(The following article first was published in the Jan. 11, 1982, issue of PAW.)
Any suggestion that fraternities be reintroduced at Old Nassau conjures up in the minds of most Princetonians forebodings of “Animal Houses” further fragmenting loyalties that are already divided among classes, eating clubs, residential colleges, dormitories, athletic teams, and other extracurricular activities. “Fraternities are not Princeton,” hooted one alumnus at the idea. Nonetheless, it can be argued that Princeton – not William and Mary, where Phi Beta Kappa was founded in I 776 – was the true birthplace of the Greek-letter societies that spread to most American college campuses during the 19th century. This is so despite the fact that Princeton’s fraternities, with one exception, were childless and reached their zenith without residential frat houses.
For more than a century and a half, from the 1760s up to World War I, extracurricular life at Princeton centered around the American Whig Society, organized on June 24, 1769, by former members of the Plain Dealing Club, including James Madison 1771; and the American Cliosophic Society, organized on June 8, 1770, by former members of the Well Meaning Club, including four who later were delegates to the Constitutional Convention. The two parent groups, which had their roots in the Class of 1765, had been suppressed by the faculty and trustees, evidently because of excesses stemming from their intense rivalry. As the Rev. Nathan Perkins 1770 reportedly said, “The object of the Well Meaning was to collect the first young men in point of character and scholarship as its members. But the object of the Plain Dealing was to outnumber the Well Meaning.”
Neither of the new organizations, collectively known and eventually merged as “the Halls,” started solely as a debating or literary society. In fact, Whig's historian, Jacob N. Beam 1896, concluded, “It seems doubtful … whether Whig was a literary society when she began.” Jonathan Dayton 1776 wrote in 1799 that Clio’s primary purposes were “to promote improvement, to inspire emulation, and to cultivate brotherly affection.” In an address commemorating Whig's centennial, Richard S. Field 1821 observed, “A veil of secrecy is thrown around [the Halls’] transactions – just enough to impart to them an interest and a charm, better felt than described, and which serves at the same time as a sacred tie of fellowship, a mysterious bond of union.”
The example of the Halls soon led to the formation of similar literary and debating societies at other campuses. It also paved the way for a third secret society, known as the Princeton Order of Chi Phi, which was founded on Dec. 24, 1824, by Robert Baird, then a tutor at the college, in association with other faculty members and students of both Princeton and the Princeton Theological Seminary. Chi Phi ceased to be active the following year, and Princeton's next Greek-letter fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, did not arrive until 1843. But in 1854, when President John Maclean Jr. 1816 was launching his campaign to ban fraternities from the college, his nephew and namesake in the Class of 1858 found among his papers the old constitution, minute book, and ritual of the Chi Phi Society of 1824. With these as a guide, the younger Maclean united with Charles Smith DeGraw 1857 and Gustave W. Mayer 1857 in reviving Chi Phi at Princeton. Mayer went onto found a second chapter at Franklin and Marshall College, one that exists to this day, along with 50-odd other chapters from coast to coast.
By some accounts, Princeton Reunions began as Halls Reunions, when alumni returned to witness the debating and oratorical performances of the graduating seniors at their Commencement exercises. Beam noted, “Inter-Hall rivalry [was] the oldest, most prominent, and most lasting characteristic of Whig and Clio down to the time of the World War. Every [classroom] performance could be looked upon as a preliminary, a training for an open contest with Clio. Under penalty of a fine, members were forbidden to speak a piece on the College stage without having rehearsed it in Hall and received Hall’s criticism.” Furthermore, the Halls had passwords, robes, insignia, initiation ceremonies, and other rituals. In short, they functioned as fraternities.
Before Maclean’s presidency, reports Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker in Princeton 1746-1896, “The literary societies had served as social clubs, binding their members together in friendship and guarding their secrets jealously. But with the increase of numbers in mid-century, many students formed smaller and more intimate circles within or even beyond the bonds of Whig and Clio. The soil was thus prepared for the [Greek-letter] fraternities.”
