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PHI BETA KAPPA SOCIETY: PAST AND PRESENT*
The story of how, in the very year that saw the birth of our Republic, a little group of five students at William and Mary gathered together and organized the first Greek-letter fraternity in this country, the Phi Beta Kappa, is familiar enough to those who have made any historical study of the social and literary activities in our American colleges. The words of the original record have been often quoted:
"On Thursday, the 5th of December, in the year of our Lord God one thousand seven hundred and seventy-six, and the first of the common-wealth, a happy spirit and resolution of attaining the important ends of society entering the minds of John Heath, Thomas Smith, Richard Booker, Armistead Smith, and John Jones, and afterwards seconded by others, prevailed, and was accordingly ratified.
"And for the better establishment and sanctitude of our unanimity, a square silver medal was agreed on and instituted, engraved on one side with S. P., the initials of the Latin SP—, and on the other, agreeable to the former, with the Greek initials of Phi Beta Kappa, and an index imparting a philosophical design, extended to the three stars, a part of the planetary orb, distinguished.
"In consequence of this, on Wednesday, the 5th of January, 1777, a session was held, in order both to adopt a mode of initiation and to provide for its better security.
"And first in corporation, an oath of fidelity being considered the strongest preservative, an initiation was accordingly resolved upon, and instituted as follows:
"'I, A. B., do swear on the Holy Evangelists of Almighty God, or otherwise, as calling on the Supreme Being to attest my oath, that I will, with all my possible efforts, endeavor to prove true, just and deeply attached to this our growing fraternity;
*This article embodies material used in an address before the Tulane Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, June 2, 1914; but new material has been added and the paper has been recast.-Editor.
in keeping, holding, and preserving all secrets that pertain to my duty, and for the promotion and advancement of its internal welfare.'
"Whereupon the oath of fidelity being thus prescribed and instituted, was afterwards severally administered to the respective gentlemen, viz.: John Heath, Thomas Smith, Richard Booker, Armistead Smith, John Jones, Daniel Fitzhugh, John Stuart, Thomas Fitzhugh, and John Stork, as the first essays or rudiments to an initiation. In consequence of this, we severally, freely, and jointly proceeded to the election of officers proper and most suitable to its internal regulation."
At the ensuing meeting of March 1, 1777, a set of laws was adopted such as were "proper and most conducive to the advantage of our growing fraternity." Two weeks later three new members were elected, and on November 29 two more were added to the society, making at the close of the first year a total membership of fourteen out of a student-body of about forty.
In the laws as first adopted a resolution provided that "no gentleman be initiated into the Society but Collegians and such only as have arrived to the age of sixteen years, and from the Grammar Master upwards; and further, before his disposition be sufficiently inspected, nor then without the unanimous approbation of the Society." Thus all students of the Grammar School, or preparatory department of the college, were excluded, as well as outsiders. Membership was limited strictly to academic circles.
On December 10, 1778, however, it was "Resolved that in future admission to this Society be not confined to collegians alone." Without relaxing the regulation excluding the Grammar School students, this resolution seems to have been designed to admit older students corresponding somewhat to our graduates, and even to extend its privileges to those who were not in any way connected with school or college. Among non-collegians admitted to the parent chapter at Williamsburg as a result of this resolution were: John Marshall, afterwards Chief Justice of the United States, at that time Captain of the Third Virginia Regiment of Continental Line; William Pierce, Captain of the First Continental Artillery; William Madison, brother of
President Madison, a volunteer in the militia cavalry; and George Lee Turberville, Captain of the Fifteenth Virginia Regiment. These four gentlemen, being stationed with the army near Williamsburg, were elected to membership in the society. It is to be noted, however, that these maturer men entered the society after its organization had been perfected, so that they presumably had no great influence in determining its policy or in directing its growth.
