Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities (1879)/Phi Beta Kappa

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This society, which has outlived its activity and almost its usefulness, was originally a secret literary society, and was founded at the College of William and Mary,in 1776. Tradition relates that Thomas Jefferson was the founder, but like all such stories it cannot be proven. Another story says that it was of Masonic origin and had its beginning in a lodge in Williamsburg; this is equally without proof. In a work published in London, 1876, professing to treat of “secret societies,” but in which no mention is made of the college fraternities, it says, "Phi Beta Kappa, a branch of the Bavarian Illuminati, is supposed to have been established in America about the close of the last century, endowed with the above grotesque title.” (!)

Whatever be its origin, it is known to have been a society admitting seniors to membership, and which held weekly meetings for the purpose of promoting literary culture. The lodge was termed the “Alpha of Virginia.” In 1779, Mr. Elisha Parmele, who had studied at both Yale and Harvard, visited Virginia, and becoming a member of the new society, conceived the idea of establishing branches at the two Northern colleges above named. Accordingly charters were granted, and in December, 1779, were established the “Alpha of Connecticut,” at Yale, and the “Alpha of Massachusetts Bay,” at Harvard.

The meetings of the parent Alpha were held in the Raleigh tavern, at Williamsburg, until, in 1781, the war put an end to tbe college exercises. The original charter and minute-book of the Alpha are now in the possession of tbe State Historical Society of Virginia. In establishing other “Alphas” the right to do so had been reserved by the original chapter. In 1787 Yale and Harvard united in founding the Alpha of New Hampshire, at Dartmouth, as the old Alpha being dead could no longer exercise its functions.

The Alphas had power to grant charters each within its own State.

The proceedings of the society were always stiff and formal, and lacked vitality, although elections were eagerly sought by the col1ege students, as it was in a measure a confirmation of their rank. In 1826 the secrecy which surrounded the order was abandoned, and its existence since has been merely nominal; the honor men and first third of, each class receiving elections to Phi Beta Kappa as a matter of course. The badge of the fraternity is now simply a "reward of merit," and indicates that the wearer ranked high on the faculty's books.

The chapters which have been chartered so far as known are as follow:

  1. Virginia Alpha, William and Mary College.
  2. Connecticut Alpha, Yale College.
  3. Connecticut Beta, Trinity College.
  4. Connecticut. Gamma, Wesleyan University.
  5. Massachusetts Alpha, Harvard College.
  6. Massachusetts Beta, Amherst College.
  7. Rhode Island Alpha, Brown University.
  8. Vermont Alpha, Vermont University.
  9. Vermont Beta, Middlebury College.
  10. New York Alpha, Union College.
  11. New York Beta, New York Universit.y.
  12. New York Gamma, New York City College.
  13. New York Delta, Columbia College.
  14. New York Epsilon, Hamilton College.
  15. New York Zeta, Hobart College.
  16. Ohio Alpha, Western Reserve. College.
  17. Ohio Beta, Kenyon College.
  18. Ohio Gamma, Marietta College.
  19. Maine Alpha, Bowdoin College.
  20. New Jersey Alpha, Rutgers College.
  21. New Hampshire Alpha, Dartmouth College.
  22. Alabama Alpha, Alabama University.

Meetings of the members are still held about commencement time, and every winter banquets are partaken of in the larger cities. At these latter gatherings papers upon education and kindred topics are presented, and usually these are the only signs of life the old fraternity exhibits.

The badge is a rectangular watch-key of gold, on one side of which are engraved the letters "Φ Β Κ" and a hand pointing to several stars. On the reverse is the owner's name and “S. P. 1776.” The total membership must now be between 6000 and 7000.