Phi Beta Kappa, often
called the first American college Greek-letter fraternity, but more
accurately perceived as a typical undergraduate literary society,
was organized at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg,
Va., on December 5, 1776.
Stating their object to be that "of attaining
the important ends of Society," the five founders met for purposes of good
fellowship and mutual improvement. A month later these five were joined by
four others, and all severally took an oath to "endeavor to prove true, just,
and deeply attached to this our growing Fraternity." A badge, motto, constitution,
ritual of initiation, greeting, and seal were devised. Officers were elected,
and all was protected by the obligation of secrecy.
than fraternity was provided since in large part the regularly called meetings
were devoted to
literary exercises. The members, like those of other college literary
societies of the period, debated such questions as: "The cause and
origin of Society." "Whether a wise State hath any interest nearer
at Heart than the Education of Youth?" "Whether anything is more
dangerous to Civile Liberty in a Free State than a standing army
in time of Peace?" "Whether Theatrical Exhibitions are advantageous
to States or ye Contrary?" Occasional meetings for purely social
purposes were held in the Apollo Room of the original Raleigh Tavern.
The founding society at William
and Mary had been active for only four years when the approach of
Cornwallis's army caused the college to close in 1781. Prior to that,
fortunately, in 1779 the group had granted charters for the establishment
of chapters at Yale and Harvard where the Alpha of Connecticut was
created in 1780 and the Alpha of Massachusetts in 1781.
These chapters must be credited
with the survival of Phi Beta Kappa, modification of its purposes,
and development of practices governing its extension to other campuses.
(The William and Mary chapter was not reinstituted when the college
resumed operations. It reappeared in 1851 becoming inactive again
early in the Civil War. Only in 1883 did it return to active status.)
New England alphas almost immediately introduced the practices which
shaped the character of the society.
Near the close of the college year, they selected from members of
the junior class students who would constitute the "immediate society" in
the coming year. In 1782 Harvard publicly began to observe its anniversary,
and those observances soon provided a platform for intellectuals
who presented essays or read poems. Emerson's "American Scholar" is
the most famous of the antebellum series.
Expansion of the society proceeded
slowly, in part because authorization for new chapters required approval
of all extant chapters. Chapters were established at Dartmouth in
1787, at Union in 1817, at Bowdoin in 1825, and at Brown in 1830.
Only 13 thirteen other chapters were added during the next 50 years.
Three fundamental changes during
the first century of Phi Beta Kappa modified the original order,
moving it toward its modern roles. In 1831 the anti-Masonic agitation
led to abandonment of the secrecy requirement, although ritual and
electoral procedures remained privileged. Second, most chapters,
abandoning their literary society characteristics, became purely
honorary in purpose. Their business became election and initiation
of members, conduct of other chapter affairs, and often hearing a
scholarly address by some member of the society. Finally, in 1875
women were admitted to the fraternity when Vermont chapter found
that two women met the criteria for election.
In 1881 there were only 20 active
chapters - all, with the exception of three in Ohio, east of the
Alleghenies and north of the Mason-Dixon line. On the occasion of
the centennial of Alpha of Massachusetts, representatives assembled
not merely to celebrate the occasion but also to create a closer
union of the chapters. The meeting at Harvard and subsequent consultations
provided a constitution erecting the United Chapters of Phi Beta
Kappa. Ratification of the constitution was followed by a meeting
of the first National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta
Kappa, which serves still today as the legislative body of the fraternity
when it assembles in triennial meeting.
key, the emblem of the society, has evolved from a medal design adopted
at the initial meeting of
the chapter at William and Mary College in 1776. That silver medal
bore on one side the letters S P. the initials of the Latin words
Societas Philosophiae. The other side carried the initials PBK for
the Greek motto of the order. A pointing finger and three stars
symbolized the ambition of the young scholars and the distinguishing
principles of their Society: friendship, morality, and learning.
In the 19th century, a stem was added to the medal converting it
into a key, and the metal was changed to gold. The design has been
standardized and patented. Issuance of the key and membership certificates
are regulated by the United Chapters.
The organizational structure of
the national order evolved along lines comparable to those of other
honoraries and in ways somewhat comparable to those of the social
fraternities. The officers of the United Chapters include a president
and vice president elected by the council, a secretary, an associate
secretary, and a treasurer are elected by the senate. The senate,
the permanent executive body, consists of 24 members; its members
serve six-year terms with half elected at each triennial session
of the council. Chapters are organized into geographical districts;
Dickinson is part of the Middle Atlantic District.
Two affiliates of the United Chapters
have developed. In 1924 the Phi Beta Kappa Foundation was chartered
as a New York corporation to hold and administer trust funds used
to maintain services to the membership and to promote the objectives
of the society. One of its early contributions was toward erection
of the Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall at the College of William and
Mary in honor of the founders of the society and in commemoration
of the 150th anniversary of the Society.
The project was conceived by the
late Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church at Williamsburg.
It was made possible by the generosity of Mr. John D. Rockefeller,
Jr., a former senator. The Phi Beta Kappa Associates, organized in
1940, supplement the foundation as a funding source and are committed
to providing an annual income. They originally numbered 200 but are
now at 300, each of whom contributes at least $200 annually for ten
years before becoming a Life Associate and leaving his active role
to another. The associates underwrite the Associate Lectureship Program
and aid with other projects.
chapter is the basic unit of Phi Beta Kappa; at present there are
chapters at 237 institutions
of higher learning. In 1887, members of the order living in New York
City formed a graduate association which met three or four times
each year for lectures and discussion. Later, similar groups
were organized elsewhere, and the Triennial Council of 1979 encouraged
further development of these alumni units. The 50 associations offer
congenial social, intellectual, and cultural activity and have frequently
funded scholarships and otherwise encouraged liberal studies.
The Visiting Scholar Program, established
in 1956, annually invites a dozen or more scholars to undertake a
series of visits to institutions having undergraduate chapters. The
visiting scholar spends two or three days at an institution participating
in classroom lectures and discussions, meeting informally with students
and faculty, and presenting at least one address open to the entire
academic community. The purpose of the program is to contribute to
the intellectual life of the campus and chapter, thus enhancing the
chapter's local presence as well as the visibility of the national
Publications and awards developed
by the United Chapters support intellectual and organizational activity.
Serial publications include The Key Reporter, a newsletter, and The
American Scholar, a distinguished journal of opinion and literature,
which has been published since 1932. Other publications include three
volumes of Phi Beta Kappa orations, three membership directories,
The History of Phi Beta Kappa (1946) by Oscar M. Voorhees, and two
monographs by William T. Hastings, The Insignia of Phi Beta Kappa
and Phi Beta Kappa as a Secret Society.
offered by the United Chapters recognize contributions to scholarship.
Three annual awards are for
books of literary scholarship, books of criticism which demonstrate
the connection between the liberal sciences and the liberal arts,
and for works with an interdisciplinary dimension which through "interpretive
humanistic synthesis" make for a deeper understanding of man.
Medals and prizes recognize distinguished
service to the humanities; provide a fellowship for women scholars;
support a series of presentations at meetings of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, demonstrating the interdependence
of science and the humanities. The national annually designates a
Phi Beta Kappa professorship in philosophy.