Philoclean Society of Rutgers College

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College literary societies played important social, intellectual, and educational roles in nineteenth century higher learning. Through the literary societies students developed the skills of rhetoric and statesmanship that helped more fully utilize the classical education being taught in college classrooms. Rhetorical skills were honed through the writing of essays, orations before the society, and participation in debates. The societies also sought to increase their members exposure to literature by establishing private libraries that were often more diverse than that of the college. Society libraries contained a wide range of essays, novels, poetry in such areas as literature, philosophy, science, and religion. Correspondence soliciting honorary membership with intellectual, political, and religious leaders further fostered the sense of belonging to the world of learning and power. Another important function of the literary societies was to develop leadership skills through self government. Literary societies had their own constitutions and by-laws which governed the working of the society and demanded hard work and discipline from its members. Literary societies were encouraged by both faculty and college administrators, who recognized their importance to a well rounded and truly effective college education. Though providing encouragement, most colleges offered little in the way of financial assistance. Most societies were able to support themselves through membership dues, fines, and donations from alumnae and honorary members.

Most of the colonial colleges, including Queen's College, developed literary societies in the 18th century. The heyday of literary societies came in the first half of the 19th century with a profusion of new colleges springing up across the nation, and with them, literary societies, usually two rival societies at each institution. During this period, no self-respecting student would consider not belonging to one of the literary societies. The increasing popularity of fraternities and intercollegiate sports in the latter half of the century signaled a change in dynamics of extracurricular campus life, moving from an era dominated by one activity to another where multiple activities coexisted and flourished. Eventually fraternities would eclipse literary societies as the dominant social forces on campus, but for most of the second half of the century both would serve important functions and actively coexist.

The first literary societies at Rutgers were the Athenian and Polemical Societies of Queen's College. The Polemical Society is known only through references in letters written to and from John Bogart, a graduate of Queen's College and tutor during the Revolutionary War. Minutes of the Athenian Society survive as "Transactions of the Athenian Society, 1776-1786," available in the University Archives. The instability of the college itself at that time, which was forced to close a number of times, affected the continuance of the literary societies. With the college opening it doors again at the turn of the century the Calleopean Society was formed around 1810, and quickly established a library of over 200 books. However, the society did not last long and the college itself fell on hard times and was again forced to close. The reopening of Queen's College as Rutgers College in 1825 proved to be auspicious for the college, beginning a span of uninterrupted education that continues to this day. That first term in 1825 immediately heralded the founding of the Philoclean and Peithessophian literary societies that would feature prominently in the life of the college for the next 70 years.

The Philoclean Society of Rutgers College was founded December 8th, 1825 under the auspices of William Craig Brownlee, a professor of Greek and Roman languages. The name "Philoclean" is taken from the Greek meaning "glory loving" and is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable. The rival Peithessophian Society had been started just weeks before, enlisting the entire senior class as charter members. Thus, Philoclean's charter membership was of necessity drawn from the junior and sophomore classes, marking the beginning of the well-matched rivalry that would last for the duration of the two societies' existence. Throughout their history, the societies would affectionately be referred to as "Philo" and "Peitho" by students and alumni. Professor Brownlee drew up the original constitution, but in 1828 and again in 1831 the students revised the constitution to modernize his arcane wording and clarify the goals and activities of the society. The constitution as adopted in 1831 served the society, with amendments and revisions, through the 1880's.

The society performed three clearly defined functions. The first was to improve the members skills in declamation, composition, and debate through compulsory participation by all members in one of these areas at the weekly meeting. The second was to provide access to literature through the society's lending library. Members diligently paid dues each semester and showed great enterprise in procuring donations to build and maintain a library that equaled the collection of Rutgers College in size and boasted considerably more diversity. The third function of the society was to administer and participate in, jointly with the Peithessophian Society, two of the most important annual events on campus. These were the Junior Exhibition and the Commencement week oration. The Junior Exhibition started in 1826 and thereafter became a permanent part of Rutgers College life until 1923. The event was held the night before commencement, often in a local church, and attracted a large and sometimes raucous crowd that often included townsfolk. Each society selected four juniors to speak at the event, putting the reputation of the society on the line. Particularly in the era before intercollegiate sports, the Junior Exhibition was a source of great excitement and intense rivalry. Additionally, each society was responsible for securing a commencement week speaker on alternate years. The speaker might be a distinguished alumnus or well know public figure. The more notable of these commencement addresses were printed and sold by the sponsoring society. It should be noted that during the 19th century, commencement was an important event, often attracting spectators from the town of New Brunswick and beyond.

