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From the Archives: Presidential Commencement Addresses

Summary: 
Occasionally a university is able to celebrate the accomplishments of their students with a commencement address delivered by the President of the United States. See photographs and other records from the holdings of the Presidential Libraries that commemorate these special events.

Graduation season is here once again and many of us have enjoyed watching our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, and friends accept their hard-earned diplomas. Occasionally a university is able to celebrate the accomplishments of their students with a commencement address delivered by the President of the United States. The holdings of the Presidential Libraries include many photographs and other records that commemorate these special events.

So what sort of wisdom does a President pass along to a graduating class as they prepare to enter the next chapter in their lives? When Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the Pennsylvania State University class of 1955, he focused on the important role education plays in our society: “The peoples of this earth share today a great aspiration. They all have a common dream of lasting peace with freedom and justice. But the realization of the dream calls for many types of cooperation based upon sympathetic and thorough mutual understanding. In turn, such understanding is dependent on education that produces disciplined thinking.”

Richard Nixon’s commencement address to the Air Force Academy on June 4, 1969 focused on upcoming events that would take us well beyond planet Earth: “Our current exploration of space makes the point vividly; here is testimony to man's vision and to man's courage. The journey of the astronauts is more than a technical achievement; it is a reaching out of the human spirit. It lifts our sights; it demonstrates that magnificent conceptions can be made real…when the first man stands on the moon next month every American will stand taller because of what he has done, and we should be proud of this magnificent achievement.”

Presidents will often speak highly of public service, like when Harry S. Truman spoke to the Princeton University class of 1947. Talking about the importance of the civil service, he said that “in our free society, knowledge and learning are endowed with a public purpose--a noble purpose, close to the heart of democracy. That purpose is to help men and women develop their talents for the benefit of their fellow citizens.” Full audio of this speech can be found on the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum website here.

Sometimes Presidents have a more personal connection to the school they’re addressing. George Bush graduated from Yale University in the class of 1948 after initially deferring college to enlist in the Navy in the midst of the Second World War. In 1991, he returned to his alma mater, where he referenced an earlier Presidential address (while also making sure to stoke a long-standing university rivalry). “Twenty-nine years ago” he said, “President Kennedy stood right here…and he said, ‘I have the best of all worlds: a Yale degree and a Harvard education.’…He had it wrong. I've got the best of all worlds: a Yale education and a Yale degree.” As you might expect, this line was very well received.

Presidents have also played double duty as proud parent and speaker on graduation day. When William J. Clinton spoke at the 1997 Sidwell Friends graduation, daughter Chelsea was in the crowd with her cap and gown. His remarks encouraged the graduates to remember the other half of his audience that day as they looked toward the future: So I ask you at the beginning to indulge your folks if we seem a little sad or we act a little weird…Though we have raised you for this moment of departure and we are very proud of you, a part of us longs to hold you once more as we did when you could barely walk, to read to you just one more time ‘Good Night, Moon’ or ‘Curious George’ or ‘The Little Engine That Could.’” The President finished his speech by returning his focus on the graduates: “Class of ’97, you're beautiful. Go out and live like it. Be humble and be proud. Be of service. Be optimistic and grateful. Be brave, and dream your dreams.”

We’ve put together a gallery of images from Presidential commencement speeches and future Presidents at their own graduations from the holdings of the 13 Presidential Libraries of the U.S. National Archives. To view the gallery, click here.

Learn more about President Obama's 2013 commencement speeches: