Celebrating Another Founder

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Photo of the Penn Alumni Society Dinner, 1909

On January 17, the University recognizes the birthday of its founder, Benjamin Franklin. But more than a century ago, Penn used to celebrate the birth of another Founding Father.

George Washington’s birthday, February 22, had been a University holiday since at least 1826, before petering out in the 1930s. 

Originally observed in a chapel, and then in the library, the event usually included an orchestral performance, a reading of Washington’s Farewell Address, a song from the Glee Club, and a speech by the provost. The schedule expanded in 1895 to include an orator of the day, and the event moved to the Academy of Music. As the years went on, a student parade was added as well as the conferring of honorary degrees. (Penn had conferred an honorary law degree upon Washington himself in 1783.)

University Day attracted a host of dignified orators, including President William McKinley (1898), Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low (1899), Chinese Ambassador Wu Ting Fang (1900), Pennsylvania Governor Samuel Pennypacker (1904), and President Theodore Roosevelt (1905).

In 1909, President-elect William Howard Taft graced the stage, giving a speech on “The Relation of the Learned Professions to Political Government.” Washington’s ascent to the presidency, Taft said, was due not to his profession or training but to his “high character as a man.”

This photo was taken at the evening’s alumni dinner, held in Weightman Hall. Some of the 800 guests can be seen sitting at various class tables, while the guests of honor, including Taft, are at the back.

During the Great Depression, the expense of University Day became harder to justify, and the whole celebration eventually dissolved amid a growing sense that if any Founding Father should have his own day at the University, it should be Franklin. —NP

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