Another important activity of the society was to the solicitation of literary, religious, and scientific leaders of the day to become Honorary members of the society. This solicitation was serious business and a source of great rivalry between the societies. No one could be an honorary member of both the Philoclean and the Peithessophian societies. Honorary members were a valuable asset to the society in terms of prestige, as possible future orators, and as potential donors of money or books. In fact, it was fairly routine that upon a persons acceptance of honorary membership, the society would very soon follow up with a request that they speak before the two societies at commencement.

The meetings of Philoclean were held each week on Fridays behind closed doors, the proceedings of which were to be kept secret at all costs. Initially the society met in a room in Old Queens. In 1830, a new grammar school, known today as Alexander Johnston Hall, was built on the corner of College Avenue and Somerset Street and the college gave the second floor over to the two literary societies, providing each with a room to hold meetings and house their libraries. Gentlemanly conduct was required at meetings, any breech of which would result in fines and/or reprimands. The fines, along with semester membership dues, kept the society solvent. Members showed their allegiance to the society by wearing a badge and/or the blue society ribbon. The society badge was a brass six pointed star with rounded points inscribed with a Phi, the society motto, the name of the member, and date of admittance. In later years the medal was replaced by the pin format.

The 1830's saw the publication of a number of addresses given by well known speakers before joint meetings of the societies. Those published and sponsored by the Philoclean Society include those of Theodore Frelinghuysen in 1832, John D. Ogilby in 1833, and Joseph P. Bradley in 1849. Perhaps the most popular address was the one given by William Wirt in 1830, which ran through several editions and was eventually translated into several foreign languages. These publications were meant to turn a profit but did not always sell well. A notable rift with faculty started in the 1835-36 academic year with a satirical sketch entitled the "Albany Regency." This sketch sufficiently enraged the society members satirized for them to seek faculty intervention. This in turn angered other members of the society who were concerned about details of their meetings being leaked to the faculty and promptly passed a resolution prohibiting members from divulging information to the faculty. The faculty and president of Rutgers College took exception, demanding the resolutions be rescinded. Philoclean member and future Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley responded with a series of manifestos and arguments pleading the society's case. Future U.S. Senator Frederick T. Frelinghuysen aided in Philo's defense. Two months later, the unresolved issue was brought before the Board of Trustees. Not surprisingly, the Board decided in favor of the faculty and the society begrudgingly rescinded their resolutions.

The next decade saw other notable political squabbles. The year 1841 brought a bitter dispute between the two societies, both claiming Professor John Proudfit as a member of the society. The Philoclean Society maintained that a tradition of professorial lineage was in place at the college. Proudfit, in filling the post vacated by Philoclean Professors John De Witt and William Brownlee, could only be a member of that society. In 1845 the Committee of Inquiry charged Peithessophian members with forcibly extracting secrets from a Philoclean member. A lengthy trial was held, but the guilt of those Peithessophians involved could not be established. Transcriptions of the testimony can be found in Committee of Inquiry records.

The same year 1845 also marked the first appearance of a secret society at Rutgers, the Delta Phi fraternity. The fraternity was seen as a threat to the society, not necessarily as a competitor, but in the ability of fraternity members to control through holding high office. This issue in 1846 brought about the resignation from the society of six members of Delta Phi. The Society refused to honor the resignation and instead threatened the six with permanent expulsion from the society. Ultimately, the six members were readmitted and the constitution amended to limit the number of fraternity members allowable at one time.

In 1848 Van Nest Hall was completed, in part, with money raised by both literary societies, providing each with sumptuous meeting rooms. The new hall brought added prestige and helped differentiate the literary societies from the fraternities, which at that time did not have permanent lodgings and were not allowed to meet on campus. Membership in either group was not exclusive, and many students were proud members of both a literary society and a fraternity. The growth of fraternities at Rutgers was relatively slow, the number rising from two in 1846 to seven in 1879. If the declining importance of literary societies was linked to growing popularity of fraternities, it was a gradual process.

The 1850's appear to be the last decade of great activity in the letter writing campaigns seeking honorary members. Though the years were not marked with great scandals as in the previous decades, internal squabbles continued. For instance, in 1855 a member of Philo was accused by the Committee of Inquiry of revealing secrets to the Peithessophian Society. In 1858 the two societies jointly edited a substantial literary publication, the Rutgers College Quarterly. This periodical appeared monthly until 1861, when publication ceased with the outbreak of the Civil War. The Society and Rutgers were able to continue, albeit with decreased rolls, during the war years.

