A Century of Reflection: Celebrating Charter Day in 1923
Posted on February 15, 2023
This post is written by Jennifer A. Merriman
One hundred years ago, students, alumni, and faculty gathered in the Jefferson Hall gymnasium to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the College’s founding. Referred to as “Founders Day,” it featured much of the pomp and circumstance we have come to expect from modern convocations and university ceremonies. Maps of the procession were drafted, pennants crafted, seating charts arranged, speakers assembled. The pinnacle of the ceremony was the gifting of an object which seems from the summit of the twenty-first century to be functionally anachronistic: a ceremonial mace, foot feet in length, silver, and emblazoned with the seals, coats of arms, flags, enamels, and names of historical personages associated with Virginia’s oldest college. It is an artifact almost clunky with its claims to historicity.
But when Prof. O. L. Shewmake of the William & Mary Law School presented the mace to the school in his address on February 8, 1923, he pre-emptively fended off accusations that the gift represented an odd extravagance, or “a beautiful and costly, but useless bauble.” Instead, he lauded the object as “a concrete expression of the old College . . . who had service for her watchword and honour for her guiding star.”
“The College,” he went on, “lacks many things—buildings, books, money—but they are all things which abound in the world and can be obtained. And the College of William and Mary has many things—fine traditions, high ideals, and a noble spirit of loyalty and service—and they are all things which are rare and priceless. So poor in all that is plentiful; so rich in all that is rare.”
Accepting the mace on behalf of the College was James Hardy Dillard, Rector of the Board of Visitors. In his acceptance speech, he championed beautiful art (to which the mace, in his view, belonged) and similarly rallied against “these times which . . . stand in danger of being utilitarian and materialistic.”
The rhetoric may sound familiar (or unfamiliar) to twenty-first-century ears, but the significance of the presentation of the mace represents more than art or politics in absolute terms. Since the cultural turn of the 1990s, historians have increasingly acknowledged rituals, ceremonies, symbols, and material culture as valuable historical artifacts with the potential to open windows into the past. Likewise, tracking the development of Charter Day rituals over time may offer historians insight into how William & Mary’s institutional culture has shifted across the decades. Although Charter Day as we now know it was formally introduced in 1937 by President John Stewart Bryan, the tradition of celebrating the College’s birthday has a long history and can be dated as far back as the nineteenth century. In 1859, “His Exc’y” John Tyler gave an address to the college, which can now be read in the university archives. In 1893, in honor of the College’s 200th anniversary, a brass tablet was presented to the chapel in honor of George Wythe. In 1993, the quondam Prince of Wales gifted the College a tome of engravings, and, also for the tercentenary celebrations, the University of Aberdeen presented the College with the Marischal Mace.
From each artifact can be derived historical insight. From their pulpit in the early-twentieth century, Dillard and Shewmake were operating within an academic environment situated at the tail end of processes of institutionalization and professionalization—spearheaded by the research-oriented Johns Hopkins University—that had transformed American universities from the late-nineteenth century onwards. It is worth speculating whether the ceremonial mace, with its symbolic promise to “hallow the new with the spirit and atmosphere of the old” (as Dillard put it), has anything to say about this temporal milieu, a college in transition.
The ceremonial mace can be visited in the lobby of the Special Collections and Research Center located in Swem Library.
Description of the College Mace (1923): “Description of the Mace.” The William and Mary Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1923): 126–28. https://doi.org/10.2307/1921511.
Mace, flags and pennants of the College of William and Mary, id262760, Box: 1, Folder: 2. College Papers Collection, UA 14. Special Collections Research Center.
“Presentation of Mace to William and Mary College.” The William and Mary Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1923): 122–26. https://doi.org/10.2307/1921510.
History of William & Mary’s 1693 Charter: https://scrc-kb.libraries.wm.edu/royal-charter