The first commencement exercises at the College of William and Mary were held in 1700. John Oldmixon’s History of Virginia relates: “Several planters came thither in their Coaches, several in Sloops from New-York Pennsylvania, and Maryland. It being a new thing in America to hear Graduates perform their Academical Exercises, the Indians themselves had the Curiousity to come to Williamsburgh on this Occasion, and the whole Country rejoiced as if they had some Relish of Learning.” A proclamation was issued by King William III on the occasion of the exercises of 1700.
The first A.B. degree was granted in August 1772. The faculty minutes do not give any indication of any ceremony for the granting of these degrees. In 1792, the ceremony was also held in August and all the graduates gave speeches. There is very little other information about late eighteenth century commencements.
Early nineteenth century commencements were usually held on July 4. In the early years, up to about 1830, the ceremony was held at Bruton Parish Church, not at the College. Typically, the Board of Visitors, the President of the College, the faculty, and the students marched from the College to the church escorted by a local militia group. The president would read a prayer, a student would read the Declaration of Independence, the graduates would give their speeches, and then the diplomas were given out. After about 1830, the commencement ceremony was moved to the College Chapel in the Wren Building. In February 1859, the College (Wren) Building burned. Reconstruction work had not progressed far enough by July to hold commencement at the College, so the ceremony was held at the Baptist Church.
Pre-Civil War commencements were accomplished by a round of activities, such as meetings of the Society of the Alumni and Phi Beta Kappa. These two bodies would sponsor speakers and invite the public to attend. Frequently, the President of the College would give a party to honor the new garduates.
Post-Civil War commencements were also accompanied by activities of the two literary societies, the Phoenix and the Philomathean Societies. Almost all students belonged to one of these societies, which sponsored debates, readings, and speeches throughout the school year, thus giving their members training in public speaking. Commencement activities were spread over several days. A typical schedule was to have a baccalaureate sermon and an address before the YMCA on Sunday; celebrations by each literary society, with speeches and debates given by their best members on Monday and Tuesday; the Alumni Society speech and banquet on Wednesday; and the actual commencement on Thursday, followed by a ball to which all students and guests were invited.
20th Century to the Present
It is not known precisely when the customs of having commencement on July 4 or having a student read the Declaration of Independence began. The reading died out in the 1890s, but was revived again in 1920. The Declaration was last read in 1967. In the revival period, it was read by the president of the graduating class, who then gave the copy to the president of the incoming senior class. However, this reading took place at a class dinner given a day or two before commencement and not at the actual ceremony. In the 1890s, commencement was moved from July 4 to late June, and after the turn of the century was moved to early June. The change in the date of commencement may explain why the Declaration of Independence stopped being read at commencement.
After World War I, some of the literary society events were compressed, and there might be a play, a baseball game, and more dances. The literary society events seemed to have ended at the 1927 Commencement. Each year varies a little, but present commencement weekends usually consist of a dance, a baccalaureate service, a reception given by the President of the College, a concert by the College Choir, and other activities. In 1971, the senior class wanted Fayette, Missippi Mayor Charles Evers to be the commencement speaker but President Davis Young Paschall ignored the request and choose Representative Thomas Nelms Downing to be the speaker. The students were upset at the choice of speaker, as they claimed it was because Evers was African American (Flat Hat, 1971 April 30, pg. 1).
The Saturday evening candle lighting ceremony and Walk Across Campus by seniors were first held in May 1978. Former Vice President of Student Affairs W. Samuel Sadler attributed inspiration for the Saturday evening candle lighting ceremony to a former ceremony at Cornell University. Sadler stated the inspiration for the Walk Across Campus was Brown University's own tradition. The baccalaureate service was also held for the first time since the late 1960s in 1978. The service had been discontinued due to a lack of interest before resuming in 19XY. The last invocation during the commencement ceremony was given in 1992 by Father Charles Kelly.
The morning of commencement activities currently begin with graduating seniors gathering in front of the Wren Building for the Walk Across Campus. After a brief ceremony, graduating seniors walk through the Wren Building's central hallway and across campus to William and Mary Hall where the ceremony is held. The bell in the Wren Building is rung while the students walk through the building. The walk across campus is led by the outgoing Student Association president who carries the College Mace, the president of the senior class, and the faculty marshalls. At the end of the commencement ceremony, the College and Marischal Maces are transferred from the outgoing Student Assembly president and graduate student representative respectively to their successors. This transfer takes place on the last verse of the Alma Mater, as "a public recognition of the ongoing tradition and vitality of the College of William and Mary." The new Student Assembly president and new Graduate Council president then lead the Official Party and faculties from the auditorium. When the last faculty member has exited, the president of the graduating class presents the Senior Class Chain of Office to the next president of the senior class.
Ceremonies for schools, departments, and programs are held immediately after the main commencement ceremony or at other times during the weekend.
The ROTC Commissioning ceremony has most recently been held on the Saturday or Sunday of commencement weekend.
Location of Ceremony
This list is incomplete.
- Wren Yard: 1966, 1970-1973
- Scheduled for the Wren Yard, but rain forced ceremony to William and Mary Hall: 1974, 1975, 1976
- William and Mary Hall: 1977-1991
- Zable Stadium: 1993
- William and Mary Hall: 1994-present
William and Mary's green doctoral robe was first worn by graduates at commencement 2002. With an open front in the tradition of the British universities, the piping on the chevrons identifies the degree conferred (dark blue for the Ph.D., and purple for the J.D.). The edge of all of the hoods as well as the chevrons and piping on academic gowns mark the field of study.
A list of known honorary degree recipients is available.
In the News
- Tom Brokaw to deliver 2009 Commencement address, 3 March 2009.
- Tom Brokaw's Commencement Remarks, 17 May 2009.
- History of Commencement at the College of William and Mary, Anonymous, in Commencement, University Archives Subject Files Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
- "Commencement to Blend Old, New," Daily Press 2 May 1978, in Commencement, University Archives Subject Files Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
- Photos from the 2007 Commencement robing room from the SCRC on Flickr
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