Commencement was first held on September 7, 1769 at the Baptist Church in Warren. Seven students were awarded the Bachelor of Arts degree. The principal feature of the first Commencement exercises was the “Disputatio forensica,” a debate on “Whether, British America can under her present Circumstances consistent with good Policy, effect to become an independent State?” James Mitchell Varnum, later a general in the Continental army, was the respondent; William Williams, who was to provide refuge for the College Library during the Revolutionary War, was the opponent. The political feelings of the officers and students were evident in their apparel, which was duly recorded in the account of the exercises in the Newport Mercury, “The President and all the Candidates were dressed in American Manufactures.” In 1770 the college moved to Providence, where the next five Commencements were held in Mr. Snow’s Meeting House. Samuel Greene Arnold, in his History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, called Commencement “the earliest State holiday.” The citizens of Rhode Island came to view the exercises, creating a large audience for the small number of graduates, who impressed them with their oratorical ability, often in Latin or Greek, which the audience didn’t understand. The exercises were so well enjoyed by the populace that each year the College thanked Mr. Snow for his hospitality, and as routinely repaired the damages suffered by the church, replacing a few broken windows one year, mending a few broken pews another year. There was no Commencement in 1775 by request of the students, who were deeply affected by the battles of Lexington and Concord. In 1776 Commencement was held for the first time in the First Baptist Meeting House. The college was closed from December 1776 to May 1782, and no Commencements were held, although degrees were granted in 1777 and 1782.
The first Commencement after the Revolution was held in 1783, but again the next two years there were no students ready for graduation. Annual Commencements began again in the Baptist Church in 1786, and their traditional conviviality returned to the point that in 1790 the College asked the General Assembly to have the Sheriff of the County of Providence attend future Commencements “to preserve the peace, good order, and decorum,” which he still does. In 1787 it was decreed that the assignment of the Salutatory oration should be made by the President, the assignment of the valedictory and intermediate orations by the class, and that of the Syllogistic and Forensic Disputes by the president and tutors. The expenses of Commencement were paid by the seniors, who were assessed according to the importance of their parts in the exercises, the largest fee being paid by the valedictorian. Since 1776 all but two Commencements have been celebrated in the First Baptist Meeting House. In 1804 Commencement was held in the First Congregational Church to accommodate the seniors who wished to “have the benifit (sic) of the Organ.” In 1832 Commencement was again held in the First Congregational Church while the Meeting House was being repaired
The Commencement of 1835 was poorly attended, as twenty-one members of the class, protesting the distribution of the speaking “parts,” refused to receive their diplomas, leaving only three graduates. The exercises were augmented by orations by the two candidates for the Master of Arts degree “in course,” who would not normally have taken part. On the day before Commencement, the Corporation directed the Treasurer to pay President Wayland 84 dollars, a fee of four dollars for each non-graduating senior, to compensate him for the Commencement fees, which, along with the use of his house and garden, were one of the perquisites of his office.
Commencement in 1836 was much better, even outshining Harvard’s, according to the description in Benjamin Waterhouse’s diary: “September 7th. Went to Providence Commencement. Very good speaking, and the English compositions of rather higher grade than here in Cambridge. A vast collection of people, quiet and orderly, everything on the whole exceeding the oldest University in New England for a show of riches and splendor. The dress of the opulent female exceeded anything ever exhibited here. The number in the dinner-hall very large.”
The traditional day for Commencement was the first Wednesday in September, but was changed in 1851 and 1852 to the second Wednesday in July, a change which proved unpopular enough for the date to be returned to September in 1853. At about this time Commencement became less of a public holiday. The Providence Journal reported in 1853 that it was now “quite possible to remain out of the city until after Commencement, a thing that was never thought of before,” and in 1860 the Journal did not carry its usual announcement, “This being Commencement, no paper will be issued from this office to-morrow.” The time of Commencement was changed in 1870 to the last Wednesday in June, and again in 1875 to the third Wednesday in June. In 1928, in another change designed to increase alumni attendance by scheduling the activities around a weekend, Commencement began to be held on the third Monday in June, preceded by Class Day on Friday, class reunions on Saturday, Baccaulaureate on Sunday, and followed by the Corporation meeting on Tuesday. In 1950 the annual Commencement was moved to the first Monday in June, where it remained until the latest change of date to the last Monday in May, when Memorial Day is also celebrated.
From the beginning the principal speakers at the Commencement exercises have been graduating seniors. At first the whole class participated. Later some of the graduates were excused from speaking. In 1887-88 the annual catalogue announced a plan for the selection of the speakers, in which a number of students, up to three-fifths of the class, were appointed by rank to submit orations. From these submissions, the professor of rhetoric selected one-half or more, from which up to ten would be chosen for presentation by a committee consisting of the president, the professor of rhetoric, and a third member elected each year by the faculty. In 1891-92 it was decided that every member of the graduating class was entitled to submit an oration. From 1895 to 1936 the winner of the Gaston Prize was entitled to be a speaker at Commencement.
