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.