Commencement in Early America: Pausing at the Portal

Columbia College Commencement, 1818This is commencement season in the United States. On weekend mornings, college towns around the country are being beset by billowing clouds of begowned bachelors, trailing various family members and friends in their newly distinguished wakes. University neighborhoods are full of rented trucks and vans. Sidewalks are littered with furniture. People are swarming into auditoriums, sports stadiums, gymnasiums, or (as in the case of some of my Texas cousins) livestock arenas to hear more or less famous people dispense advice for adulthood. And to me, it’s all very, very exciting.

Commencement is particularly exciting because it unites a major private event—a marker of modern economic independence and adulthood—with a form of public observance. We collectively are watching a cohort of people enter a new stage of life. There’s a palpable sense among many observers that university degrees matter to the rest of us. Why else would presidents, cabinet officials, governors, and movie stars preside over these events?

Follow your own star to the beat of your own drum, the speakers tell the graduates. But remember that the rest of us are counting on you.

In the last few years, it’s gradually dawned on me that American commencement has always sort of been like this. But it used to be even more this way. We have turned it into a public celebration of private accomplishment and potential. It used to be more like a public anointing.

Eighteenth-century university commencement orations tended to focus on topics that bridged the private and public. In September 1774, for example, with plenty of urgent public topics available from which to choose, young Barnabas Binney used the occasion of his commencement at Brown to deliver an oration on “the right of private judgment in religious matters.” This was, Binney said, “a subject the most important and interesting imaginable, to individuals and society” alike, “pregnant with the grandest events to kingdoms, nations, empires.” At Harvard in July 1799, the Congregationalist pastor Leonard Woods, himself a recent graduate, lectured his audience on the dangers of atheism, as contrasted with religion’s tendency to “render man amiable and useful.” In these speeches, public and private met in the educated man.[1]

In 1757, the provost of the new College of Philadelphia had delivered a more secular exhortation. The view of the individual graduate was the same:

Surely——to LIVE is a serious Thing! And you are now about to step into Life, and embark in all its busy scenes. It is fit, then, that you should make a Pause—a solemn Pause—at its Portal, and consider well what is expected from you, and how you are prepared to perform it. …

Consider yourselves, from this Day, as distinguished above the Vulgar, and called upon to act a more important Part in Life …. The Christian World stands much in Need of inflexible Patterns of Integrity and public Virtue; and no Part of it more so than the Land you inhabit.[2]

This was an exhortation to “gentlemen”—young men who were supposed to serve the public as virtuous leaders.

A commencement address in 2014, in contrast, probably isn’t going to sniff at “the vulgar.” It will probably be delivered to a multiracial audience—one containing more women than men. But there will probably be echoes, however faint, of the core idea of commencement in 1757. Remember, the speaker will say, that you’re special for a reason.

That whiff of public destiny was also present in the commencement address of John Brown Russwurm, who received his bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin in 1826, becoming only the third known black graduate of an American college. He delivered an oration that was at once conventional and daring:

The changes which take place in the affairs of this world show the instability of sublunary things. Empires rise, and fall, and flourish, and decay. Knowledge follows revolutions and travels over the globe. Man alone, remains the same being, whether placed under the torrid suns of Africa, or in the more congenial temperate zone. A principle of liberty is implanted in his breast, and all efforts to stifle it are as fruitless as would be the attempt to extinguish the fires of Etna.[3]

Shocking? Perhaps not in the abstract, but the particular subject of this address was the Haitian Revolution. At his graduation from college, in other words, Russwurm, himself an immigrant from the West Indies, delivered an oration asserting the power of black people to effect revolutions in public affairs.

It shouldn’t be surprising, given such a consensus in favor of public significance, that American graduations became public festivals. The young physician Elihu Hubbard Smith, recalling the commencement ceremonies at Yale around the end of the Revolution, wrote that thousands of people would flood into New Haven from surrounding towns and states. Among them would be the highest officials of Connecticut government, important writers, religious ministers, and “the beaux and belles of the country,” all in their finest dress. There would be fireworks, illuminations, musical performances, and parades. Literary and religious societies would give public lectures. Attending the commencement exercises at New Haven had been young Smith’s first encounter with a city. He recalled being mesmerized.[4]

Today, perhaps, we generally do commencement on a smaller scale. But we haven’t entirely lost the sense that we are sending out our graduates, commissioning them to do a great public work for us.

So to the class of 2014, I say, on behalf of The Junto:  Congratulations on a job well done. Hitch your wagon to a star. Take the road less traveled. Believe in yourself. Question authority. Education is a journey, not a destination. Think different.

But mostly, remember that you’re not in this alone. There are a lot of people behind you, and a lot of people alongside you, and one way or another, you have a job to do for us.


1. Barnabas Binney, An Oration Delivered on the Late Public Commencement at Rhode-Island College in Providence; September 1774. Being a Plea, for the Right of Private Judgment in Religious Matters; or, for the Liberty of Choosing Our Own Religion. Corroborated by the Well-Known Consequences of Priestly Power. To Which, Are Annexed, the Valedictions of the Class Then First Graduated (Boston: John Kneeland, 1774), 8; Leonard Woods, A Contrast between the Effects of Religion, and the Effects of Atheism. An Oration, Delivered at Commencement, Harvard University, Cambridge, July 17th, 1799 (Boston: John Russell, 1799), 4.

2. William Smith, A Charge, Delivered May 17, 1757, at the First Anniversary Commencement in the College and Academy of Philadelphia, to the Young Gentlemen Who Took Their Degrees on That Occasion (Philadelphia: B. Franklin and D. Hall, 1757), 3-4.

3. John B. Russwurm, “The Condition and Prospects of Hayti,” Journal of Negro History 54.4 (Oct. 1969), 395.

4. Elihu Hubbard Smith, “Notes from Recollections of My Life from My Birth till the Age of Eleven,” The Diary of Elihu Hubbard Smith (1771-1798), ed. James E. Cronin (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1973), 34.

Image: New York Public Library, Mid-Manhattan Library Picture Collection, image ID 801248.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Sunday Links Roundup - Fr. Peter Michael Preble | Fr. Peter Michael Preble

  2. Pingback: Slavery, Abolition, and “Socialism” in the U.S. Congress « The Junto


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