In 1867, both societies sought to have a gate put in by Van Nest Hall to afford easier access to College Avenue. When college officials proved slow to react, a mob tore down the offending fence. During the 1860's and 1870's, interest in athletics broadened; records from this time period indicate that society members were starting to incorporate such non-literary pursuits among the groups activities. Society communications from 1873 reveal Philo challenging Peitho to a number of football and baseball games. William H. S. Demarest, future president of Rutgers College, gave his inaugural address as president of Philoclean Society in 1882. The 1880's appear to be a period of decline for the society. The rigorous requirements in debate and oratory demanded of every member in earlier times were considerable relaxed by this time. One of the few remaining activities of the society was electing orators for the Junior Exhibition. The production and preservation of society documents for the most part drops off completely by mid-decade. At some point during this period the Philoclean library was integrated into the Rutgers College library; the last recorded borrower in the Librarian's records is in 1889.

By 1890 the society had all but disappeared. In an inaugural address from 1890, the incoming president warned that "Philo is on it's last legs." A reorganized constitution was adopted in 1894, but the new constitution could not save the faltering society. The death blow was their removal, along with the Peithessophian Society, from the Junior Exhibition election process in 1894, an activity for which the societies had participated for close to 70 years. The 1898 Scarlet Letter, the student's yearbook, is the last year to contain a membership list of the original Philoclean Society. However, other sources indicate that activity may have ceased at least two years earlier. Activities of the rival Peithessophian Society also stopped at that time.

The College Congress, formed in 1899, was meant to fill the gap left by the defunct literary societies but only lasted 2-3 years. Rutgers was then without a literary society until the winter of 1907/08 when a new organization called simply the Literary Society of Rutgers College was formed. In June of 1909 this society decided to take on the proud name of one of the old societies and chose "Philoclean." The new society had a focus that differed from the original. The meetings, which were held in the Philosophy library, served as a forum to discuss literature, with less consistent attention to oration and debate. Current books, periodicals, and plays, especially those coming out of New York City, were common topics. Often a faculty member would speak at the meetings. Although developing oratorical and debating skills were no longer a top priority, the society did participate in intersociety debates.

The new Philoclean Society appeared to be less insular than the original, becoming involved in outside activities. The society founded and administered the Interscholastic Debating League for secondary schools in 1914, organized the Philalethean Literary Society at the New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass College) in 1920, and launched the "Chanticleer" humor magazine in the mid-twenties. These enterprises were successful enough to later stand on their own. The Interscholastic Debating League, in particular, lasted many years and involved over one hundred secondary schools in three states. In the mid-twenties the society boasted a large membership, but by the beginning of the next decade membership declined significantly. In 1932, with student interests changing, the remains of the Peithessophian, which had reformed in 1923, and the Philoclean societies combined to form the debate-oriented Philosophical Society, ending over a century of glory for the Philoclean name.

Organization and Structure of the Philoclean Literary Society

The form, content, and quantity of the records are closely linked to the society's organizational structure. The constitution clearly outlines the activities of the society and the duties of the officers. Each officer and standing committee was responsible for producing or maintaining specific documents. Knowing which office produced a document and for what purpose enables the researchers of the collection to better determine the type of document to consult for a given situation. The constitution states that the object of the society was "the improvement of its members in declamation, composition, and debate." This was carried out weekly through the practice of these skills at each society meeting. The culmination of these objectives can be seen as the yearly Junior Exhibition/Commencement week and contact with honorary members. The listing of officers and duties and the types of membership below, taken from the constitution adopted 1831 and revised to 1844, will help clarify how the society set about achieving these goals. A student could serve more than one term for any of the offices.

Officers of the Philoclean Society

1. President. Upon election the President delivered a written address before the society. He presided over meetings, maintained order, imposed fines, decided questions of order, determined merit of performed exercises and debates, conducted votes, and appointed all non-standing committees. The President informed Honorary Members of their election to the society by letter. Term: 4 meetings.

2. Vice President. Performed all duties of the President when absent. "Ex officio" chair of the Committee of Inquiry. Term: 4 meetings.

3. Secretary. Kept and called roll, noting and reporting delinquents; assisted in votes by ballot; kept and read minutes; conducted correspondence of the society. Term: 4 meetings.

4. Recording Secretary. Recorded the minutes, upon acceptance, into a permanent ledger or book, transcribed additions and amendments to the constitution into a book, and registered reports of committees and officers (except those from the committee of Inquiry). Term: 4 meetings.

