The History of Phi Beta Kappa
The Founding of Phi Beta Kappa
Phi Beta Kappa was founded on December 5, 1776, at the College of William and
Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was the first society to have a Greek letter
name, and in its initial period at William and Mary it introduced the essential
characteristics of such societies--an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in Latin
and Greek, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, and a special
handclasp. Regular meetings were held at which chief attention was given to
literary exercises, especially to composition and debating. According to the
original records, preserved at the College of William and Mary and printed at
Williamsburg in 1896, the first members debated such subjects as "The cause and
origin of Society," "Whether a wise State hath any Interest nearer at Heart than
the Education of the Youth," "Whether anything is more dangerous to Civile
Liberty in a Free State than a standing army in time of Peace," and "Whether
Theatrical Exhibitions are advantageous to States or ye Contrary." Fraternal
sentiments were fostered, occasional meetings were held for social purposes, and
anniversaries were celebrated in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern, as they
are again now that the College of William and Mary has recreated the Apollo Room
in Phi Beta Kappa Hall on the Williamsburg campus.
Foremost among the founders
were John Heath, the first president, and William Short, who was active in the
plan to expand by granting charters. They and many others of the 50 early members
soon distinguished themselves in public life. More than one-fourth of the
members served with the Revolutionary forces and nearly one-third became members
of the Virginia Legislature. As delegates at the Convention of 1788, a number
were influential in bringing about the ratification by Virginia of the proposed
Constitution of the United States. Some were elected to the Continental Congress
and to the Congress of the United States. One was the first Clerk of the House of
Representatives and also Librarian of Congress. Two were judges of the highest
court of Virginia; two were United States Senators; and for many years two
others -- Bushrod Washington and John Marshall, the Chief Justice -- were members of
the Supreme Court of the United States.
The original Phi Beta Kappa Society at
William and Mary had an active life of only four years, ending when the approach
of Cornwallis's army forced the college to close its doors. During this brief
period, in addition to admitting 50 members, 77 meetings were held and charters
were granted for two new branches or Alphas, as the new chapters were called.
Extension to Other Colleges
The faith of those youthful scholars at the College of William and Mary in the
permanence and future greatness of their Society is shown by their preparation
of charters for branches in other colleges. The two charters granted were to
Harvard, voted on December 4, 1779, and to Yale, voted five days later. The
charters were entrusted to Elisha Parmele, a graduate of Harvard, who on his
return to New England in the following year delivered them to groups at New Haven
and Cambridge, thus establishing what became known as the Alpha of Connecticut at
Yale on November 13, 1780, and the Alpha of Massachusetts at Harvard on September
5, 1781 Both documents are preserved -- the Harvard charter with its original
ribbons described in the minutes of 1782 as "pink and sky blue," colors still
used today on each new charter. While the Alpha of Virginia at the College of
William and Mary was inactive between 1780 and 1851 and again from early in the
Civil War until 1893, the Alpha at Harvard has had an uninterrupted existence,
and the Alpha at Yale was inactive only from 1871 to 1884. These two chapters
largely determined the permanent character of Phi Beta Kappa and shaped its
policy in the establishment of other new chapters.
The two New England branches
preserved the essential qualities of the Virginia brotherhood, adopting some
changes in procedure to suit local conditions. Shortly before the close of the
college year, the members selected from the junior class a small group of
leading students who in the following year constituted the "immediate society."
At Harvard in 1782, faculty and students were invited to the celebration of the
first anniversary of the chapter, which was fittingly observed in the college
chapel. The custom of annual anniversary celebrations has led to many
significant contributions to American prose and poetry. Ralph Waldo Emerson
delivered an oration at the 1837 celebration at Harvard entitled "The American
Scholar," later adopted as the name of the Phi Beta Kappa Society's journal. In
these early years of the Society, in addition to student members, a few men from
earlier classes were elected to alumni membership, and beginning at Yale in 1790
and at Harvard in 1813, still others were elected to honorary membership. Thus
very soon the members who were no longer in college came to outnumber the
undergraduate or immediate members, and by their continued interest assured the
permanence and added to the prestige of the Society.
Fifty years after the
Society's extension into New England, only four additional chapters had been
founded: Alpha of New Hampshire at Dartmouth in 1787; Alpha of New York at Union
in 1817; Alpha of Maine at Bowdoin in 1825; and Alpha of Rhode Island at Brown in
1830. In each case the new charters were granted by the concurrent action of the
Alphas already chartered Fifteen additional chapters were established in the
succeeding 30 years. By 1883 at the time of the founding of the United Chapters
of Phi Beta Kappa, which provided a unified organization for the Society, 25
chapters had been chartered, although not all were active, and about 14,000
persons had been elected to membership.
Changes in Policy
Three important changes marked the first century of Phi Beta Kappa's history. The
anti-Masonic agitation of the 1820s led to much discussion at Dartmouth,
Harvard, and Yale of the Phi Beta Kappa oath. In 1831 the Alpha at Harvard, under
the leadership of Edward Everett, Joseph Story, and John Quincy Adams, removed
the requirement of secrecy. Although most of the other branches retained this
formal obligation for many years, the Harvard action probably saved the Society
from further open criticism, as well as from rivalry with the social fraternities
that made their appearance at about that time. With the organization of the
United Chapters in 1883, the last vestiges of secrecy disappeared. A second
change was more fundamental. Originally Phi Beta Kappa had been a society of
congenial spirits, similar in its basis of membership to the present-day
fraternity, and in the character of its meetings to a debating or literary club.
As time passed it tended more and more to become an "honor" society, existing to
recognize and foster excellence in liberal learning at the undergraduate level.
Another development was the admission of women. The Alpha at the University of
Vermont, finding in 1875 that two women had met the scholastic requirements,
admitted them to membership. The following year, four women were elected by the
Gamma of Connecticut at Wesleyan. Although this step, taken when Phi Beta Kappa
was just attaining its centenary, was regarded in some quarters as
revolutionary, it aroused no formal protest. A few years later, when a general
constitution and bylaws were adopted, the right of women to membership was
accepted without question.
The United Chapters
In 1881 there were only 20 active chapters -- all, with the exception of three in
Ohio, situated east of the Alleghenies and north of the Mason-Dixon line. At the
centennial celebration of the Alpha of Massachusetts on June 30 of that year, to
which the other chapters had been invited to send representatives, a proposal was
made by the delegate from Hobart, a member at Harvard, to effect a closer union.
After due consideration then and in later meetings, a constitution was prepared,
adopted, and ratified, and on September 5, 1883, the first National Council of
the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa began its sessions. A revision of the
constitution in 1937 strengthened this union of the chapters, at the same time
safeguarding the rights and liberties of the individual chapters. In the years
since the organization of the United Chapters, the number of chapters has
increased from 25 to 249, and the membership from 14,000 to more than 600,000. In
1900, when the first general catalogue was published, the living membership was
about 10,500. It is now more than 500,000.
Every three years, the Society's governing body considers applications from
institutions desiring to establish chapters, and a handful of the best are
usually approved at each triennial Council.
The Phi Beta Kappa Society
As the organization acquired a truly national character and some of its members
created off-campus Phi Beta Kappa associations to foster the Society's
educational mission, it became increasingly clear that the term "United Chapters"
no longer described the scope of Phi Beta Kappa's programs. In 1988 the
delegates assembled at the 35th Council voted to change the organization's name
to "The Phi Beta Kappa Society." This more inclusive designation, which also has
historical significance as the original name of the Society, now appears on all
of the organization's legal documents and publications.
Among the first 50 members of the Society were leaders in the American
Revolution, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1788, and members of
the Continential Congress and the U.S. Congress. Two of the founders became U.S.
senators, and two became members of the Supreme Court, Chief Jusfice John
Marshall and Bushrod Washington. Sixteen U.S. presidents are counted among the
membership. Six were elected as undergraduates (John Quincy Adams, Chester A.
Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, George Bush, and Bill Clinton);
the rest of the 16 were elected as alumni or honorary members. Eleanor Roosevelt,
elected to honorary membership in 1941, is the only Phi Beta Kappa first lady.
Among other notables of American history who
have earned the coveted key are Alexander Graham Bell, Cyrus McCormick, Charles
Evans Hughes, Pearl Buck, Henry W. Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James,
Helen Keller, Helen Wills Moody, Paul Robeson, George Santayana, William Henry
Seward, Booker T. Washington, Daniel Webster, and Eli Whitney.
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