Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 1



30 August 1837, Wednesday; ca. 10:30, A.M.
Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard College, First Parish Meetinghouse


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In 1837 Harvard College graduated forty-seven seniors with Bachelor of Arts degrees, but at the commencement exercises only twenty-two of the Bachelor’s degree candidates had parts, which they had been assigned on the basis of their class standing.1 The higher the senior’s rank in his class, the more prominent and strategically placed his part was in the exercises. Top-ranked seniors delivered their own orations, while lower-ranked seniors either delivered individual disquisitions or participated in two- or three-part discussions or conferences, The place of each of the speakers in the order of exercises was also fixed on the basis of his class standing. The strategic placement of speakers was dictated by three musical interludes, which divided the commencement exercises into four segments. The following chart shows the order of exercises, the type of exercise, and the class standing of the candidate assigned to a particular part:

Type of Excercise (Speaker, Hometown)
Salutory Oration in Latin (Charles T. Russel, Princeton, Mass.)
(Daniel Wight, Natick, Mass.)
(William P. Williams, Baltimore, Md.)
Essay (John F. W. Lane, Boston, Mass.)
(Charles W. Rice, Brookfield, Mass.)
(David H. Thoreau, Concord, Mass.)
(Henry Vose, Dorchester, Mass.)
Literary Disquisition (Samuel A. Kendall, Utica, N.Y.)
(Musical Interlude)
Dissertation (Clifford Belcher, Farmington, Me.)
Philosophical Disquisition (Samuel Treat, Portsmouth, N.H.)
Literary Discussion
(William A. Davis, Boston, Mass.)
(Nathaniel Holmes, Peterborough, N.H.)
Dissertation (Richard H. Dana, Boston, Mass.)
Philosophical Discussion
(Charles Hayward, Boston, Mass.)
(Henry Williams, Boston, Mass.)
(Musical Interlude)
English Oration (Charles H. A. Dall, Baltimore, Md.)
Forensic Disputation
(Manlius S. Clarke, Cambridge, Mass.)
(John Bacon, Boston, Mass.)
English Oration (Charles S. Wheeler, Lincoln, Mass.)
Deliberative Discussion
(Samuel T. Hildreth, Gloucester, Mass.)
(Horace Morison, Peterborough, N.H.)
(Musical Interlude)
English Oration (John F. Eustis, Charleston, S.C.)
David Henry Thoreau had ranked nineteenth in his graduating class and, as a consequence, had been assigned the second of three parts in the second conference, on “The Commercial Spirit of Modem Times, considered in its Influence on the Political, Moral, and Literary Character of a Nation.” Charles Rice had ranked twentieth in the class, so he was scheduled to open the conference by speaking about the influence of the commercial spirit on the political character of a nation, Similarly, Henry Vose had ranked eighteenth in the class, so he would close the conference by speaking about the influence of the commercial spirit on the literary character of a nation, Thoreau’s assignment, then, was to speak on the influence of the commercial spirit on the moral character of a nation. In the overall order of exercises, he was scheduled to be the sixth speaker.2
Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the morning of 30 August 1837 was probably not a pleasant place: the streets were muddy because rain had fallen in sheets the night before, and the rain continued to fall intermittently during the morning.3 Nonetheless, just before 10:00 A.M. the two hundred or so members of the commencement procession had assembled in the Harvard College Library.4 Fortunately, the rain began to slacken at 10:00 A.M., when the Harvard College Band struck up, and Harvard President Josiah Quincy and Massachusetts Governor Edward Everett led the long procession out of the Library and toward the First Parish Meetinghouse, which had been opened earlier that morning to accept arriving guests. The various dignitaries and faculty members at the front of the procession filed into the Meetinghouse first, followed by the candidates for degrees, who were themselves followed by distinguished visitors and members of the college staff. Of the twenty-two Bachelor’s degree candidates scheduled to speak during the commencement exercises, only eighteen were on hand, each with the manuscript of his part rolled up in his left hand. Of the four who were absent, one had previously been excused because of illness, two had just become ill and had to be omitted from the exercises at the last minute, and one was simply “looked for.”5 As it happened, three of those absent were scheduled to speak before Thoreau, and one of those four was Charles Rice, who was to have delivered the first of the three parts in the second conference, the one Thoreau was to participate in. So instead of speaking sixth in the order of exercises, Thoreau would speak third.
The meetinghouse into which the procession filed had just been built three years before and was eighty-six feet long and seventy feet wide, spacious enough to accommodate all who wanted to attend the commencement, apparently, but also “crowded by a highly respectable audience.”6 A “commodious stage” had been erected at the front of the Meetinghouse, extending in front of and on both sides of the pulpit. The dignitaries, distinguished visitors, and scheduled speakers, including the degree candidates, took their places on the stage, and “After a voluntary on the organ, Dr. Ware, Senr., opened the exercises with a short & solemn prayer.”7 Ranked fourth in his class, Charles Russell of Princeton, Massachusetts, delivered the salutatory oration in Latin, which one of the auditors, the Reverend John Pierce, thought “was well written and delivered, but spoken, as if he were disappointed in not having one of the English Orations.”8 Because both of the participants in the first conference were ill, John Lane of Boston spoke next, delivering his essay on “The Effect upon Literature of a Belief in Immortality.”
Thoreau then stepped to the pulpit to deliver his paper. Like all the speakers, he had committed his text to memory and only carried his paper in case memory failed and he needed prompting. Judging from the length of his paper, he was able to finish his speech in about five minutes. Then Vose spoke, and the exercises continued, punctuated by musical interludes, until 2:30 P.M., when the procession re-formed and moved to the Common Hall, where an early dinner was served with wine and cider. According to Reverend Pierce:

There was pretty good order till the President and suite retired. Afterwards “certain lewd fellows of the baser sort” congregated in the North Hall, and choosing a drunken moderator, they continued for a long time to exhaust the remaining bottles which had not been emptied by the regular company. They sang songs, clapped hands, and shouted, so to expose themselves, and the credit of our University, to the notice of some strangers of distinction who were within hearing of such disorders.9

Very likely Thoreau did not join in the after-dinner festivities at North Hall.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: Announcements of the Harvard College commencement exercises appeared in most of the Boston daily newspapers the day before and on the day of the event, and on those days at least two of the newspapers, the Boston Daily Advertiser and Patriot and the Boston Evening Transcript, published the commencement program in its entirety, listing Thoreau in the process, of course, and thereby constituting one of the earliest appearances of his name in print.
At the conclusion of the exercises, the Reverend Pierce, who had attended fifty-two previous commencements at Harvard College, assessed the performances he had heard on 30 August 1837 in the following fashion: “This Commencement I should rank above mediocrity. The parts in general were well sustained. The speakers were mostly heard. None had a prompter. For the first time they carried their parts rolled up in their left hands. Two or three only were obliged to unrol[l] them to refresh their memories.”10 There is no indication if Thoreau was one of those two or three who needed to unroll his manuscript.
The day after the Harvard commencement the Boston Daily Advertiser and Patriot claimed that at the commencement “The performances generally were highly creditable to the respective parties and to the institution. The style of the elocution was improved as compared with former exhibitions and some of the parts were remarked as extremely well spoken.” Again, there is no indication if Thoreau’s was one of the parts referred to.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The authoritative text of Thoreau’s part in the second commencement conference is “The Commercial Spirit of Modem Times Considered in Its Influence on the … Moral … Character of a Nation” in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding et al., 11 vols. to date (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971- ), Early Essays and Miscellanies, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer et al. (1975), pp. 115-18.11 Thoreau’s reading-draft manuscript at MH-Ar (HUC6836.50) consists of five leaves and a title page that reads: “IV A Conference. ‘The commercial spirit of modern times considered in its influence on the Political, Moral, and Literary character of a Nation.’ Rice. Thoreau. Vose.” Also at MH-Ar are the reading-draft manuscripts of Thoreau’s two fellow conferees—and, indeed, the other participants in the commencement exercises that day, those who were absent as well as those who were present.

 1. We derived our information for how Harvard College organized its commencement exercises by combining data gathered from the printed programs for the commencements of 18:35-40 and from the class-standing manuscript sheets for the students who graduated during that five-year period, These documents are in the Harvard University Archives, Pusey Library, The program for Thoreau’s graduation is “Order of Exercises for Commencement, XXX August, “MDCCCXXXVII,” MH-Ar. For a reprinting of the first page of the program, see Milton Meltzer and Walter Harding, A Thoreau Profile (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1962), p. 34, For facsimile reproductions of documents pertaining to Thoreau’s Harvard years, see Kenneth Walter Cameron, “Chronology of Thoreau’s Harvard Years,” Emerson Society Quarterly, no, 15 (1st Quarter 1959): 2-108.
 2. For a latter-day assessment of the three parts in the conference that Thoreau was scheduled to participate in with Rice and Vose, including some interesting remarks about the historical and idealogical background for the three parts, see Morton Berkowitz, “Thoreau, Rice and Vose on the Commercial Spirit,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 141 (Fall 1977): 1-5.
 3. These and the facts that follow in this and the following paragraph were documented by the Reverend John Pierce, who attended the commencement exercises at Harvard College in 1837 and, indeed, had attended Harvard’s commencement exercises for each of the preceding fifty-two years and had recorded the commencements for the preceding thirty-three years, Pierce’s records of the commencements are in his MS journal, 1803-43, MHi, and have been reprinted with some omissions in Charles C. Smith, “Some Notes on the Commencements at Harvard University, 1803-1843,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2d ser. 5 (January 1890): 167-237,
 4. We derive our estimate of the number of people in the commencement procession from the first page of the commencement program and from Pierce’s journal entry for 30 August 1837 (see note 3 above), which together indicate that in the procession there were, in addition to the College Band members, at least seven dignitaries, twenty-nine College overseers, thirty-five College faculty members and tutors, an unspecified number of College staff members, an unspecified number of state senators and congressmen, an unspecified number of clergymen, forty-three candidates for advanced degrees, and forty-three candidates for Bachelor of Arts degrees.
 5. An eight-page manuscript written entirely in Latin, possibly by Josiah Quincy, who would have hosted the exercises, is laid in with the commencement program at MH-Ar and summarizes the entire commencement exercises. Written in pencil under the first conference is “valitudinis causa omittitus,” or “illness caused [the two conferees, Daniel Wight and William Williams] to be omitted,” In pencil under the second conference is “Rice causa valitudinis excusabes est,” or “Rice was excused because of illness,” In pencil under the first dissertation is “est desiderata,” or “[Belcher, the scheduled speaker] is looked for.” In his journal, Pierce wrote, “There were but 4 failures in performance, two in the first conference, one in the second conference, and one dissertation” (Pierce, MS journal, entry of 30 August 1837, in Smith, 220)—which, together with the Latin manuscript, indicates conclusively, we believe, that Wight, Williams, Rice, and Belcher did not speak during the commencement exercises.
 6. This fact is mentioned in Pierce’s MS journal entry of 27 August 1834, in which he records the Harvard College commencement for 1834, in Smith, 213n1.
 7. Pierce, MS journal, entry of 30 August 1837, in Smith, 219.mission