Violent Resistance and Student Self-Governance: A History of Public Day
    by Millicent Usoro


Public Day occurred on the last day of each academic session in the Rotunda. It was a mandatory assembly for students to hear the results of their final examinations but was open to the public to witness them as well. Master of Arts candidates were required to write an essay to graduate “on the subject of literature or science” and the Faculty “select[ed] one or more of such essays to be read by the author or authors on the public day” and others to be displayed in the library.[1] In addition, the Chairman of the Faculty chose orators and essayists to entertain the audience before the diplomas and certificates were given. Students who did not attend Public Day were not given their degrees unless the Faculty voted to confer them.


In general, public orations or addresses given by students within the precincts of the University were subject to the control of the Faculty. No student could deliver an oration without the consent of the Faculty or make any changes after sending a copy of his oration to the Faculty. The supervision of public orations increasingly became a source of strife between the students and the University administration, beginning in 1832 when the Jefferson Society asked the Faculty permission for one of its members to give an oration on April 13th, the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.[2] Merritt Robinson delivered the oration in the Rotunda and gave an impassioned argument for the emancipation of slaves.  His address greatly upset the Faculty, although Chairman Robert Patterson read the manuscript and approved of its delivery, because it “produced much excitement in the state.” The body quickly passed a resolution that declared topics for future orations could not include religion or state, local, or national politics. The professors assessed “that it is unwise in an institution which is supported by all parties to admit of the agitation of questions, in which the opinions of an[y] may be unwarrantably assailed.”[3]


The selection of essayists and orators for Public Day was also highly contentious to the student body and frequently changed throughout the first several academic sessions of the University. The original University Enactments limited the number of essayists and orators to six (but it was traditionally four), all chosen by the Faculty. However, from 1829 to 1835 students gradually increased their involvement in the selection process. During the ninth academic session (1832-33), students successfully petitioned the Faculty to increase the number of essayists and orators to six who were all chosen by the students - and this precedent continued into session ten.  Professor Charles Bonnycastle reflected in the Chairman’s Journal at the end of that session that “their right of election as now undeniable, they neither asked permission to elect beyond the number prescribed by law, nor presented the names for confirmation by the Chairman.” In his insightful musings, Bonnycastle called the election of orators and essayists an “evil” that necessitated the attention of the Board of Visitors. The election process was irregular, but he claims the “most serious evil attending this assumption by the students of a right not granted to them, is the desire which it has created amongst the most influential students to court popularity. The honor of speaking on Public Day has been sought with more eagerness than would have been anticipated; and we have reason to believe that riots have been prompted with the single object of obtaining the popularity necessary to secure an election.”[4]


Riotous behavior among students was indeed a frequent problem for the University administration. It was often a form of protest against the Faculty and the Board of Visitors, especially regarding the expulsion of their peers and more recently enacted laws that restricted their behavior. Riots often included the destruction of University property, physical and verbal assaults against professors, firing guns, lighting fires, blowing horns, singing, dancing, and creating other “disturbing” noises. Additionally, rioters almost always broke open the doors of the Rotunda to ring the University Bell - perhaps as a signal for more students to join the riot or an audible warning directed to the Faculty of their pernicious spirit and the violence it might induce, as it often did. Students also frequently wore masks during riots to conceal their identity. After a series of lawless behavior during the first academic session in 1825, apparently because students vehemently objected to being taught by European professors, the Board of Visitors met at the University during their October session to witness the disorderly state of the newly chartered institution. A very distressed Thomas Jefferson addressed the student body, but unable to articulate his sentiments, Board member Chapman Johnson instead “eloquently” admonished the students for him.[5] Consequently, a resolute and stringent code of discipline was established.


However, the uproarious behavior continued and in the September 1833 session, the Board of Visitors enacted a new law that in the case of a riot after night or if “other serious violation of good order and decorum shall occur among the students,” the Chairman had the sole discretion to ring the Bell of the University as a signal for students to return to their dormitories. If they did not, they were subject to disciplinary action by the Faculty.[6] After Chairman Bonnycastle posted the enactment in early November, a group of sixty-eight students smashed open the door of Hotel C to meet. They then formally declared the riot law to be ex post facto and proclaimed their right to assemble in Hotel C, as it was the designated area where students held meetings. Before the Faculty took any action against these students, University Chaplain Reverend Hamnett appeared before the Faculty in person to warn the body to wait before it sanctioned a punishment because there was “great excitement among the students.[7] The Faculty agreed but explicitly made clear that although the body did not mean to deny students their right to assemble, they had no right to assemble without receiving permission from the Chairman, and breaking open the door of Hotel C was a direct violation of the Enactments of the University. It is also likely that the Board meant to change the significance of bell ringing during riots from a call to action to one of administrative authority.


At the end of this session, Bonnycastle advised the Board of Visitors to pass a law limiting the number of essayists and orators to four - half to be elected by the student body and the other half by the Faculty - and emphasized that it is “essential” that the day be completely overseen by the Chairman. Additionally, he proposed the election should be conducted in the office and the presence of the Proctor according to the regulations the Chairman prescribed. The Board agreed and adopted these resolutions in their July 1834 meeting for the next academic session.


