125 Stanford Stories

NO. 71
Looking Back

Jane Stanford’s speech

jane stanford’s speech_1
Stanford University's opening ceremonies, Oct. 1, 1891. Leland and Jane Stanford are in the foreground onstage. The chair that separates them is probably for university President David Starr Jordan, who is speaking to the crowd.
Stanford University Archives
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Jane Lathrop Stanford in 1897, after her husband's death and legal claims on his estate had made running the university a lonely and difficult task.
Stanford University Archives

Undelivered on opening day, her words still resonate 

When Stanford University opened on Oct. 1, 1891, both founders prepared remarks for the opening ceremony.

Leland Stanford, accustomed to public life as a railroad president, U.S. senator and former governor of California, read a 2,000-word talk that touched on the role of education in society, the dignity of labor and the inefficiency of Europe’s standing armies.

His wife, Jane Lathrop Stanford, remained silent. She later wrote on the much shorter speech that she left undelivered that “I did not have the courage on the opening day of the University so important in our lives.”

She did not elaborate on the failure of her “courage.” She might have feared becoming overcome with emotion, since, as her text points out, “the project was born from a great sorrow,” the untimely death of the couple’s only child. Then, too, it was unusual for a woman in the 19th century, even an influential and accomplished one, to speak before a public crowd.

But Jane Stanford had worthwhile things to say.  Unlike her husband, who wrote with a rhetorical flourish and could sound impersonal, Mrs. Stanford used the occasion to advise the new students how to live their dreams.

She counseled them how to behave toward one another.

For a while you will be obliged to practice great patience.  You have gathered together from different parts of the United States, strangers to each other, and everything is at present unorganized. It will take you some time to accustom yourselves to your new surroundings and to the different elements you will come in contact with; consequently we are desirous that you be tolerant until all of the machinery is in good working order.

She exhorted “the young men to treat the young ladies who have entered this Institution with the greatest deference.”

We have started you on the same equality and we hope for the best results.

Because Stanford was then tuition-free, and had accepted a great many students from modest backgrounds, she also sought respect for the students who “will have nothing but the work of their hands to sustain them in future.”

I feel that they have had not that encouragement and cheer they should receive from those who have had superior advantages and larger means.

She was already thinking of the transformational impact Stanford graduates would make.

Each example of a good student will have an undying influence. 

In the 125 years since then, Stanford students and scholars have created entire new fields of endeavor and changed society in ways Jane Stanford probably could not have imagined. Yet she seemingly summed up their accomplishments in one wise line:

There is only one failure for you and that is not to be true to the best you know.

Read Jane Stanford’s typescript of her undelivered speech, with notes in her own hand.

Learn more about Jane Stanford and how she sustained Stanford University in its challenging early years.