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The Dartmouth
June 17, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The history of Commencement

Dartmouth's 227th Commencement this year may seem tame in comparision to past ceremonies.

From all-day speeches in Latin to Paavo Lipponen's visit this year and from drinking, gambling and debauchery to somewhat more decorum, the event has evolved throughout the years.

The College's Commencement has been graced by the likes of United States Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and literary legends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.

However, it has also been attended by drunkards, auctioneers, gamblers and a Native American orator who stood on the branch of a pine tree.

Somewhere in there, the College managed to fit in a few graduates, an occasional faculty member or two and a couple of College presidents. But the ceremony has definitely had its fair share of strange and unexpected occurrences.

In the beginning

There were only four graduates at the College's first Commencement in 1771, and these students had only spent one year at Dartmouth after receiving three years of undergraduate education at Yale University.

The ceremony, which included orations in Latin and English and began and ended with a prayer, took place on Wednesday, August 28, 1771 where Reed Hall now stands, according to a Commencement history written by late College Professor Francis Lane Childs '06.

These four young men were honored by College founder Eleazar Wheelock and then-Governor of New Hampshire John Wentworth, who made the journey from Portsmouth to Hanover accompanied by 60 guests.

To celebrate the first graduation, Wheelock planned a large banquet and provided rum for his guests. But the College's founder was generous with his liquor -- the cooks partook rather liberally and were unable to prepare the meal.

Another unusual part of the ceremony included a Native American student delivering a graduation address from the branch of a pine tree.

Although the four graduates received their diplomas, the documents could not be signed because there were not enough Trustees present.

When and Where

As the academic calendar evolved, the date of Commencement moved to earlier in the year. In 1835, Commencement moved to the last Wednesday in July, one month earlier than the original date.

The Commencement date changed to June in 1872, with graduates receiving degrees on the last Thursday of the month.

Graduation ceremonies were originally held where Reed Hall now stands. In 1795, the ceremony was held in the new College Church on the north side of the Green.

In 1907, the increased size of the graduating class forced the event into the new Webster Hall.

As the class continued to grow, Webster became too small and Commencement was moved outside to the Bema, where an amphitheater was constructed.

The ceremony moved to its current location, the front lawn of Baker Library, in 1953, when the Bema could not contain the crowd that showed up to hear President Eisenhower speak.

Commencement was moved again two years ago to accommodate a presidential visit. President Bill Clinton attracted such a large crowd the ceremony was moved to Memorial Field.

The ceremonies reached their current location -- the Green -- last year to accommodate the audience. Over nine thousand chairs are sitting on the Green this morning.

Changes, changes, changes

The actual Commencement ceremony has seen many forms, some rather strange and others long and burdensome.

Until 1827, Latin was Commencement's official language, according to Childs' history. All announcements were made in Latin, and anything said in English was introduced as "in lingua vernacula," in the vernacular language.

One year the band failed to respond when College President John Wheelock announced "Musica expectatur!" three times, each with increasing emphasis. But when he finally shouted, "Play it up!" the band kicked in immediately.

In 1795 and 1799, the ceremony even included sections in Hebrew. In 1807, the program listed orations in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, French and English. Ceremonies at this time typically included 10 to 20 speeches.

College President Nathan Lord dramatically increased this number in 1835, when he required all graduates to give a 10-minute speech on an assigned topic. By insisting that every graduating student deliver a speech, Lord prevented students from competing to speak.

The result was that 48 graduating seniors spoke at Commencement in 1835, resulting in an all-day ceremony that left the audience bored to death.

After four years of this almost universally dreaded ritual, Lord required only half of the graduating class speak.

According to Childs, this process was still "too long, wearisome and fruitless," but continued throughout the rest of Lord's administration.

The number of student speakers was reduced to six in 1898, to three in the 1920s and finally to one speaker in 1939. The Commencement Committee chose this student and his speech was titled "Valedictory to the College." Today, the student with the highest grade point average speaks at the ceremony.

Like many of the ceremony's traditions, even the practice of having a Commencement speaker was disbanded in 1971 to shorten the length of the ceremony.

Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, resumed the tradition in 1983.

Commencement traditions

The Class of 1879 placed one restriction on the music played at Commencement; it had to be played by student or faculty trumpeters located in the Baker Library Tower.

The music of the Class of 1879 Trumpeters has sounded at every Commencement since 1929.

College President Ernest Martin Hopkins used a set ritual every year at Commencement which was recorded in a 1943 transcript stored in Baker Library's Special Collections.

The Dean of the Faculty would announce to Hopkins, "Mr. President, the men standing before you have completed all the requirements of Dartmouth College for the Bachelor's degree. I take pleasure, therefore, at the request of the faculty and the Board of Trustees, in presenting each one of them to you for the degree of Bachelor of Arts in course."