In 1932 it was voted that the names of the graduates would no longer be written in Latin on their diplomas. Another change in diplomas occured in 1940, when a new six by eight inch diploma in a leather folder with the Latin phrases printed replaced the traditional 19 by 15 inch scroll-like diploma with the words in script. In 1942 Commencement was held in May, and during the war years, up until 1946, Commencement was held three times a year, in June, October, and February, as students graduated under the accelerated program. At a winter Commencement held in February 1943 the graduates assembled at the Rhode Island School of Design building opposite the First Baptist Church and marched across the street through the snow. The Commencement march was played on the organ. Two hundred and sixty-five Brown and Pembroke seniors and fourteen graduate students were awarded degrees. Most wore caps and gowns; some wore Navy uniforms. The other Commencement activities had taken place, although Class Day and Class Night had to be held in Alumnae Hall because there was no fuel to heat Sayles Hall. The usual illumination of University Hall was impossible because of the “dim-out.” After the war Commencement exercises were held at the end of first semester in 1949-50 in the Faunce House Theater and in 1950-51 in Sayles Hall to accommodate graduates finishing their courses in midyear.
The awarding of degrees on the College Green began in 1947. That year the size of the graduating class presented the problem of providing 1,596 seats for seniors and their parents, along with Corporation members, faculty, and guests in the Meeting House with a seating capacity of 1, 22. The compromise solution was to have the procession march to the Church to hear the senior orations and march back to the College Green for the awarding of degrees in the presence of family and friends. At the exercises in the Church the president would bid the candidates to rise to be admitted to the bachelor’s degree and would add, “In huius rei testimonium diplomata vobis in Collegii Gramine tradam,” translated, “In testimony thereof I will presently deliver your diplomas to you on the College Green.” The first occasion when weather interfered with the outdoor exercises was 1969, when rain caused a change of site to Meehan Auditorium. “An Hour with the Faculty” was added to the Commencement activities in 1956 and featured talks by two faculty members each year.
The Commencement of 1970 was different, coming after a spring when student strikes protested the invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four Kent State students by National Guard troops during a protest. The students wanted Commencement in this year to be “less frivolous, more in keeping with the times.” The traditional campus dance was cancelled, and replaced by a poorly attended folk concert. Workshops and panels all day Saturday and Sunday morning focused on such subjects as war, ecology, racism, Asian policy, and the generation gap. New York Senator Jacob Javits, whose daughter was among the graduates, took part in a discussion entitled “Is the political system in jeopardy?” On the march down the hill most of the seniors and faculty carried their mortar boards under their arms as a sign of mourning. Some declined wearing academic gowns and others adorned themselves with garlands of flowers. Inside Van Wickle Gates a mock funeral was held for “Jackson,” “Kent State,” “The Rosenbergs,” “Sacco and Vanzetti,” “Etcetera,” and another group disrupted the ROTC commissioning ceremony. There were other changes in the 1970 Commencement. Brown and Pembroke seniors marched together and sat together, and their names were listed in one alphabetical arrangement in the program. For the first time diplomas were not handed to individual graduates, but were conferred upon the group. The seniors awarded citations for the first time, presenting them mainly to controversial figures in absentia. The person most honored by the seniors was Professor Barrett Hazeltine, who was cited in 1972 and every year after that, until 1977, when he was declared the first member of the “Senior Class Hall of Fame,” for persons who received the citation five times.
The Commencement Forums began in 1970 following the student strike in May. The panel discussions held on Saturday and Sunday of Commencement that year were proposed and organized by the students at Brown who were concerned about alumni opinion and wanted Commencement to reflect the seriousness of the situation. Among the speakers were Senator Jacob Javits on the political system, and U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Nathaniel Davis ’46 on U.S. policy in Third World Countries. After that the Commencement Forums became part of the weekend program, and have brought many important speakers to the campus. At the 1973 Commencement for the first time both of the student orators were women, Mary E. Moore and Suzanne Nolan.
The Pops Concert was first held on the Pembroke Campus on the Saturday of the Commencement Weekend in 1965 to celebrate the closing of Brown’s bicentennial year. The event sponsored by the Brown Club of Rhode Island and the Pembroke Club of Providence was so successful that it continued as an annual event of Commencement and moved to the College Green. The star of the first Pops Concert was Martha Wright. Later performers included Anna Maria Alberghetti, Gordon MacRae, Roberta Peters, Shirley Jones, and Florence Henderson.
A major change in 1978 involved the traditional line of march. Whereas the alumni had been accustomed to lead off the procession and march to the Meeting House, under the new arrangement the faculty division begins the march and then splits ranks on College Hill to allow the alumni to march through and divide further down on the hill. After the seniors pass through and form their ranks, the Chief Marshal and his party return to the top of the hill and lead the presidential party through the entire ranks with the faculty and the alumni falling in behind. When the march is completed each division has marched between and been seen by each of the other divisions. In 1984 the date was changed once more, this time to the last Monday in May, which is also the observance of Memorial Day. In 1987 the procession was accompanied for the first time by the playing of bag pipes.
The position of chief marshal used to be filled by the same person for a number of years. When Henry V. A. Joslin 1867 was chief marshal for 27 years in 1916, his aides presented him with a loving cup in honor of his long and efficient services. Henry B. Rose 1881 took his place from 1917 to 1931, when he was relieved of the post at his own request. After that time chief marshals have been appointed annually, and are usually members of reunioning classes. The first woman to serve as chief marshal was Doris Brown Reed ’27, who led the procession in 1977.