Columbia’s 1811 Graduation Ceremony Is Known as “The Riotous Commencement”

Mayhem erupted during Columbia’s 1811 Commencement when students’ devotion to free speech and self-determination clashed with a University rule that all graduation orations must be edited by the Board of the President and Professors, and given exactly as approved.

During the final orations at Trinity Church (Columbia’s original location), John B. Stevenson CC 1811 delivered his speech without making the requested edits. He was subsequently denied his diploma, although he attempted to collect it three times in protest during the ceremony. The crowd quickly turned against the faculty.

The 1900–01 issue of Columbia University Quarterly looked back at the event: “The clapping and applause that greeted [Stevenson’s] third appearance on the stage now grew in volume, and it was plain that the sympathies of a large part of the audience were with the student.”

Stevenson eventually left the ceremony, but the crowd’s anger remained. Students continued to hiss and jeer, and soon the police arrived. CUQ continued: “… there were cries of ‘hustle the officers,’ ‘break down the stage,’ ‘persecution,’ ‘tyrants,’ and the like, the whole church being in a tumult. On the platform, the space of the faculty was invaded, and after a vain attempt had been made to go on with the proceedings, the president was forced to desist, and neither the degree of Master of Arts was conferred nor the valedictory delivered. It was impossible to conclude the exercise with usual solemnities, and President
[William] Harris, along with the other members of the faculty, was forced to leave the stage, fearing that he would be forced off should he remain.”