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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. After World War I, some of the literary society events were compressed, and there might be a play, a baseball game, and more dances. Each year varies a little, but present commencements 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.

The commencement ceremony currently begins with the graduates gathering in front of the Wren Building, walking through its central hallway, and across campus to William and Mary Hall where the ceremony is held. The walk across campus is led by the outgoing Student Association president who carries the College Mace and by the faculty marshalls. At the end of the commencement ceremony, the College and Marischal Maces are transferred from the outgoing Student Association president and representative of the Graduate Council of the Student Assembly respectively to their successors.

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.

The evening candle lighting ceremony and Walk Across Campus by seniors were first held in May 1978. 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.

Commencement Speakers

A list of known commencement speakers from the 19th century to the present is available.

Honorary Degrees

A list of known honorary degree recipients is available.

In the News


  • 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.

A Note About The Contents Of This Wiki
Unfortunately, many of the early original records of the College of William and Mary were destroyed by fire, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. The information available here is the best available from known documents and sources at the time it was written. Information in this wiki is not complete as new information continues to be uncovered in the SCRC's collections and elsewhere. Researchers are strongly encouraged to use the SCRC's access tools for their research as the information contained in this wiki is by no means comprehensive.