Profiles in Penn History:
Presidential Visits to the University of Pennsylvania
| The first in a series
of historical reflections on Penn by the Director of the University
Archives and Records Center
In May 1998, as I sat in the
Commencement Day audience at Franklin Field and watched the graduating
classes respond enthusiastically to President Jimmy Carter's keynote
address, my thoughts turned to the significance of Penn in American
history and the regularity of Presidential visits to our campus.
I knew that in October 1996 President Clinton had turned Hill House
Field into a campaign rally stop and that in May 1975, while he
was in office, President Ford had been Commencement Speaker. In
addition to visits by sitting Presidents, I knew also that the University
had often hosted American Presidents both before and after their
respective terms of office. President Reagan had delivered the first
of three Plenary Session addresses at the University's 250th Anniversary
celebration in May 1990 and Ford had visited campus in September
1984, to speak at dedication ceremonies for the Thomas S. Gates,
Jr. Room in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center.
President Gerald Ford with Donald Regan and Martin
Commencement, 1975 National Bicentennial
years the visits of Presidential wives had also taken on historical
significance. Hillary Rodham Clinton was Commencement Speaker in 1993
and recipient of the Trustees Council of Penn Women's Beacon Award
at an Annenberg Center ceremony in October 1997. Barbara Bush was
Commencement Speaker in May 1990, just three days before Nancy Reagan
accompanied her husband to campus. It was Mrs. Bush who, in the closing
line of her address, had the best one-liner: "Somewhere out in the
audience today there may be a future President of the United States.
I wish her well." Over the past quarter century, the University has
conferred honorary doctorates on Mrs. Clinton, Mrs. Bush, President
Carter, and President Ford.
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
Awarded the Beacon Award, 1997
A careful study of Penn's history
shows that a total of eighteen -- nearly half -- American Presidents
have visited the University sometime in their lives. Seven sitting
Presidents have been guests on campus and two more Presidents-elect.
The University has conferred honorary degrees on ten Presidents.
The tradition begins, of course, with George Washington, who attended
a reception of the Trustees and Faculty in April 1789, soon after
his inauguration. Eighteen months later he was back on campus, with
his Vice President and successor, John Adams, both of whom were
in the audience for the first of Professor (and U.S. Supreme Court
Associate Justice) James Wilson's law lectures. Both Washington
and John Adams had attended the College of Philadelphia's 1775 Commencement
while delegates to the Continental Congress and eight years later
the University conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon
Washington for his leadership of the American forces in the Revolutionary
While he was sitting President,
Thomas Jefferson sent his nephews to Penn and it is hard to believe
that he never set foot on campus, but we have no evidence of such
a visit and cannot claim that he paid a Presidential visit to Penn.
It was in this same early national period that the only President
to attend Penn as a student was on campus, but while William Henry
Harrison enrolled in the Medical Department in 1791 his stay was
brief and unsuccessful. Within four months he left campus and went
on to earn military fame under Pennsylvania's "Mad" Anthony Wayne.
General George Washington was awarded an honorary degree in 1783 - in absentia. Although Washington visited Penn several times, he was not present to receive this honor in 1783. Artist Thornton Oakley, B.S. 1901, M.S. 1902, used artistic license to create this scene.
It was after the move of the
Federal government to Washington, D.C. in 1800 that Penn's prominence
in the eyes of U.S. Presidents entered into a long period of decline.
It is not surprising that this period coincided with Penn's own
difficult years. The College ceased being a school which attracted
students from outside the Philadelphia area and while the Medical
Department grew into a great national institution, the Civil War
robbed it of more than half its students. Not until November 1881
did a U.S. President return to Penn.
Under the provostships of William
Pepper, Jr. M.D. and Charles Custis Harrison, Penn staged a tremendous
comeback. President-elect James Abram Garfield spoke and accepted
an honorary doctorate in November 1881; President Grover Cleveland
attended ceremonies at the Academy of Music as Provost Pepper's
guest in September 1887 on the centennial of the signing of the
U.S. Constitution; President William McKinley was Provost Harrison's
house guest in February 1898, when he was the speaker at the University
Day ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of Washington's Birthday;
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was Provost Harrison's guest at
Franklin Field in November 1901 at that year's Army - Navy game
and while President, in February 1905, he returned to speak at University
Day and accept the University's honorary doctorate; in February
1902, while he was Governor of the Philippine Islands, William Howard
Taft was the University Day orator and the recipient of an honorary
doctorate; seven years later, as President-elect he returned to
Penn and was again the University Day speaker. Penn's University
Day exercises featured academic, as well as political leaders. In
February 1903, Penn honored Woodrow Wilson, then in his first year
as President of Princeton University, as keynote speaker and the
recipient of an honorary doctorate.
President William McKinley's Reception at Furness
University Day, 1898
After the visits of Presidents
Roosevelt and Taft in 1905 and 1909, no sitting President returned
to Penn until the University's Bicentennial Celebration in 1940.
At University Day exercises in February 1917, Herbert Clark Hoover,
then the director of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, did not
speak, but was one of three honorary degree recipients. He returned
during the week-long University Bicentennial celebration in September
1940 and received a second honorary doctorate, but the guest of
greatest honor, of course, was the President of the United States,
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was the principal Bicentennial speaker
and upon whom the University granted an honorary doctor of laws.
Some of the alumni's Old Guard may have been in attendance on that
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Penn's Bicentennial Commencement, 1940
In the period following World
War II, the University hosted General Dwight David Eisenhower, U.S.
Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and President Harry S. Truman,
but none of them during the period of their service as President.
Eisenhower accepted the University's honorary doctor of laws at
the Commencement of June 1947, while he was General of the Armies,
Chief of Staff of the United States Army. With his eye no doubt
already on the Presidency, Kennedy delivered the Crawley Memorial
Lecture to a standing-room-only crowd of 2,500 at Irvine Auditorium
in November 1957 and titled his address, "The New Dimensions of
American Foreign Policy." Three years later, in October 1960, when
Kennedy was indeed the Democrats' nominee, President Truman spoke
on his behalf at a campaign rally at Irvine Auditorium. The 1960s
were not good years for appreciative audiences on college and university
campuses and the record of Presidential visits at Penn is silent
again until the Commencement of 1975.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower
Mark Frazier Lloyd is the Director of the University Archives
and Records Center. He invites Penn alumni and alumnae with memories
of Presidential visits to campus to write the Pennsylvania Gazette
or e-mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He wishes to thank Francis James Dallett (A.M. 1955), his predecessor
as University Archivist, for first assembling a subject file on
"Presidential Visits" and also Mary D. McConaghy (Ph.D. 1996) for
fact-checking this article and conducting research on Presidents
at Penn from 1984 to the present.
This article first appeared in January, 1999.
Other features in this series are also
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