So astute was Mr. Jefferson in determining the basic educational policy for the University of Virginia that the policy has seen very little change in the University’s 195-year history. The colorful ceremony you will see today, however, would not have been held under Thomas Jefferson’s original plan, which did not provide for degrees and diplomas. Although the early students of the University were highly respected for their knowledge, some of them petitioned the Board of Visitors for diplomas to improve their opportunities for employment.
Out of deference to the Father of the University, the Board took no action on these requests during Jefferson’s lifetime, but fifteen months after his death, it changed the policy and directed that plans be laid for the first “Public Day” (commencement). In July 1829, the first Public Day was held in the Dome Room of the Rotunda. The program, which featured a recitation of the names of students receiving honors alongside lengthy student orations, was constructed with very little fanfare. Students in 1888 wrote of the early ceremonies that, "the lofty pleasure which attends marching up the central aisle..., and with dumb rapture receiving a fragment of parchment, had not been discovered.". By 1848, however, Final Exercises had started to more closely resemble what is seen today, beginning with a student-led procession and featuring a single address by a prominent person.
Public Day was held in the Dome Room until the Rotunda annex was completed in 1853. It was then held in the Public Hall of the annex. Following the fire of 1895, which destroyed the Rotunda and its annex, it is unclear where Public Day programs were held. When Cabell Hall was completed in 1898, the Public Day programs began to be held in its auditorium. When the McIntire Amphitheatre was completed in 1921, it became the site for what became known as Final Exercises.
In June of 1940, the graduating class featured Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., who attend law school. His father, who was then completing his second term as President of the United States, agreed to provide the commencement address. After a thunderstorm forced the event indoors from the Amphitheatre to Memorial Gym, Roosevelt made history by giving his famous "dagger" speech, excerpted here:
"On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger [Italy] has struck it into the back of its neighbor [France].
On this tenth day of June, 1940, in this University founded by the first great American teacher of democracy, we send forth our prayers and our hopes to those beyond the seas who are maintaining with magnificent valor their battle for freedom.
In our American unity, we will pursue two obvious and simultaneous courses: we will extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation; and, at the same time, we will harness and speed up the use of those resources in order that we ourselves in the Americas may have equipment and training equal to the task of any emergency and every defense."
As the student population continued to grow, President Colgate W. Darden, Jr., moved the ceremony to the spacious South Lawn, where Final Exercises continue to be held to this day.
The Academic Procession, which serves as a hallmark of today's Final Exercises, began following President Alderman’s inauguration in 1905. Lamenting the lack of pomp and circumstance, Alderman directed that graduating students and faculty members - wearing academic regalia - should process from the newly rebuilt Rotunda, down the Lawn, and into Cabell Hall. This procession is an important part of Final Exercises to this day. Students have long considered it a high privilege to have the opportunity to walk down the Lawn at Finals, and today’s students place an even greater importance on this privilege. So important to many of them is the ceremonial walk down the Lawn, that a number of students, cheated out of a ceremony on the Lawn by bad weather, “confirm” their graduation by processing down the Lawn after Finals.
Through 1961, the University's President conferred the degrees and individually handed each recipient a diploma. By this time, graduates numbered in the thousands. Beginning in 1962 and continuing today, degrees are conferred in a main ceremony by the president. Degree recipients and their guests then reassemble later in “diploma ceremonies,” where the diplomas are presented to the graduates by the Deans.
Today, students still 'walk the lawn' and take great pride in their accomplishments amidst fanfare that has grown over almost two hundred years of Final Exercises at the University.