On the evening of March 17th, 1835, a group of students met and nullified these recent Board enactments. This committee sent the Faculty a series of resolutions stating 1) the students will not accept any appointments of orator or essayists made by the Faculty, 2) any student who accepted an appointment will not be heard, 3) they will not vote at the Proctor’s office and will do so freely because it is their right, and 4) the election would be held on the 21st on the Lawn to elect two essayists and two orators. The Committee also resolved to keep the Faculty fully informed on the election proceedings. The Faculty’s rebuttal reiterated that they “do not, and never will, recognise in the students any rights on any subject connected with the government of the Institution, but those which the laws of the Institution confer or sanction” and called students “deluded” to think that the Committee’s resolution would have any effect on the administration of the University.[8]


A few days later on election day, Chairman John A.G. Davis sent the committee a letter arguing that the fluctuation of laws regarding the election of orators and essayists did not imply that a “permanent alteration of the laws could be produced by the occasional permissions of the officers appointed during a limited period to execute them.” The July 1834 amendments to the election process by the Board of Visitors was “greatly misunderstood, and which, far from limiting the privileges of the students, was merely intended to ensure a regular & orderly action of the offices chosen by the latter to superintend their ballot.” A tumultuous election,” he further argues,  “where disorders are apparent to every casual visitor, must distract from the value of the office [of the Chairman] conferred its sober dignity has no Alliance with excitement and tumult; and when such modes of election are followed by the public scenes of a disgraceful tendency exhibited last year, the character of the office is materially changed, and would in a short time lose altogether the only species of value which its connection with a literary institution could give.” [9]


Nevertheless, a few hours after Chairman Davis delivered his letter, the election was held on the steps of the Rotunda “with great decorum.” Two of the elected students (Thomas T. Bouldin and George W. Goode) were also in the student committee that nullified the Board’s enactments regarding the election.[10] Despite the orderly election, the Board of Visitors voted that summer to not allow students to deliver their orations and essays on Public Day that year and instead enacted a new method of selection: the entire student body was to be divided into nine equal divisions and each division named one elector. These nine electors would meet and nominate no more than six orators and essayists for that session’s Public Day. This process was similar to the national Electoral College.


In April 1837, Chairman Davis wrote in length about the difficulties of the new election process for Public Day:

It is proper that I should bring to the notice of the Board, the evils which result from this election. For more than two months, there has been an active canvass going on among the students for these honors, which has materially interfered both with study & discipline. During that time little else appears to have occupied the minds of a large number of students. The Professors complain that their classes have been generally doing nothing; violent feuds & parties have arisen among the students, greatly endangering the peace of the institution; and the dissipation & excess, within & without the University, which the canvass has produced, the Proctor & myself are both satisfied has been very considerable… These honors regarded by many as higher than any which the institution bestows, from the very commencement of the session aspirants for them are endeavoring to render themselves popular with the student, & as a means of doing so take part against the Faculty, & encourage & sustain the insubordinate & vicious, on the occasion of every disturbance which occurs.There is reason to believe, that in the rebellion of November[11], this influence operated to a very considerable extent.[12]


Davis reached very similar conclusions to Bonnycastle’s own reflections on the official University event - that resistance against the Faculty and laws of the University were a means for students to gain popularity among their peers in order to be elected, either as an elector or essayist/orator. It is clear the University administration was very concerned of the reputation of the University, and as Bonnycastle aptly put, “I was guided by views that still influence me, regarding an unpopular and strong law as an evil less dangerous than the impunity that has attended extensive and continued riots.” The Board of Visitors, recognizing the failure of the Electoral College process of choosing orators and essayists, decided in 1840 that a “general invitation” would be given to students to submit orations to the Chairman subject to his restrictions on length and topic, who would pick the two best compositions to be read on Public Day.


By 1848, students were no longer selected - neither by their peers nor the Chairman - to deliver orations or read essays on Public Day. The Board of Visitors, when the body first commissioned the Faculty in 1828 to “render the public examinations… more interesting,” sought to make the last day of the academic session a “public and solemn” ceremony.[13] However, the overwhelming amount of student misbehavior related to the selection of orators and essayists presumably put an end to this early University tradition for over 150 years. In April 2014, Public Day was revived as an annual exhibition to showcase student research and scholarship across all academic disciplines.


See also: UVa Public Day puts students' brilliance on display 



[1] Enactments for the University of Virginia, 1825.

[2] Notes for Charles Ellis Diary, 1835 March 15.

[3] University of Virginia. Faculty Minutes. Session 8 (16 April 1832).

[4] University of Virginia. Journals of the Chairman of the Faculty. Volume 5 (1834 July 14).

[5] Bruce, Phillip Alexander. History of the University of Virginia 1819-1919: The lengthened shadow of one man. 300

[6] University of Virginia. Board of Visitors minutes (July 1833).

[7] Faculty minutes, session 10 (Nov 1833).

[8] Faculty minutes, session 11 (1835 March 24).

[9] Chairman’s Journal, volume 5 (1835 March 20).

[10] Charles Ellis, “Diary and Letters.” 1835 March 21.

[12] Chairman’s Journal, Volume 6 (15 April 1837).

[13] Board of Visitors minutes, October 1828.



Cite This Entry

Usoro, Millicent. "Violent Resistance and Student Self-Governance: A History of Public Day." JUEL, April 15, 2016.


First published: April 15, 2016 | Last modified: July 1, 2018