Hopkins would then reply, "By virtue of the authority given me by the Trustees of Dartmouth College and in their behalf, I admit you to the Bachelor's Degree, according to the testimonials which you are about to receive, and I declare you worthy of all the rights, honors, and signed obligations here and elsewhere belonging to this degree."

Who comes to Commencement, anyway?

It is almost impossible to predict who is going to show up at Dartmouth's Commencement. All sorts of people have attended, and not all of them were invited.

The earliest Commencement weekends were social events attended by locals from miles around. The event included horse races, booths and tents with medicines, food and beverages, as well as sideshows sponsored by the College.

According to Childs' history, "the inhabitants for 20 miles around celebrated Commencement in much the same manner as fall muster or the agricultural fair ... The entire south end of the Green had every available spot occupied by booths and tents, from which were dispensed all kinds of food and drink, patent medicine, knickknacks and gewgaws, soap and cologne, and an endless variety of miscellaneous articles. Jugglers, mountebanks, sideshows, and auctioneers were numerous."

"The inhabitants for 20 miles around celebrated Commencement in much the same manner as fall muster or the agricultural fair," according to Childs' history.

An 1833 account of Commencement cites "peddlers, gamblers, drunkards and shows" as undesirable elements on the Green.

"I should think there were in sight of one another 30 places of gambling," one observer said. "During the graduation exercises in the meeting hall, the vociferations of a dozen auctioneers were to be distinctly heard in the house."

Famous guests

Dartmouth has had its fair share of famous speakers at Commencement.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous transcendentalist writer, delivered an address titled "Literary Ethics" at the 1838 Commencement.

American poet Walt Whitman spoke at the 1872 Commencement. Whitman was far from the average speaker.

He chose not to wear the traditional cap and gown, preferring instead to shock the audience by wearing a "flannel shirt with a square-cut neck, disclosing a hirsute covering that would have done credit to a grizzly bear," as one observer put it.

Whitman said he enjoyed his visit to Hanover, describing it as "a beautiful New England village, 150 years old -- everything comfortable but very Yankee."

The 20th century brought a stream of distinguished visitors to Dartmouth to accept honorary degrees, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert Frost, Leonard Bernstein and Walter Cronkite.

But the most famous Commencement of all was in 1953 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke. He delivered an impromptu address denouncing McCarthyism and book-burning.

Donald Goss '53 said there were "Secret Servicemen in the windows of Baker and machine guns on the roof," as well as several bodyguards dressed inconspicuously in caps and gowns.

Eisenhower had planned to give a standard oration, but after listening to the discussion on the podium before his speech, he decided to change his topic.

"Don't join the book burners," Eisenhower said. "Don't think that you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as any document does not offend our ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship."

"We have got to fight [communism] with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people," he said.

"They are part of America, and even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them and their right to have them in places where they are accessible to others is unquestioned or it's not America," he said.

When President Clinton spoke at Commencement in 1995, he told the graduating class that education is especially important in the economy of the 1990s.

"In the last 10 years, earnings of men between the ages of 45 and 55 have gone down 14 percent because in the global economy, if you live in a wealthy country and you don't have an education you are in trouble," he said.

"We cannot walk away from our obligation to invest in the education of every American at every age," he said.

Fifty years ago

Dartmouth's 178th graduation ceremonies in 1947 were hardly typical. As a result of the recently concluded Second World War, 542 Dartmouth students from 12 classes received their diplomas on June 8, 1947.

This number represented the largest graduating class to date, and Commencement exercises were held on the Bema instead of in Webster Hall for the first time to accommodate the crowd.

Many returning soldiers had the choice of applying credits received elsewhere to a Dartmouth degree or of applying their Dartmouth credits to a degree at another institution. Others returned to complete their studies at the College.

For most of these students, returning to Hanover was a strange experience after having been in Europe or the Pacific. According to a previous article in The Dartmouth many of the former soldiers felt separated from the undergraduates at the College who had not gone to war and who were often five or six years younger than they were.

President of the College John Sloan Dickey spoke to the graduating seniors, praising their return to campus to complete their Dartmouth educations.

"For most of you ... this is your second going out from college into the world.

It is surely a more joyful occasion than those earlier leave-takings from Hanover, but the task ahead is harder," Dickey said in his Commencement address.

"The issues of peace time are different; they are numerous, complex and ill-defined ... each free man must fashion for himself those values and purposes which in large measure were supplied to him ready-made in war," he said.

"And now the word is 'So long,' because in the Dartmouth fellowship there is no parting," Dickey said.