements.
President William Clinton’s speech runs (44:52-1:15:05).
The program concludes with final remarks from President Shapiro and the reading of the Benediction by Dean Gibson (1:17:19) and then the singing of Old Nassau.
Here you can read the transcript as a part of The American Presidency Project.

In 2010 the Princeton University Archives uploaded the following video from C-TEC highlighting the broadcast preceding speech. It includes a number of interviews with faculty and staff.

Name Dropping: A list of famous Commencement Week speakers at Princeton

In a previous post we discussed the history behind commencement at The College of New Jersey and Princeton University. Here, we highlight the individuals and include links to video and news articles.

For the years  2011-2016 each name will link to an individual streaming video courtesy of Princeton University MediaCentral. These are mobile friendly.

2016

Randall Kennedy, a member of the Class of 1977, former Princeton trustee, and the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, emphasizes the importance of supporting higher education in his Baccalaureate address. Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2016)

Randall Kennedy – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2016)

Jodi Picoult - Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2016)

Jodi Picoult – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2016)

2015

Jackson speaks from the pulpit high above the chapel floor. Her remarks focused on lessons students learned at the University that will shape the rest of their lives. Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2015)

Lisa Jackson – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2015)

In his Class Day speech, Eisgruber (back at the lectern) joked that the real reason the senior class invited Nolan to speak was to settle the debate about whether Batman went to Princeton or Yale. Eisgruber asked University Archivist Dan Linke (center with briefcase) to help answer the question by presenting Batman's secret alumni records. Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, John Jameson (2015)

In his Class Day speech, Eisgruber (back at the lectern) joked that the real reason the senior class invited Nolan to speak was to settle the debate about whether Batman went to Princeton or Yale. Eisgruber asked Mudd’s very own, University Archivist Dan Linke (center with briefcase) to help answer the question by presenting Batman’s secret alumni records.
Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, John Jameson (2015)

During his Class Day address, film director, screenwriter and producer Christopher Nolan challenged seniors to help improve the world by chasing their reality, not just their dreams. Nolan is known for the films "The Dark Knight" Batman trilogy and "Inception" among others. Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2015)

Christopher Nolan – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2015)

2014

Christopher Lu - Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2014)

Christopher Lu – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2014)

Al Gore - Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2014)

Al Gore – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2014)

2013

Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2013)

Ben Bernanke – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2013)

Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2013)

David Remnick – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2013)

2012

Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2012)

Michael Lewis – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2012)

Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Steve McDonald (2012)

Steve Carell – Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Steve McDonald (2012)

2011

2010

  • Baccalaureate – Jeff Bezos
  • Class Day – Charles Gibson
  • Commencement – Shirley M. Tilghman

2009

  • Baccalaureate – General David Petraeus
  • Class Day – Katie Couric
  • Commencement – Shirley M. Tilghman

2008

  • Baccalaureate – Paul Farmer
  • Class Day – Stephen Colbert
  • Commencement – Shirley M. Tilghman

2007

  • Baccalaureate – John Fleming
  • Class Day – Bradley Whitford
  • Commencement – Shirley M. Tilghman

2006

2005

2004

2003

  • Baccalaureate – Fred Hargadon
  • Class Day – Jerry Seinfeld
  • Commencement – Shirley M. Tilghman

2002

  • Baccalaureate – Meg Whitman
  • Class Day – James Baker
  • Commencement – Shirley M. Tilghman

2001

  • Baccalaureate – Emma Bloomberg
Bill Cosby - 2001 Class Day Speaker Photo Courtesy: Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Bill Cosby – 2001 Class Day Speaker
Photo Courtesy: Princeton Weekly Bulletin

  • Class Day – Bill Cosby – This marks the first Class Day Speaker from outside of the University. 
  • Commencement – Shirley M. Tilghman

Previous to 2001 many infamous persons took the podium during the Baccalaureate Ceremonies. The following highlight a few of those. During this time the president of the University presides over commencement and typically gives the commencement address as well as speaks at Class Day.

2000 Baccalaureate  – Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, formerly Lisa Halaby ’73

1999

  • Baccalaureate Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund
  • Class Day/Commencement Harold T. Shapiro
  • The Latin Salutatory speaker Thomas Wickham Schmidt broke tradition by including a marriage proposal to Anastacia Rohrman at the end of his speech. WHT_RohrSchmidtThe event was also covered by NBC’s Today Show where Rothman and Schmidt were interviewed.
  • According to the June 6th, 2007 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “The two were married in August 2000, after Wick’s first year at Yale Law School.”

WHT_RohrSchmidt2

1998  Baccalaureate: Senator Tom Harkin and wife Ruth Harkin, senior VP at United Technologies Corporation. Parents of Amy Harkin. Both husband and wife spoke to honor 25 years of coeducation at Princeton. This is the first time that there has been two baccalaureate speakers.
1997 – Baccalaureate: Senator William Frist ’74

1996 – Princeton University’s  250th Anniversary

1995 Baccalaureate: Jane Alexander, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts

1994 Baccalaureate: Wynton Marsalis

1993 Baccalaureate: Garry B. Trudeau, Cartoonist. You may view the commencement in its entirety in an upcoming blog post.

