Amherst College’s earliest Commencements were gala events. People from surrounding towns jammed the tents, booths, and stalls set up like a county fair on the Amherst town common and then crowded the Congregational Church (now College Hall) to join the students, faculty, and alumni for an entire August or September day’s festivities. Spectators were known to fight over prime seats and there was always an overflow crowd outside the church.
In a more spectacular version of our contemporary ceremony, the nineteenth-century Commencement featured the entire student body gathering on College Hill, from which point they proceeded all around campus behind a music band. They were joined by the faculty, distinguished guests, alumni, and the county sheriff. The sheriff, who wore a blue coat with brass buttons and carried a long pole with a gilded ball on the top, led the way through the crowds and into the church, where the ceremony took place.
Though the first Commencement on August 28, 1822 featured only two graduates, Ebenezer Strong Snell and Pindar Field, the festivities lasted all day, with a midday break for a corporation dinner in between. The ceremony included ten speakers, more than a dozen presentations with orations in Latin, Greek, and English, and topics ranging from “The Diversity of Human Character” to “The Gospel Carried to India” to a “Comparative View of the Intellectual Power of the Sexes.” One of the speakers on this last topic was the poet Emily Dickinson’s father, Edward, who attended Amherst in the Class of 1823 before going on to graduate from Yale. There were also dialogues, prayers, a poem, and a colloquy.
In 1833, the Trustees streamlined Commencement Day festivities to a single session lasting “only” six hours. (Though the tradition of morning Commencement activities remains, the current ceremony lasts just half as long.) During the mid-nineteenth century, Commencement activities grew to occupy a full week. The annual address by some of the “foremost orators and statesmen of the country” was often the most anticipated, inspiring event. The eminent guests were invited by the literary and other societies (the Athenae, Alexandria, and Society of Inquiry) and included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, and the College’s own Henry Ward Beecher (Class of 1834).
The Class Day tradition was introduced by the Class of 1852 when, at the end of senior examinations, several weeks before the end of term, the seniors had an evening oration and poem and then marched in procession through town with other students and local residents to several professors’ homes to make and hear speeches; then they held a class supper. Seniors continued to observe a Class Day, with a variety of public performances and, always, a supper. Class Day became a formal part of the Commencement Week festivities in 1870.
By 1871, the semi-centennial of the College, 3,000 people attended Commencement events, including 700 alumni who were returning for Reunion at the same time. For this important occasion there were nineteen presentations with five musical interludes.
Commencement today may seem a modest affair by comparison with the nineteenth-century event. However, many of the original traditions remain, in whole or in part, and Commencement is, as always, a special event.