Valedictory Oration, The,

Valedictory Oration, The, was first given by a graduating senior in 1760. Originally, a high-ranking student with particular talents for the part delivered the valedictory, and the highest ranking senior gave the salutatory. In recent years the faculty has chosen both speakers for their special qualifications for the parts, as well as for their high scholastic standing.

One of the earliest valedictorians was James Roosevelt 1780, great-grandfather of Franklin D. Roosevelt. George Mifflin Dallas, valedictorian in 1810, became the eleventh vice president of the United States. William Jay Magie, valedictorian in 1852, became chancellor of New Jersey; his son William Francis Magie was valedictorian in 1879 and later dean of the faculty.

John Grier Hibben, fourteenth president of the University, was valedictorian in 1882; Norman Thomas in 1905; John Foster Dulles in 1908; Henry P. Van Dusen, later a trustee, in 1919. Several valedictorians became members of the faculty: Donald A. Stauffer '23, E. Harris Harbison '28, Gordon A. Craig '36, and James H. Billington '50.

Over the years valedictory orations have, by and large, tried to sum up the Princeton experience in relation to the world the seniors were entering. Woodrow Wilson's Sesquicentennial oration, ``Princeton in the Nation's Service,'' has provided the background for a number of valedictories. ``We owe this University a debt we cannot pay,'' Donald A. Stauffer told his classmates in 1923. ``The least we can do is to remember and honor the tradition of national service, the obligation Princeton imposes upon us to use our minds, never to let them yield on the rack of this tough world.''

Using the Wilson motto in his valedictory oration at the 1936 commencement, Gordon A. Craig, later professor of history at Princeton, and Stanford, said it was of the utmost importance that this tradition be preserved, ``for, at no time in the life of the state, has there been a greater need for men with trained minds.''

In 1964, Wilfried Schmid, who, at twenty-six, became professor of mathematics at Columbia, said that world developments in recent years suggested a broader interpretation of Wilson's ideals -- already implicit in his Sesquicentennial speech -- ``that the University has not only national, but also international responsibilities''; and, speaking for students from abroad, of whom he was one, he commended Princeton for the way it was meeting these responsibilities.

In recent years, many valedictorians have been reluctant to exhort their classmates on political and social questions. The 1972 valedictorian, Halbert L. White, while expressing a similar reluctance, nevertheless voiced his own ``fervent hope for . . . the emergence of an awareness on the part of our country that we no longer can act as an isolated national entity fighting for world dominance, but must instead act as an integral member of the human and natural community of this planet.''


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

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