1992 Baccalaureate: Rt. Reverend Dr. Frederick H. Borsch ’57
1991 Baccalaureate: William Crowe Jr. *65, retired chair of the Joints Chiefs of Staff
1990 Baccalaureate: Johnetta Cole, President of Spelman College
1989 Baccalaureate: Honorable Andrew Young
1988 Baccalaureate: Representative Patricia Schroeder
1987 Baccalaureate: George E. Rupp ’64
1986 Baccalaureate: Governor Thomas H. Kean ’57
1985 Commencement: William Bowen. Baccalaureate: Ira D. Silverman (Fun Fact: Theodore Seuss Geisel aka ‘Dr. Seuss’ was given an honorary degree this year.)

1984 Baccalaureate: Honorable Paul Sarbanes ’54 P’84, (Maurice Sendak received an honorary degree this year, author of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’)
1983 Baccalaureate: The Rev. Dr. Homer U. Ashby Jr. ‘68
1982 Baccalaureate: The Honorable Charles B. Renfrew, ’52. (Stephen Hawking received an honorary degree)
1981 Baccalaureate: Dr. Sissela Bok,
1980 Baccalaureate: Michael M. Stewart, M.D. ’57, Commencement: William Bowen Minutes from the Senior Class Committee from January 13th, 1980 mention a sub-committee had been formed to find ways to expand Class Day.
1979 Baccalaureate: Redmond C. S. Finney ’51,
1978 Baccalaureate: Gerson D. Cohen
1977 Baccalaureate: Theodore M. Hesburgh
1976 Baccalaureate: James I. McCord
1975 Baccalaureate: Professor Gregory Vlastos, Ph.D., B.D., D. D., LL.D., (Princeton University Philosophy Department)
1974 Baccalaureate: The Reverend Thomas P. Stewart, ’51.
1973 Baccalaureate: The Reverend Dr. John B. Coburn ’36, Charter Trustee

Until 1972, the baccalaureate speaker was the current President of the University. Beginning in 1973, outside speakers were invited.

1969: Representative from the Class Day Committee asks President Goheen to approve the re-institution of planting ivy with class year stone markers around Nassau Hall rather than the previous (expensive) tradition of breaking $200 worth of clay pipes. The representative also suggested that the message of planting rather than destroying is better for Class Day. Commencement: Unlisted. Baccalaureate: President Goheen.

1968: Many of this year’s events were modified due to the Assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy on June 4th. The Alumni parade was smaller and within campus, the baseball game and Triangle Club performances were cancelled. Commencement/Baccalaureate and Class Day President Goheen.

1949 Baccalaureate: Harold Dodds

1945

  • February 22nd 1945 – Winter term exercises held again in Nassau Hall. This also marks the first graduation in two years where honorary degrees have been given. The address was given by the Head of the Faculty Robert K. Root and the benediction was given by the Dean of the University Council.
  • June 23rd 1945 – Spring term exercises held on front campus. Address is given by Dean Christian Gauss. Benediction is given by Dr. Arthur L. Kinsolving.
  • October 22nd 1945 – The smallest number of graduates have commencement held in President Harold Dodds office. 20 students are candidates for degrees. Only 11 are present for the conferring of the degrees.

1944

  • January 5th 1944 – 26 members of Class of 1944 graduated in brief ceremony in Nassau Hall
  • February 22, 1944 – 35 degrees given. Dr. Charles G. Osgood gives the commencement speech. Students in armed forces were instructed to wear uniforms while others wear the traditional cap and gown.
  • April 4th 1944 – 36 degrees given in Nassau Hall.
  • June 24th 1944 – Special Convocation for the Navy V-12 Unit was held on front campus. James V. Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, receives an honorary degree. President Dodds also gave an address to the graduating members.
  • The 24th also included regular commencement exercises with the address given by Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen ’19. President Dodds gave concluding remarks.
  • September 19th and October 19th held additional Special Convocations for the Navy V-12 Unit
  • October 25th a small regular ceremony took place in Nassau Hall.

1943

  • On January 29th and 30th Princeton observed its first winter commencement in almost 200 years. This was due to the 315 members of the 1943 class that sped up their courses so they could report to active duty.
  • Commencement was combined with the baccalaureate address took place in the university chapel. Charles Scribner Jr. gave the Latin Salutatory and President Dodds gave the commencement speaker.
  • Joseph C. Grew, former Ambassador to Japan spoke at the Princeton commencement luncheon
  • The spring commencement was held on May 28th and 29th and would be the last formal commencement for the duration of the war. The class day customary exercises were condensed into one ceremony. President Dodds gave his address at commencement as usual.
  • On September 29th the University held its 3rd commencement ceremony of the year for undergraduates a the end of the current quarter. The ceremony was held in the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall
  • The 4th and final commencement occurred on October 28th for 26 members of the Class of 1944.

1942 The University’s 195th ceremonies took place against a background of total war. A new event was introduced into the commencement season because of this. A Service of Dedication “a dedication of all that we have and all that we are, with no counting of the cost.”

1929 – View scenes from the Class of 1929’s commencement activities in this complimentary blog post.

February 21st, 1920 86 Members of the Class of 1918 & 1919 graduates returning from War Service. Informal exercises were held in the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall. “This was the first time in in the recollection of alumni that graduation exercises were ever conducted at any other time than the spring of the year” The Daily Princetonian Feb 23, 1920.

From 1792 to about 1918 the Valedictory, Salutatory and other speeches were given by students and members of the college. While details are few, the programs still include photos, schedules and class roll. These can be viewed here at the archives at Mudd Library and are located in the Commencement Records collection.

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.