We had after prayers a class-meeting, upon the subject of a private commencement. Freeman read the Petition, which he was desired by the class to draw up; it was voted that it should be carried up this week.1 I went with Sever, and pass’d the evening at Mr. Gerry’s. Just before we went it began to snow, but when we return’d, we had a violent storm, with the wind in our faces all the way. Sat with Sever about an hour after we got back.
1. This petition and two others mentioned in later entries have not been found. The Corporation did not discuss the petition until 10 April 1787 and decided not to grant the request because “public exercises of commencement have an happy influence in exciting a laudable emulation among the students” and because displays of students’ learning “are highly beneficial to the Commonwealth at large by stimulating parents to give their children an education which may qualify them to fill with reputation and honor the several offices in church and state” (MH-Ar: Corporation Records, 3:282–283). Joseph Willard added several more substantial reasons when he spoke to the class the following day. See below. The class made one final appeal on 1 May to the college overseers, but they eventually supported the corporation in denying a private commencement (MH-Ar:Overseers Records, 3:343–344).
In a letter to his sister, JQA explained what was at the heart of the matter. “The expenses of that day, to the class which graduates, are said to amount upon an average to £1000. In the present situation of the country,” he continued, “this is a large sum, and the advantages derived from appearing in public  are not adequate to it” (JQA to AA2, 14 Jan.–9 Feb. 1787, Adams Papers). To this argument the overseers made some concessions by ordering that the strictest economy be observed at commencement. They omitted the usual entertainment and ordered that merely a cold dinner should be provided, for which the students would pay only $2.00. No entertainment was to be given by any candidate for a degree outside the walls of the college, except those whose parents lived in Cambridge. Students were advised to dress simply in inexpensive black worsted gowns, not to purchase new clothes, and not to entertain friends in their rooms in a lavish fashion (MH-Ar: Corporation Records, 3:282–283).