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1787 Two Hundred Years Ago

May 2024
1min read


It began in 1837 when a clever Columbia College student familiar with his school’s history discovered the perfect excuse for a party: Columbia’s fiftieth anniversary. Forget that the school had been founded in 1754. Forget that the old name, King’s College—alma mater of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Robert Livingston, among others—had been shed in 1784 in favor of Columbia. It was on April 13, 1787, that the New York State legislature ratified the school’s original charter, reconfirming the name Columbia and transferring control of the college from public to private hands. When that canny student of 1837 proposed a celebration to his 120 schoolmates, they gave it their hearty endorsement. Faculty, alumni, and trustees nodded their approval. “There is some idea of a little splutter for the occasion,” one sophomore wrote in his diary. “Very good, and the more fun the better.”

On April 13 a five-block-long procession paraded from Columbia’s Lower Manhattan campus to St. John’s Chapel, where the audience sweated through speeches, poems, odes, and fourteen honorary degrees. After their prolonged confinement, students streamed back to Columbia with far less decorum than they had shown upon leaving it, snatching apples and potatoes from grocers’ carts to toss back and forth high overhead.

The 1887 centennial was a more elaborate affair. At the Metropolitan Opera House, where the great ceremony was staged, students were banished to the highest balconies, from which they let fly abuse and paper planes on the dignitaries below. After the long opening speech, according to one young wit writing in the yearbook, came the “pathetically pertinent chorale ‘Awake my soul.’ ” It was followed by an oration, a hymn, and then the poem “The Progress of Learning”: “Hail, old King’s College! Homestead of our yearning!/ Columbia’s Arya Varta pre-historic!/ England’s Corinthian shaft on Holland’s Doric!” The wit observed: “Oh! what a poem! What rhymes! What sentiments! Space and the poet’s grey hairs restrain our pen from criticism. We pass it over with a respect that we did not observe during its reading. …”

The celebration ended the next night with a march so riotous that fifty policemen were required to give escort. Wrapped in nightshirts and sheets, Columbians trooped through town shouting bawdy songs and blasting on tin horns. The Columbia Spectator reported that a few students dressed as girls “who had come out on purpose to mash the boys, and who were much admired for their huge bustles and striped stockings.” Dozens of others jumped aboard passing streetcars, dashed from one end to the other, and leaped off the rear platforms. “For a crowd of students out on a spree,” wrote the yearbook wit, “we did not think we transgressed the bounds of propriety.”

Back on campus, fireworks exploded and a bonfire blazed hot, fed with barrels and fences scavenged from the surrounding neighborhood. “These wild orgies continued till a very late hour,” the Spectator concluded. “On the whole, everyone agrees that our celebration has knocked the spots out of anything that has been seen before. …”

Or after. No competition arose in 1937, when students allowed the event to slip by virtually unnoticed. But Columbia’s celebration of its two hundredth anniversary this month will undoubtedly do justice to the occasion.

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