Commencement at the University of Georgia provided the annual cultural, social, and political highlight for both Athenians and leaders throughout the state for more than half a century in antebellum Georgia. It all began with the first commencement on May 31, 1804, when ten young men received bachelor of arts degrees at a ceremony in front of Old College which was under frustratingly slow construction. The faculty, students, parents, dignitaries, townspeople, and curious country people from miles around sat on rough timbers to witness the beginning of proud traditions and a new thirst for education on the Southern frontier.
Both the founding president Abraham Baldwin and Josiah Meigs, who presided over the 1804 commencement, were well-versed in academic decorum Yale-style. The sheriff of the county led the processional, and faculty rank and authority were clearly displayed by rigid protocol. Each degree recipient in 1804 was expected to deliver individual remarks suitable to the august occasion, a practice that was to continue for many years.
In 1808 the commencement was moved indoors with the completion of the first wooden chapel on campus, by all accounts a rather crude edifice. Many of the early commencement orations were delivered in Greek or Latin as befitted the classical course of study in old Franklin College.
The University’s Board of Visitors included the state’s Governor, Senators, Superior Court Judges, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House. This Board and its companion Board of Trustees, together forming the Senatus Academicus which governed the institution, usually held their annual meetings during Commencement Week. In addition, the practice of awarding master of arts degrees, upon application, to any alumnus of three years’ standing and good moral character brought many recent graduates back to Athens for commencement. The awarding of honorary degrees to citizens deemed worthy attracted other impressive visitors to the exercises. In fact, by the 1820s commencement activities lasted for days, and “anybody who was anybody in the state” anticipated spending this season in Athens.
Before the days of organized athletics, social fraternities, and professional organizations, college life in general and commencement activities in particular centered upon debates and orations of the literary societies Phi Kappa and Demosthenian. Intense and sometimes bitter rivalries between the two groups carried over long after student days. All the burning political, literary, and social issues of the day were aired during commencement by students, alumni, and honorary members selected from among state and national leaders. There can be little wonder that many a political demarcation or campaign began or crystallized during Commencement Week in Athens.
The week’s activities often included dramatic productions, singing, dancing, public and private feasting. In 1840, for instance, a local baker advertised a public “Commencement Cake” weighing 250 pounds. Always included was a lofty commencement sermon.
The visiting state dignitaries, out-of-state visitors such as South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, and others similarly connected were usually the house guests of well-to-do Athens families. Less favored folks filled the limited hotels to capacity. Still others—farm families from surrounding counties and slaves granted holidays for the occasion—camped around the campus. (Do the general festivities that surrounded antebellum commencements in Athens have a twentieth-century parallel in home football games?)
The crowd quickly outgrew the wooden chapel, and the present University chapel completed in 1832 owes its existence, at least in part, to an attempt to house properly the important commencement exercises. Two years later in 1834, the Alumni Society was formed during that year’s Commencement Week and has provided valuable support for the University ever since.
Despite periodic shifts in fashion, economic and political conditions, the Athens celebration of the University of Georgia’s commencement continued to flourish through the 1850s. The trustees appropriated $400 for a town hall dinner and musical entertainment in 1851 to celebrate the semicentenary of the institution’s first classes. If anything, commencement became even more gala.
But Franklin College faced a decade of imminent internal and external challenges: reorganization of the University into separate schools along modern university lines in 1859, the disruptive consequences of civil war in both the institution and its supporting society, the advent of genuine graduate education in 1869, even the introduction in 1866 of the first social fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and certainly the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 which led to the University’s status as a land-grant college.
After this decade 1859-69, neither the University of Georgia nor its commencement celebration would ever be the same. The University would become stronger and more diversified. Most of the social and political aspects of commencement would find other outlets, and the academic component would reflect changing programs and standards.
However, all who don academic robes to confer and receive University of Georgia degrees in these modern commencement exercises are the beneficiaries of those who brought classical culture to the Southern frontier and laid the foundations upon which this modern University rests.