Not only was membership in the parent chapter thus extended to non-collegians, but there was evident from the first a spirit of expansion and of missionary zeal for establishing chapters elsewhere in the State and in the newly formed Confederation. It was held to be "repugnant to the liberal principles of societies that they should be confined to any particular place, men, or description of men," and it was resolved that "they should be extended to the wise and virtuous of every degree and of whatever country." Another resolution of this same year (1779) expressed the desire of the society to extend itself to "each of the United States." On May 8, 1779, "It being suggested that it might tend to promote the designs of this institution [William and Mary] and redound to the honor and advantage thereof at the same time that others more remote or distant be attached thereto," there was drawn up and adopted a formal charter, according to which two or more brothers of the Phi Beta Kappa, "such as shall to the general meeting be thought to merit such a trust," be empowered on due application to initiate a fraternity correspondent to the original society.
Applications were at once made by various members for charters to establish branches in the State of Virginia, and five such charters were granted; one for a chapter in Richmond, one in Westmoreland county, and three others with the names of the places not given. It does not appear that these branches were to be attached to any college or institution of learning. No records remain of these chapters, which, if ever actually established, must have come to an end during the storm and stress of the Revolution.
Full credit for organizing this policy of expansion is due, not to Elisha Parmele as is generally supposed, but to Samuel
Hardy, who entered William and Mary in 1776, was elected member of the House of Delegates in Virginia in 1781, and two years later became a member of the Continental Congress. According to William Short, who was president of the society from 1778 until its suspension in 1781, it was "Samuel Hardy who first communicated the plan of extending the branches of our society to the different States. He expatiated on the great advantages that would attend in binding together the different States."
But the conviction seems to have been common to all the members of this devoted little band of brothers that their ideals should be disseminated throughout all parts of the colonies as a means of bringing them into more intimate union. Striking evidence of this feeling is exhibited in a letter from a Virginia brother, John Beckley, then in the State Legislature, to Elizur Goodrich, of Yale College. The date is 1782, after the suspension of the Williamsburg chapter and during the supreme crisis of the Revolution:
"How long the madness of the human race will continue, and the ravages and distress of a destructive war be permitted, is only for Superior Wisdom to determine; but in the event of a return of peace I trust to see the extended influence of the Phi Beta Kappa in its numerous branches; and at no distant period, produce a union through the various climes and countries of this great continent, of all lovers of literary merit, founded on the broad basis of a virtuous emulation, and which shall be no less. happy and important in preserving the future peace and grandure [sic] of the United States, than that confederacy which has led America to the present possession of national glory and independence, through innumerable difficulties and distresses; and to this great end, give me leave to hope, all our future exertions will be pointed."''
The same liberal and enthusiastic spirit possessed the minds. of the Harvard brethren, who were equally firm in their conviction that their infant society could and should play an important part in effecting a harmonious and permanent union of
1 Copied from the Yale records through the kindness of the secretary of the United Chapters, the Rev. Oscar M. Vorhees.
the widely separated colonies; for in this very same year (1782) when the Harvard chapter was barely twelve months old, the president of that chapter wrote to the president of the Yale chapter as follows:
"I conceive that the institution of the Phi Beta Kappa will have a happy tendency to destroy the prejudices that too frequently subsist between different universities; to make them act upon more liberal principles, and seek the mutual advantages of the several societies with which they may by this institution be connected."
Surely here is noteworthy evidence of the first stirring of a national spirit among the youth of America at a time before the adoption of the Constitution and even before all the States had been brought to give full assent to the Articles of Confederation. Though the aims of the Phi Beta Kappa were never at any time primarily political, as was the case with the Illuminati and other contemporary student clubs in Germany and other parts of Europe, the society in its very infancy sought to contribute its share towards binding the States together in happy union at a time when some of these States were more remote from one another than New York now is from London, and when each State was inclined to be exceedingly jealous of its own rights.
Before tracing the growth of the society in New England, to which, as we shall see, it was transplanted, it will be well to complete the story of the Williamsburg chapter up to the time of its suspension.
For four years the society continued to flourish at William and Mary, enrolling a total of exactly fifty members during that period, but at the end of that time the approach of the British troops caused the doors of the college to be closed and the mother chapter ceased to exist till it was revived in 1849. The last entry in these early records is full of hope and faith in the future: "On Saturday, the 6th of January (1781), a meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa was called for the purpose of securing the papers of the society during the confusion of the times and the present dissolution which threatens the University. The members who attended were William Short, Daniel C. Brent, Spencer Roane, Peyton Short, and Landon Cabell.