According to Baird’s Manual of American College Fraternities, Princeton’s Beta Theta Pi chapter (1843-45) was initially composed of five members: one Whig, one Clio, two unaffiliated undergraduates, and one seminarian. Then came Delta Kappa Epsilon (1845-57), Zeta Psi (1850-82), Chi Psi (1851-57), Delta Psi (also known as St. Anthony's Hall, 1851-52), Kappa Alpha Society (1852-56), Phi Kappa Sigma (1853-81), Sigma Phi (1853-58), Delta Phi (1854-77), Theta Delta Chi (1863-67), Sigma Chi (1869-82), Delta Upsilon (187071), and Alpha Sigma Chi (1876-79).
How many Princetonians belonged to chapters of these and other fraternities at other nearby colleges will never be known. Wertenbaker describes the Princeton chapters as “very small, seldom including more than ten men, and the members met at not very frequent intervals in their bedrooms.” Even so, Maclean proclaimed his fear that the fraternities would “undermine college discipline and prove injurious to the literary societies.” What weight a third, undisclosed reason played we can only surmise: Maclean had loaned money to the Halls for the construction of the buildings they occupied in 1838 (smaller, wooden versions of the marble temples built in 1893). In any event, at Maclean’s urging, the faculty and trustees passed resolutions in 1855 requiring all entering students to take a solemn pledge not to join any secret society, Whig and Clio excepted. Wertenbaker recounts: “At the opening of college Maclean announced to the assembled student body that he had been instructed by the trustees to dismiss anyone known to be a member. The youthful ‘Greeks’ were deeply aroused. In many a midnight conclave they discussed the prohibition, debating whether it was dishonorable to break a forced pledge, and meditating open rebellion. Both Whig and Clio protested to the trustees that the fraternities had not tended to wean their members from the two societies but, on the contrary, had greatly mitigated sectional animosities within their ranks.”
In doing the research for his book on The First Hundred Years of the Ivy Club, 1879-1979, Frederic C. Rich ’77 was astonished to discover that three of the 15 founders were members of Zeta Psi, as was one man in Ivy’s ’86 section and two in 1887. “It is likely,” he notes, “that others of the founders were secretly involved with other struggling underground chapters.” He explains: “Despite the attacks led by Maclean and the pledge required since 1855, chapters of national fraternities flourished, nominally underground, in Princeton. At a time when ‘honor’ was also a big issue, the students rationalized that a forced pledge was not binding. Much of the rhetoric focused on the important right of a boy to enter his father’s college ‘and there unite with his father’s fraternity.” The biggest support for the fraternities came from their alumni, and their strategy, though not subtle, [was] effective for years. Every year immediately before opening the college, alumni would come to Princeton to induce new students, many the “flower of the flock” – sons of trustees and sons of the emerging social and financial elites of New York and Philadelphia – to join the national organization they supported.”
For all of Maclean’s efforts to stamp out the secret societies, it was estimated at the end of his presidency that no fewer than 100 students still belonged. Thus it fell to his Scottish-born and fellow Presbyterian clergyman successor, James McCosh, to complete the purge. McCosh renewed the vigorous enforcement of the “oath” exacted from entering undergraduates, which went as follows: “We, the undersigned, do individually for ourselves promise, without any mental reservation, that we will have no connection whatever with any secret society, nor be present at the meetings of any secret society in this or any other College so long as we are members of the College of New Jersey; it being understood that this promise has no reference to the American Whig and Cliosophic Societies. We also declare that we regard ourselves bound to keep this promise, and on no account whatever to violate it.”
With the rise of the eating clubs in the late 19th century, the last of the Greek-letter fraternities fell by the wayside. Even so, the above pledge was required of all students until World War II. Today, according to the university’s general counsel, Thomas H. Wright Jr. ’62, there is no longer any legal basis for taking disciplinary action against undergraduates who unite with national college fraternities (the term is used here to include those that are now coed as well as sororities). Princeton does have a policy against organizations operating clandestinely on campus, however, so the administration would want to be kept in informed of fraternity affiliations. Otherwise, says Wright (whose brother is a Zete), “We don’t try to regulate the lives of students.”
But would the return of fraternities to Princeton, which will soon establish a system of residential colleges for all underclassmen – a variant of the “Quad Plan” espoused by Woodrow Wilson 1879 – be desirable or even feasible? The President’s father, Joseph R. Wilson, would have thought so. In an 1843 letter he specifically mentions progress in creating the second Greek-letter fraternity at Princeton and exclaims: “We … look forward with anxiety to the time when action shall be our watchword and new effects from this now secret cause shall begin to unfold themselves in the world, surprising but gratifying good men, whose prayers must be with us. It is a sacred cause, that in which we are engaged, and well does it deserve a union of the firm feelings of the heart with the high energies of the mind to accomplish it.”
More important, the experience of Yale after 40 years of running its residential college system proves that though frat-house living went into decline, the secret societies and fraternities-which meet as often as twice weekly in their own “tombs” or more informally as “undergrounds” – continue as important centers of congeniality, personal growth, and intellectual inquiry.
Every president of Yale who was himself an Eli has belonged to one of these groups, with none other than A. Bartlett Giamatti (Y’60) authoring Scroll and Key’s most recent history. And while Princeton’s Triangle Club shows have long poked fun at Skull and Bones (founded 1832) – whose members are reportedly supposed to leave the room whenever its name is mentioned – the Yale secret-society format is ascertainable: Typically, after dinner together on Sunday evening, a faculty member or alumnus or invited public figure discourses on a subject of interest, followed by a question-and-answer period. Then, on a week night, an hour or two is set aside for each of the 15 or so undergraduate members, in turn, to present a paper or talk on a topical or autobiographical subject of his own choosing and to be questioned by his peers.
Jack L. Anson, executive director of the National Interfraternity Conference, points out that in the early days of Phi Delta Theta (founded 1848) to facilitate such small group exchanges it was that fraternity’s policy to start a second chapter on the same campus whenever membership exceeded 12. Writing to the presiding chapter of Beta Theta Pi on Jan. 25, 1844, the secretary of the Princeton chapter, W.V. Scott, reported, “Our regular meeting on the first Thursday of every month; exercises, two essays each meeting, and criticism thereon.”
Today the need persists beyond the classroom for congenial societies within which each individual’s analysis may be tested and validated or modified in the crucible of others’ experience and logic. As President Bowen, secretary and rush chairman of his Sigma Chi chapter at Denison during his undergraduate days, noted in staking out “a climate for learning”: “Paying more than lip service to the value of learning from each other is indispensable to anyone who takes education and scholarship seriously. A former teacher of mine was wont to remind his graduate students that ‘there is no limit to the nonsense one can propound if he thinks too long alone,’ or, I’m sure he would have added, ‘if he thinks only in the company of others who share the same views.’ ”
A freshman is entitled at once to not only the friendship but also the social and academic encouragement of upperclassmen which membership in a fraternity affords. Princeton undergraduates drawn from all four classes and all walks of campus life, in turn, would benefit from contact not only with the idealism embodied in their rituals but also the hospitality of their chapters scattered across the United States and Canada.
With flexibility on the part of national fraternity officials – who should sigh with relief that Princeton would not be asking them to bankroll any new frat houses – the restoration of fraternities to the Princeton campus could be accomplished in a variety of nonexclusive ways: The practice discontinued in the 1890s of individual Princetonians joining chapters at Rutgers, Pennsylvania, and Columbia could be resumed. Neighboring undergraduate Greeks could colonize interested students into campus groups meeting in their rooms or, say, Whig Hall or the eating clubs. Or the Masonic Lodge on Nassau Street, which dates back to 1765 and probably inspired the initiation ceremonies of Whig and Clio, might be prevailed upon to open its doors. The 1979 Report of the Committee on Undergraduate Residential Life came to the conclusion that “in addition to establishing general opportunities and programs for all students, we believe that specific groups of students from all four classes who have strong interests in common must continue to be able to find appropriate means of advice and support within the university, and effective ways of pursuing their special concerns.” The residential colleges and eating clubs are not sufficient to accomplish this. At least for some students, fraternities could provide a valuable environment now absent from the Princeton scene. In furtherance of the return of four-year Greek-letter societies to Princeton, a group of interested undergraduates formed an exploratory “Council for Fraternities” last June. It should be given every encouragement.