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Brown University Holds First Commencement in 1769 - as Rhode Island College
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Chartered in 1764, Rhode Island College - now Brown University - began in Warren, Rhode Island. The college’s first commencement, held on September 7, 1769, was the only one in Warren. In 1770, the college moved to Providence, and in 1804, the name was changed to Brown University.

This broadside, issued under the authority of the first chancellor, Stephen Hopkins, lists the seven members of the college’s first graduating class: Joseph Belton, Joseph Eaton, William Rogers, Richard Stites, Charles Thompson, James Mitchell Varnum, and William Williams.

The commencement was held at the Baptist Church in Warren. The event’s principal feature was a “Disputatio forensica,” or forensic debate, on the thesis “The Americans, in their present Circumstances, cannot, consistent with good Policy, affect to become an independent State.” According to reporting in The Newport MercurySeptember 11, 1769, James Mitchell Varnum (the future Continental Army General) defended the thesis “by cogent arguments,” and William Williams opposed it “subtilely, but delicately.” The president and graduating students made their opinion evident in their apparel; all were dressed in American manufactures. William Rogers also delivered an oration on benevolence, and Richard Stites gave an oration in Latin on the advantages of liberty and learning. Charles Thompson delivered the valedictory oration.

[BROWN UNIVERSITY]. Rhode Island College, Broadside, Commencement Exercises, September 7, 1769, Warren, Rhode Island. In Latin.

Inventory #27380.02       Price: $8,500

Historical Background
At this first commencement, the college also awarded honorary degrees “at their own request” to seven gentlemen who graduated from other colleges and to fourteen others recommended for their literary merit. Four of the former and eleven of the latter were ministers.

This broadside was printed by Solomon Southwick (1731-1797), printer and publisher of the Newport Mercury. A graduate of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) in 1757 as a member of its first graduating class, he was a prominent patriot, and printed some of the earliest copies of the Declaration of Independence on July 13, 1776.

The First Graduating Class, All Listed on this Broadside

James Mitchell Varnum (1748-1789) was born in Massachusetts and attended Harvard College before transferring to Rhode Island College (Brown University), from which he graduated in 1769. He married Martha Child in 1770, gained admission to the bar in 1771, and began a practice in Rhode Island. He served as a captain in the Kentish Guards militia company, and in 1775 became the colonel of a regiment raised after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Renamed the 9th Continental Regiment in January 1776, it participated in the Siege of Boston and the Battles of Long Island and White Plains in New York. After recruiting duty in Rhode Island, he received a Continental Army commission as brigadier general in February 1777. He led troops in the Battle of Red Bank in New Jersey in 1777 and the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. After resigning from the Continental Army in 1779, was commissioned as a major general in the Rhode Island militia. He represented Rhode Island in the Continental Congress from 1780 to 1782 and in the Confederation Congress in 1786 and 1787. One of the directors of the Ohio Company of Associates, Varnum received an appointment as a judge in the Northwest Territory in October 1787 and moved to Marietta, Ohio, in June 1788. After helping Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair create a code of laws for the territory, in January 1789 Varnum died of consumption.

Joseph Belton (d. aft. 1799) was born in Connecticut and graduated from Rhode Island College in 1769. He was living in Philadelphia by 1775, where he attempted to convince the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and then the Continental Congress of the utility of his early submarine. In 1777, he proposed developing the Belton flintlock, a repeating musket. The Continental Congress gave initial encouragement but later balked at Belton’s prices. After the war, he attempted to sell the design to the British Army, without success. He traveled to London, where he worked with famed gunsmith William Jover to develop an innovative prototype that he sold to the East India Company in 1786. He may have returned to Philadelphia, and in the 1790s, he was living in Lumberton, North Carolina, but little is known about his later life.

Joseph Eaton (1750-1775) was born in New Jersey and graduated from Rhode Island College in 1769. He became a physician and died in Newark, New Jersey, on May 10, 1775.

William Rogers (1751-1824) was born in Newport, and at the age of fourteen became the first and for a time only student of Rhode Island College. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1769 and a master’s in 1772. He was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia from 1772 to 1775. During the Revolutionary War, he served as chaplain to a Pennsylvania regiment from 1776 to 1778 and a Continental Army brigade from 1778 to 1781. He remained in Philadelphia as an author and held offices in literary and religious societies, preaching frequently in various churches.

Richard Stites (1747-1776) was born in New Jersey. His sister Margaret (1740-1815) married James Manning, the future president of Rhode Island College, in 1763. Richard was the second student at the college. After graduating in 1769, he gained admission to the bar in New Jersey in 1771. He served as a captain in the militia and then in two brigades of the Continental Army. He died on September 16, 1776, of wounds received during the Battle of Long Island a few weeks earlier. He was the first graduate of Brown University to die in military service.

Charles Thompson (1748-1803) was born in New Jersey. He received a bequest of £14 from the widow of John Hobbs of the Philadelphia Association for the Education of Pious Youths For the Ministry, which he used to pay tuition at Rhode Island College. After graduating in 1769, he succeeded College president James Manning as the pastor of the Baptist Church in Warren. During the Revolutionary War, Thompson served as the chaplain of Colonel Greene’s battalion. In May 1778, while on a visit home, he was captured by British troops and confined on a prison ship at Newport for a month. He preached briefly in Connecticut before becoming the pastor of the Baptist church in Swansea, Massachusetts, in 1779 or 1780, remaining for twenty-three years, before moving to Charlestown, where he died.

William Williams (1752-1823) was born in Pennsylvania to a prosperous Welsh farmer. Educated at Hopewell Academy, he entered Rhode Island College in 1766. After graduating in 1769, Williams remained taught school in Warren. In 1773, the Warren Baptist Church licensed him to preach, and he began in Wrentham, Massachusetts, where he opened an academy. He became pastor in 1775 and continued in that position until his death. When the building of Rhode Island College was used as a barracks for American soldiers and a hospital for French soldiers, Williams kept the college library safe at his church in Wrentham, eighteen miles north of Providence.

Condition: Trimmed, with short separations on the folds repaired by professional conservator.

Provenance: From an album apparently compiled by Horatio Gates Jones Jr. (1822-1893), a Philadelphia politician, who received an honorary degree from Brown University in 1863. His father graduated from Brown in 1812. The volume was later the property of and deaccessioned by the Crozer Theological Seminary.


American Antiquarian Society (BDSDS. 1769)

Brown University (not found in current online catalog, but noted in 1915 book by John Eliot Alden)

Massachusetts Historical Society (Bdses 1769)

Rhode Island Historical Society (G1157 Broadsides 1769 No. 7)

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