I was graduated, in course, August, 1801. Owing to some difficulties, haec non meminisse juvat , I took no part in the commencement exercises. I spoke an oration to the Society of the United Fraternity, which I suspect was a sufficiently boyish performance (Lewis 11).The above excerpt, from Webster's autobiographical sketch, is the only mention he makes of his commencement from Dartmouth College. Behind this innocuous reference, though, is a tangle of historical controversy and rumor, centering around Webster's failure to participate in the 1801 commencement exercises.
The events leading up to Commencement have been well documented. As described by George Ticknor Curtis, there were four principal orations: "the Salutory Oration, in Latin... the Philosophic, in English... a Greek Oration... and the Valedictory in English" (Curtis vol.1 41). The first three were chosen by the Professors, with the Salutory Oration in Latin going to the first-ranked student in the class. The English Valedictory traditionally went to a student chosen by the students. There was thus a clear delineation between the student most recognized by the College staff, and that student who had the most respect of his peers. Webster seemed destined to give the English Valedictory. However, as the year before, an inter-Fraternity feud sprang up, with Webster as the candidate of the United Fraternity. The faculty decided to settle the matter by choosing the student themselves, and offered the English Valedictory to Caleb Tenney. They offered Webster an English oration or the recitation of a poem in English, but he declined. Ticknor asserts that the faculty did not perceive the English Valedictory as being as high in stature as the students did, and did not offer it to Webster because they felt it to be below his class rank. Richardson, on the other hand, cites the testimony of Professor E. Sanborn, who said, "As long as Webster lived, he believed society feuds deprived him of his honors," mentioning that an influential professor was a member of the Society of Friends, the rival of the United Fraternity (qtd. in Hopkins 52).
Whatever the case was, Webster declined the offer and asked to be excused from the Commencement platform (Feuss 51). Several friends made similar requests to show solidarity (Curtis 42). The events that followed are a matter of historical contention which, by now, ought to be put to rest.
Charles Lanman includes among his reminiscinces of Webster a story that, following the disappointing Commencement ceremony, Webster and a close circle of friends retired to a green east of Dartmouth Hall, at which point Webster tore up his diploma, declaring, "My industry may make me a great man, but this miserable parchment cannot!" (Richardson in Hopkins 51). This has come to be regarded as apocryphal, and with good reason. As Richardson points out, it does not seem particularly in keeping with the attitude of the man who very quickly became an active and cheerful alumnus of the College, helping to put his brother through the same school, visiting often, and eventually sending children there and defending the College in its time of trouble. Further, there is no conformation of these events by any of Webster's classmates who would have had first-hand knowledge of such events.
Thomas Merrill, the class valedictorian, states, "I never believed it, and probably never shall believe it, unless some person reports it directly from Webster himself, as one of the witnesses. I was an intimate friend and correspondent, and continued to reside at the college for three years, but never heard of the story for more than a quarter century"(qtd. in Curtis v.1 43).
Elihu Smith also refutes this story. "Many idle stories have been circulated respecting Webster's tearing up his diploma. Of this I have no knowledge. I have no doubt that the report is false. I stood by his side, when he received his degree, with a graceful bow; and such was my connection with him, in our society affairs, that if he had destroyed it afterwards, I certainly should have known it" (W&S v. 17 46).
To quote Richardson, "A lie dies with proverbial procrastination." This lie was likely encouraged by Webster's political opponents in later years, as were many myths about Webster meant to denigrate his reputation. Although Webster's Commencement was a disappointment to himself and to his friends, there is little doubt that he received his diploma with the dignity Smith ascribes to him. Considering the sacrifices that Webster's family made to put him through Dartmouth, and the high hopes that Ebeneezer Webster had for Daniel, Webster's graduation could only have been a source of pride for the Webster family. It represented the fruition of an effort that entailed a great deal of hardship and sacrifice.