Journal Archive > 2002 > May

Early commencements

Controversy in 1857; women take the stage in 1893

For many years, Tufts' Commencement took place on the second Wednesday in July. The first Commencement was planned for 1856, although none of the 30 students then enrolled had achieved the rank of senior or had completed the degree requirements. Nevertheless, the first anniversary of the formal commencement of Tufts College was celebrated in August 1856, with a public dinner and addresses by Thomas Jefferson Sawyer, a Universalist clergyman, and E.H. Chapin, who had advocated for establishing the college.

The first Commencement at which degrees were conferred took place on July 8, 1857, when three candidates were graduated. Printed circulars of the first Commencement were sent to all Universalist pastors to read to their congregations. The pattern was set on this occasion for similar exercises for years to come. Students were assigned Commencement parts, in accordance with their class rank, and delivered appropriate addresses. From 1857 through 1878, the first address delivered was the Salutatory. Then came, in descending order of rank, Disquisitions, English Orations, Dissertations and Philosophical Orations. The high point came with the Valedictory Oration, delivered as the last speech on the program.

The Class of 1876. Photo courtesy of University Archives

Until 1878, there was a part on the program for every degree candidate. But after 16 addresses were scheduled for Commencement in 1877, the practice was inaugurated of choosing six orations on a competitive basis from those with the highest overall average and those with the highest grades in composition and oratory.

Until 1875, the morning Commencement exercises were followed by a formal program in the afternoon under the auspices of the Mathetican Society, the leading undergraduate literary and debating club. The order of exercises consisted usually of an oration and a poem delivered by prominent citizens such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who spoke on the dangers of militarism and the need for "revival and elevation of the intellect" at exercises in 1861.

In 1875, the afternoon exercises were conducted by the Association of Alumni and marked their increasing interest in the affairs of their alma mater.

Some of the ancient traditions and appurtenances associated with academic exercises were to be found in Tufts Commencements from the beginning. The first marshal was appointed by the faculty in 1861. From 1870 on, the seniors elected marshals to serve on Commencement Day.

The Rev. W.S. Balch of New York attended the 1857 exercises, and the ceremonies produced from this outspoken clergyman both a caustic extemporaneous speech and a lengthy series of complaints in the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine. Latin was used in announcing the speakers and their subjects and bestowing the degrees, and both the Valedictory and Salutatory were delivered in Latin. When called upon to say a few words after the formal program was over, Balch startled the audience by lambasting the practice of using "a language 1,500 years dead," which made the orations "a miserable gibberish" that might as well have been delivered in Choctaw or Sanskrit so far as the majority of the audience was concerned.

Balch also congratulated the valedictorian for having the courage to appear "in plain citizen's dress." Such antiquated customs as dressing up "young graduates in Roman togas and putting Latin phrases on their tongues" did not accord with "the living spirit" of the 19th century, he said. These practices, said Balch, "might do for old institutions founded in other times, or for colleges born in Puritanic days," but no excuse could be found "for young American colleges, just learning to talk, to follow such superstitious nonsense."

Balch might have been mollified if he knew that the addresses were delivered in English beginning with the 1868 Commencement, but he would have been most unhappy to discover that "sonorous Latin" continued for many years to be used in conferring degrees and that the citations for honorary degrees were recorded in Latin until 1916. He might also have taken some comfort from the fact that upperclassmen did not wear "Oxford caps" and gowns until 1881-82. The faculty did not appear in robes, hoods and mortarboards until the 1903 Commencement.

The 1893 Commencement was a significant one because the college graduated its first woman, Henrietta Noble Brown, who delivered the first commencement oration by a woman titled "Some Aspects of Immigration." (The title was erroneously printed in the Commencement program as "Some Aspects of Imagination.")

In 1896, the first four-year group of women graduated, and Tufts awarded its first honorary degree to a woman, Mary A. Livermore, a writer and feminist who had done relief work during the Civil War.

Editor's note: As the university celebrates its sesquicentennial this year, the Journal looks back at some of the history and traditions of Tufts. Material for this story was excerpted from Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts College, 1852-1952.