It’s mid-September and many of us are now back in the swing of the school year; we are surrounded by the sights and sounds of new and returning students, not just in class but all across campus. Among these students at many colleges and universities are the conspicuous members of fraternities wearing their T-shirts advertising last year’s luau, Greek week, or membership in a recent pledge class, or maybe the slogan that was popular on shirts when I was in grad school: “Freshman Girls. Get ‘Em While They’re Skinny.” At many schools rush season has begun and well-scrubbed fraternity hopefuls attend events designed to allow both fraternity house and hopeful to impress. All this before the pledge period begins and students appear on campus in various states of undress or performing humiliating antics in public places, all the while attending parties where the booze flows freely and the hangovers (and alcohol poisoning) are never in short supply.
As this version of Greek life is what most of us on contemporary college campuses know, allow me to take you back to fraternities’ early years in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, to a time when brothers were certainly no strangers to alcohol but when Greek life was also significantly different in many respects. Fraternities were founded in 1825 and spread quickly across the Eastern and Midwestern United States, until by the 1850s most colleges had at least one chapter of a fraternity, and often many. Unlike the current moment, when research demonstrates that at most schools fraternity brothers’ grades consistently rank below those of sorority women, unaffiliated men, and the university population more generally, antebellum fraternity men actually cared a good deal about their scholastic performance. Almost all fraternities emphasized literary pursuits and scholarship in their constitutions. Alpha Delta Phi, one of the first fraternities, explained that “Qualifications for membership in this Society shall be a good union of general scholarship and ability; a laudable emulation and diligence in the pursuit of learning.” Another early fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon (whose ranks would eventually include both Presidents Bush), declared among its goals that, “the objects of the organization are the cultivation of general literature, the advancement and encouragement of intellectual excellence.”
But it was not just in the constitutions – documents that are almost always more lofty than any society’s actions – that fraternity men spelled out their devotion to learning. A fraternity man at Middlebury College in the 1850s boasted of the freshmen his chapter had recruited: “We have five of the very first in class.” At Brown, a DKE man wrote to his brothers elsewhere that not only had the valedictorian been a member, but that “[our chapter] still occupies the front rank at Brown both in scholarship and popularity.” And at Williams College a fraternity man boasted in 1859 that, “We are acknowledged to be second to no society in point of scholarship.” They were proud of these accomplishments; it was how one fraternity chapter demonstrated its superiority to another, a far cry from the means for such evaluation today: size and luxury of house; attractiveness of members to (and success with) women; and athletic participation.
Fraternities also competed with each other in literary competitions – both debates and the reading of essays – in order to be named Junior and Senior Orators, men who then spoke at commencement for the assembled crowd of relatives and townspeople. It was perhaps the highest honor to which a college man could aspire. A brother at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania explained proudly to his brethren that, “Out of eight junior orators 4 are ??? men.” To be sure, much of this was unnecessarily competitive: fraternity against fraternity in a largely needless fight to see who would be declared the victor and thus earn the glory. But it is also worth noting that the competition was based on values that were largely in keeping with the purposes of colleges more generally: intelligence and oratorical skill.
And many fraternities, simply for the edification of their membership, also staged literary exercises at their weekly meetings. The constitution of Beta Theta Pi, founded at Miami University of Ohio in 1839, mandated that at least one member would deliver an essay at each meeting. An 1840s Amherst student read an essay entitled the “Cultivation of Social Feelings” at his Psi Upsilon chapter meeting, and at yet another, they discussed The Tempest. At their second meeting, Yale’s Psi U chapter decided to debate “the character of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham.” Different members were assigned various aspects of Pitt’s character, including his parentage, early education, personal appearance, and social character. The University of Michigan’s chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon also had a debate at each meeting, assigning political and historical essays, as well as literary productions. On December 2, 1857, the debate was over whether the Bible could be argued to sustain the practice of slavery. And, as a final demonstration of fraternities’ intellectual pursuits, the Delta Upsilon fraternity debated the status of women at a number of their meetings: “Ought women to have equal political rights with man?” “Ought women to be allowed to vote[?]” “Is the intellect of women equal to that of men?” “Ought females to be admitted to the learned professions?” “Ought the Elective Franchise to be Extended to Women?”
These questions, debated at four different colleges in New England and New York in the 1840s and ‘50s, were all decided in the negative by the assembled membership, demonstrating that despite current fraternities’ significant divergences from their antebellum incarnations, the history of college fraternities is not without certain consistencies as well, and not always those for which we might hope. The more things change…
-Nick Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps