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.

Famous Members

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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