Commencement History

Historical Notes

Adapted from an original history by Professor Francis Lane Childs, Class of 1906
Dartmouth's first Commencement exercises were observed in 1771, just one year after Eleazar Wheelock opened his little college in Hanover. They were reported in the New Hampshire Gazette of Portsmouth for 23 September in this way: "On Wednesday the 28th of August was held the first Commencement at Dartmouth College in this Province which was attended by His Excellency Governor Wentworth with many members of His Majesty's Council, a numerous and respectable Body of the Clergy and other Gentlemen and a Concourse of People beyond all expectation. ..."
We learn from other sources that the exercises were begun and ended with prayer, and were held in the open air near where Reed Hall now stands, on a platform of rough-hewn boards with a single plank for an ascent. ... The four young men who received their degrees had all taken the first three years of their college course at Yale.
From this simple ceremony of more than two centuries ago the elaborate exercises of today with all their pomp and circumstance have gradually developed. The external characteristics have varied greatly over the years, but the central core for which all the rest exists, the granting of degrees, remains essentially unchanged. The earliest Commencements were held in various and generally inadequate quarters, until the erection in 1795 of the College Church on the north side of the Green. All the Commencement exercises from 1795 to 1907 were performed in this building, but were transferred in 1908 to the then-new Webster Hall. With the great expansion of the College after World War I this, too, could no longer accommodate the crowd, and in 1932 the exercises moved out of doors, to the beautiful tree-shaded lawn by the Bema in the College Park. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted the College's invitation to be present at the Commencement of 1953, it was immediately foreseen that a much greater space would be needed to provide for the expected throng of visitors, and the Baker Library lawn with its easy extension onto the Green was chosen.

Commencement has moved twice since the appearance of President Eisenhower in 1953. After 42 years beneath the stately elms of Baker Library lawn, the 1995 ceremony was moved to Memorial Field to accommodate the large crowds who came to hear President William Jefferson Clinton give the address. Following the Clinton Commencement, in 1996, Commencement was moved to the north end of the Green, where today's ceremonies are being held.
From 1771 to 1834 the exercises generally took place during the last week in August, from 1835 to 1871 in July, and since 1872 in June—changes caused by modifications in the College calendar. Originally, Commencement occupied but a single day, but as the College grew related activities sprang up and were assigned to the two preceding days. ... All were open to the public and frequently aroused greater interest than the exercises of Commencement itself. For many years members of the graduating class delivered the orations before their respective societies, but later they united in inviting a distinguished speaker from outside the College to address them. ...
The number of speeches ranged from 10 to 20 during the early part of the nineteenth century, but increased after 1825. In 1835 President Nathan Lord, imbued with the curious notion "that ambition and emulation are selfish principles, and therefore immoral," abolished all competitions, ranks, and honors for students, and decreed that since there was no longer any recognition of honors, every member of the class must take part in the Commencement exercises, delivering a ten-minute oration on an assigned subject. Forty-eight such speeches were given that year, the exercises lasting all day, with an hour's intermission at noon. After [Lord's] resignation in 1863, the assignment of honors and careful selection of speakers were promptly resumed. The number of speakers was gradually reduced to six in 1898; to four, then three in the 1920s; and one in 1939, chosen by the Commencement Committee. That speech is titled "Valedictory to the College." 

Music has always been part of the exercises. Through the eighteenth century anthems and other pieces of sacred music were introduced into the program to break the monotony of speeches. After its organization, the Musical Society of the College provided the vocal selections. Instrumental accompaniment soon followed, but not until 1805 was a band for marching employed. Later the band also furnished concerts during Commencement week and dance music for the ball on Commencement evening. 
The original wearing of gowns by members of the Faculty at Commencement continued until about 1820, and occasionally for some time thereafter. The custom then fell into disuse, not to be revived until 1908, when the exercises moved into Webster Hall. Then for the first time the Faculty blossomed out in full regalia, including the brilliant hoods that have since made the procession a pageant of color. All undergraduates wore short gowns in the earliest days, but soon discarded them. The candidates for degrees thereafter dressed simply, in whatever were their best clothes, often of homespun. There was no permanent uniformity of dress until 1892, when the present plain bachelor's gown was adopted for all graduating classes. The blue-and-pink striped ribbons worn by some of the candidates are the insignia of membership in the honor society, Phi Beta Kappa.

To every graduating class its own Commencement is a memorable one, but in the long history of the College several have been particularly notable. That of 1819 was marked by a dignified celebration of the happy conclusion of the Dartmouth College Case; Daniel Webster 1801 was its most distinguished guest. In 1853 an unprecedented throng gathered to hear Rufus Choate 1819 deliver his famous eulogy on Daniel Webster. The Centennial Anniversary in 1869 of the founding of the College brought to Hanover a greater number of visitors than ever before, including nearly one thousand graduates of the College from the classes of 1804 to 1868. The presiding officer was the Chief Justice of the United States, Salmon P. Chase 1826.

At the Commencement of 1953, ten thousand people were seated on the Baker Library lawn on a perfect June day to see President Dwight D. Eisenhower receive from President Dickey Dartmouth's honorary degree of Doctor of Laws and to hear his epoch-making address. [The speech] developed into a blockbuster of national and international importance when he came to his solemn and earnest climax: "Don't join the book-burners! Have courage to look at the truth and fight evil with knowledge!"

The Bicentennial Year of Dartmouth College was officially opened with the Commencement celebration in June of 1969. This gained historic importance not only from the mere fact of marking the College's 200th year and the opening of its third century, but also from the participation in the exercises of the ninth Earl of Dartmouth and his Countess, who came from England to do honor to the college that bears their name.

In 1995, President William Jefferson Clinton received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws and delivered the keynote address, taking time to shake the hands of all the graduates as they crossed the stage after receiving their diplomas.

In 2010, former President George H. W. Bush also received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. President and Mrs. Bush traveled to Hanover against the advice of his physician, participating in Commencement on his eighty-sixth birthday.