Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


The climax of the academic year came at public Commencement, which for many years was scheduled for the second Wednesday in July. The first such program was planned for 1856, although none of the thirty students then enrolled had achieved the rank of seniors or had completed the degree requirements. Nevertheless, the first anniversary of the formal "commencement" of the College was celebrated in August 1856, with a public dinner and addresses by T. J. Sawyer and E. H. Chapin at which various "eminent friends of Education" were present.

The first Commencement at which degrees were conferred


took place on July 8, 1857, when three candidates were graduated. 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, with as many of each as the size and rank of the graduating classes warranted. The high point came with the Valedictory Oration, delivered as the last speech on the program.

Until 1878 there was a part on the program for every degree candidate. But after sixteen 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 1879 the degree candidates were listed alphabetically on the Commencement program. The faculty then considered the idea of placing after each name the percentage grade-rank of the candidate. But this means of airing the students' private academic life was discarded, and a compromise was worked out. From 1879 through 1889 the candidates were listed "in the order of scholarship" for each degree, rather than alphabetically, but without a box score of their individual grades.

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 1874 Walt Whitman was scheduled to deliver the Poem but was unable to attend because of illness. In 1875 the afternoon exercises were conducted by the Association of Alumni and marked their increasing interest in the affairs of their Alma Mater. Usually a special "Committee of Arrangements" was appointed from within the Trustees to make the necessary preparations for Commencement Day. Printed circulars of the first Commencement were sent to all Universalist pastors to read to their congregations, and special notice was given that ladies were


invited to all the festivities. Music was provided both for the Commencement programs proper and for the exercises of the Mathetican Society. Dinner followed the formal programs, and the caterer was authorized "to furnish refreshments for sale" during the day.

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. 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 columns of the Trumpet. Latin was used in announcing the speakers and their subjects and bestowing the degrees, and both Valedictory and Salutatory were delivered in that tongue. When called upon to say a few words after the formal program was over, the Rev. Mr. Balch startled the assemblage by lambasting the practice of using "a language fifteen hundred 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 congratulated the Valedictorian for having the courage to appear upon the platform "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 nineteenth century. 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, it might be added, did not


appear in robes, hoods, and mortarboards until the 1903 Commencement.[13] 

Other tokens of formal academic existence were added to Tufts at irregular intervals. The Trustees adopted an official seal in 1857, in accordance with the authority granted in the College charter. The simple motto "Pax et Lux" has endured, but one significant alteration was made in the seal. In 1909, while Latin was going out of style in many circles, the words "Holy Bible," prominently displayed on the seal, became "Biblia Sacra." In 1939, an heraldic shield was designed for general use, on the initiative of President Leonard Carmichael, to be used for catalogues, stationery, and the like, and for various public purposes, both official and unofficial. The previous year a mace was designed by the Gorham Company of New York City for use during important academic ceremonies and was donated by the Alumni Council. It is an unusual mace because the College seal, not ordinarily used on such objects, is included as the finial, or crowning ornament.


[13] The rules followed for academic costume at Tufts were those established in 1902 by the Intercollegiate Bureau of Academic Costume.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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