5. Reader. A member of the senior class, read and criticized any anonymous papers given to the Reader for that purpose. Term: 4 meetings.

6. Recorder. Recorded in a ledger the names of Honorary, Graduate, Graduate Elect, and Active members. Responsible for arrangement and safety of all letters, papers, and miscellaneous documents that belonged to the society. Term: 1 semester.

7. Treasurer. Collected all monies due to the society, kept a regular account of society's funds; obtained materials and services for the convenience of the society and the maintenance of Philo Hall. Submitted a written report on the state of the society's funds at the end of the term. Term: 1 semester.

8. Librarian. Responsible for all books belonging to the society; discharged and received books, kept a record of the borrowers, maintained catalog of books, and provided a written report on the state of the library at term's expiration. Term: 1 semester.

Standing Committees of the Society

Committee of Criticism. Provided written criticism of compositions and verbal criticism of declamations. 4 members serving for 4 meetings.

Committee of Inquiry. Protected the interests of the society; the committee watched for violations of the constitution and examined the books and reports of the officers. The committee also held monthly meetings to prepare reports on the state of Society, hear appeals for fines imposed by the president, and deal with any other matters deemed important. 4 members serving for 1 semester.

Committee on Election. Selected candidates for election to the society (including members of the seminary). 3 members serving for 1 semester

Types of Membership

Active. Any student of Rutgers College duly elected by the society, for the duration of that students enrollment at Rutgers.

Graduate. Active members who have both graduated and fulfilled their obligations to the society.

Graduate Elect. Active members who leave college before graduating, graduates of other colleges, or others deemed worthy by the society.

Honorary. Any individual deemed worthy by the society on the basis of literary or scientific attainment could be elected.

From the guide to the Inventory to the Records of the Philoclean Society of Rutgers College, 1825-1927, (Rutgers University Libraries. Special Collections and University Archives.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Philoclean Society of Rutgers College. Records, 1825-1927 Rutgers University Libraries. Special Collections and University Archives.
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
correspondedWith Adams, John Quincy, 1767-1848 person
associatedWith Barnard, Daniel D. (Daniel Dewey), 1797-1861 person
associatedWith Bradley, Joseph P., 1813-1892 person
associatedWith Brown, David Paul, 1795-1892 person
associatedWith Brown, George William, 1812-1890 person
associatedWith Brownlee, W. C. (William Craig), 1784-1860 person
correspondedWith Bryant, William Cullen, 1794-1878 person
correspondedWith Buchanan, James, 1791-1868 person
correspondedWith Cooper, James Fenimore, 1789-1851 person
associatedWith Demarest, William H. S. (William Henry Steele), 1863-1956 person
associatedWith Dwight, Theodore W. (Theodore William), 1822-1892 person
correspondedWith Edison, Thomas A. (Thomas Alva), 1847-1931 person
associatedWith Everett, Edward, 1794-1865 person
associatedWith Frelinghuysen, Frederick T. (Frederick Theodore), 1817-1885 person
associatedWith Frelinghuysen, Theodore, d1787-1862. person
associatedWith Griffis, William Elliot, 1843-1928 person
correspondedWith Halleck, Fitz-Greene, 1790-1867 person
correspondedWith Irving, Washington, 1783-1859 person
correspondedWith Jackson, Andrew, 1767-1845 person
correspondedWith Mann, Horace, 1796-1859 person
correspondedWith Murray, David, 1830-1905 person
associatedWith Nairne, Charles Murray. person
associatedWith Ogilby, John D. person
associatedWith Peithessophian Society (Rutgers College). corporateBody
associatedWith Philoclean Society (Rutgers College) corporateBody
associatedWith Romeyn, Theodore person
associatedWith Rutgers College corporateBody
associatedWith Rutgers University corporateBody
associatedWith Sergeant, John, 1779-1852 person
correspondedWith Seward, William Henry, 1801-1872 person
correspondedWith Taylor, Zachary, 1784-1850 person
correspondedWith Thackeray, W. M. (William Makepeace), 1811-1863 person
correspondedWith Tyler, John, 1790-1862 person
correspondedWith Webster, Daniel, 1782-1852 person
correspondedWith Webster, Noah, 1758-1843 person
correspondedWith Wise, Henry A. (Henry Alexander), 1806-1876 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Debates and debating--New Jersey--New Brunswick
College students--New Jersey--New Brunswick

Corporate Body

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