Commencement,

Commencement, the ceremony of conferring degrees, marks the end of the academic year, and the beginning of the careers of those graduating. As early as the fourteenth century, at Cambridge University, a student who had passed the requisite examinations was said to ``commence Bachelor of Arts (or Master or Doctor),'' and the occasion when he took his degree was called commencement.

At Princeton's first commencement, held in 1748 in the Newark ``meetinghouse'' of which President Aaron Burr was pastor, seven persons took degrees: Jonathan Belcher, royal governor of the Province of New Jersey, who was awarded an honorary master's degree, and six young men who had passed their examinations for the bachelor's degree. These few ``commences'' were the objects of much oratory. At the morning exercises (one of the trustees reported in a New York newspaper), the clerk of the board read in extenso the 3700-word royal charter that Governor Belcher had granted the College. In the afternoon, President Burr delivered from memory an ``elegant Oration in the Latin Tongue'' that lasted three quarters of an hour, and, after public disputations in Latin by the six candidates and the conferring of degrees, the student salutatorian spoke in Latin for half an hour, after which the president prayed in English and dismissed the assembly. These proceedings gave ``universal Satisfaction, even the Unlearned being pleased with [their] Solemnity and Decorum.''

After the College moved to Princeton in 1756, commencement was held in the prayer hall in Nassau Hall until 1764 when more adequate space became available in the First Presbyterian Church's new building. Latin continued to be the language of choice, but, according to contemporary newspaper accounts, the proceedings were enlivened by an occasional speech in English and by music. In 1760 Benjamin Rush ``in a very sprightly and entertaining Manner delivered an ingenious English Harangue in Praise of Oratory,'' and the graduating seniors sang two compositions by President Samuel Davies.

Under President Witherspoon commencement took on a revolutionary flavor. In 1770 the entire graduating class wore American-made clothes, and in 1771 (when James~ Madison graduated) Hugh Henry Brackenridge read a prophetic poem on ``The Rising Glory of America,'' which Philip Freneau and he had written. The commencement of 1783 was made memorable by the presence of George Washington and members of the Continental Congress, then meeting in Princeton.

For almost a century, commencement took place in the fall. Coming at the end of the harvest season, the occasion became a public holiday for the entire countryside, and speakers at the exercises in the church (President John Maclean recalled) had to compete with the crowds on the street outside, ``drinking, fiddling and dancing, playing for pennies, and testing the sp~eed of their horses.'' In 1844, on petition of the faculty, the trustees advanced commencement to June.

Exercises continued to be held in the First Church until 1892, when Alexander Hall was completed. Alexander, in turn, was outgrown, and beginning in 1099 commencement was held in front of Nassau Hall except when rain forced the ceremonies indoors.

The modern commencement season lasts almost a week. Alumni begin returning for class reunions on the preceding Wednesday, take part in faculty-alumni forums on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning, and the alumni parade on Saturday afternoon. Sunday is given over to the baccalaureate service in the morning, the president's garden party in the afternoon, and a band concert at night. Monday is devoted to class day exercises, departmental receptions for seniors and their families, and at night the senior promenade, held in recent years on the plaza between Jadwin and Fine Halls, with fireworks in nearby Palmer Stadium.

Commencement exercises on Tuesday include an invocation, the singing of ``Faith of Our Fathers,'' the Latin salutatory, the conferring of bachelor degrees, the recognition of honors graduates, the valedictory, the conferring of master, doctor, and honorary degrees, brief remarks by the president, and the singing of ``Old Nassau.''

These ceremonies, lasting about an hour, follow an academic procession of trustees, faculty, and degree candidates, wearing traditional cap, gown, and hood, brightened by the colors of Princeton and many other universities. They are directed by a dozen faculty marshals in orange silk gowns and black velvet da Vinci caps. Since 1896, when the college became a university, the chief marshal's baton has been wielded by William Libbey, Jr., V. Lansing Collins, Robert M. Scoon, E. Baldwin Smith, Robert W. McLaughlin, Jr., Richard Stillwell, Erling Dorf, E. Dudley H. Johnson, Carlos H. Baker, and David R. Coffin.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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