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Phi Beta Kappa: The First Fraternity


All members of social fraternities and sororities learn that the origin of today's organizations is Phi Beta Kappa, now an honorary scholastic fraternity. It was conceived as a social organization in 1776. This fact leads to several questions.

How did Phi Beta Kappa originate? What were the conditions in which an organization such as this could begin? Why did the men who founded Phi Beta Kappa believe its creation was important? Were there fraternities before Phi Beta Kappa? Why do most fraternities and sororities today have Greek-letter designation?

Hopefully, these questions are answered in the following short history of fraternities.

A Brief History of Fraternities

Anything which endures usually has a unique beginning and is the invention of creative and curious minds. College social fraternities, as they exist today, began in 1776, the year America declared its independence as a nation. However, history records the existence of secret societies in ancient times, and from these roots the essence of "fraternity" had its foundation. In the Middle Ages, brotherhoods of men were created to unite those skilled in specific trades. Even though the existence of religious and trade societies is crucial to the establishment of college fraternities in their basic form, the founding of Phi Beta Kappa, the first Greek-letter college fraternity in America, was due to the desire by its members to unify students at the nine colleges in the colonies and to strengthen the intellect of the members. A resident of one colony was as much a "foreigner" to another colonist as a European is to the American today (Hale 99).

Ancient Secret Societies and Trade Unions

Fraternal groups began with the first assembly of men who gathered regularly for any reason at all; historical evidence suggests that religion was the focus of early fraternal gatherings. Ancient Egyptians had secret and mysterious religious cults; the Greeks and Romans formulated secret societies which were primarily religious in nature. Through the centuries many secret societies were formed which had rituals and initiations, primarily for the purpose of camaraderie and "rites of passage" for young men. Most religious societies came to a halt during the third and fourth centuries due to proclamations of Emperor Constantine I, who lifted the ban on Christianity in the Roman Empire, and later, Emperor Theodosius I, who completely banned all secret religious groups (Harris and Level).

During the Middle Ages, several "semisecret friendly societies" were formed by craft unions, whose membership was limited to those skilled in the particular craft. (The best known of these societies is the Freemasons.) Each union had an apprenticeship program designed to attract the most talented of the younger men. Therefore, each union selected its apprentices very carefully. Once chosen, the younger men became part of the brotherhood. Secrets were devised to identify those who were truly skilled and to discourage impostors from being employed. Although these unions restricted their members to those in the trade, in 1717, they began to disseminate to other professions, accepting those men who were notable in their fields. However, these groups had little to do with the establishment of the college fraternity, which was conceived by young college students in an environment of learning and need for social escape.


Williamsburg, in colonial Virginia, was a quiet town part of the year and a frenzied town the other part; this duality created a unique atmosphere for the college student! Williamsburg---established in 1699 as a replacement for Jamestown, which had deteriorated into an economically poor colony of shopkeepers and tavern-owners---was chosen as the capitol because of its location between the York and James Rivers. The population was close to 1,600, but quadrupled when the courts and assembly were in session.

The Capitol Building and the College of William and Mary were at either ends of the mile-long main street, the Duke of Gloucester Street, with other structures sprinkled along the main thoroughfare. A student walking from William & Mary at one end would pass Blair House, Washington's home, then Bruton Parish Church, "the center of religious life in Virginia." Chancellor George Wythe's home, used as Washington's headquarters during the battle of Yorktown," faced the Palace Green where the lavish Governor's Palace was located---the center of the official life of the new commonwealth" (Vanderbilt 5-19). Down the street was the Court House where many of the law students argued cases in moot courts. There were several coffeehouses and taverns where visitors could lodge during busy times.

Two blocks further down the main street stood the Raleigh Tavern, the place which was not only the "center of the unofficial social life of the capital [sic.]" but also the place where crucial government business took place. "In time of crisis [The Raleigh Tavern] displaced the Capitol for the political gatherings of the Colony." Near the Raleigh Tavern was the Capitol Building. "The students at William and Mary did not merely study textbooks and listen to lectures. They observed statesmanship in action and history in the making" (Hume 16-17). Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the members of Phi Beta Kappa became involved in government and the shaping of the country.

The College of William & Mary

The purpose of the College of William & Mary was expressed by its royal namesakes to be "a place of Universal Study, a perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and the good arts and sciences" ("Old William and Mary," 172-176), a truly progressive idea in education at the time.

"The educational methods of the College were as revolutionary as the political environment of the capital [sic.]." The college, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, was truly innovative. Upon completion of Grammar school at the age of fifteen, after being tested in Greek and Latin by the officials of the College, a male student was admitted to the Philosophy School, in which debating took place (Vanderbilt 11-12). This aspect of education became an essential part of Phi Beta Kappa's makeup.

Six prominent educators lectured to between sixty to seventy students. Lecturing was introduced at William & Mary in 1758; it was the first college to use this method of teaching. "The professors at William & Mary in the Revolutionary period were not only great scholars; they were great men, interested not merely in teaching but in life itself. They were not merely in touch with the problems of their day; they were busily engaged in trying to solve them. This their students knew, and they rated their professors accordingly" (Vanderbilt 13).

Student Life

The "typical" student at William & Mary was younger than his 20th-century counterpart and much better prepared. Not all of the students at William & Mary came from the gentry or wealthy families; about one-fourth were on scholarships. All students had to manage their money wisely due to strained economic conditions. Students lived at the college or in nearby homes. Since professors were not allowed to marry and had to live at the college, there was constant interchange between teacher and pupil. The education received in the classroom was enhanced by daily contact in town and at nearby taverns and general gathering places. Although the education received may have been on a more sophisticated level than today, the teenagers who attended college still had fun!

Favorite diversions from academic endeavors included horse-racing, cockfighting, gambling, and billiards, but these extracurricular activities became so distracting that the faculty finally threatened students with suspension if they participated; the edict stated that no student, regardless of age, could keep a horse, bet on a horse race, wager or play at billiards, keep or fight cocks, or gamble at cards under penalty of suspension. However, there is no record of any student being suspended or punished for infractions of these laws, so most of the students undoubtedly enjoyed these pleasures ("Old William and Mary," 174). When school was not in session, the students enjoyed the lifestyle of plantation life. "They enjoyed the best of urban and rural society."

Since Williamsburg had become the state capitol in 1699, politics became a constant focus of attention, and the many students who dined at the well-known Raleigh Tavern were frequently in the midst of diplomats and politicians. This exposure did not mean that the young men who attended William & Mary were unusually gifted in intellect or ambition, but they were of a select body of men who were exposed to the meshing of politics and education causing them to become eager in these fields. Many of the college's graduates became involved in government and the designing of America. The same is true for the members of Phi Beta Kappa.

The excitement of independence of the colonies, the progressive educational environment of Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary, and the ingenuity of the men who conceived Phi Beta Kappa are the primary factors for the society's founding, its continued strength, and its later influence for future college fraternities.

Revolutionary times are difficult for all people, but perhaps more for the young. We have all witnessed the reaction of college students to critical events which take place in our country, whether the issues concern humanitarian problems or war. We also know that it is the young who are called upon to defend their country and its principles; this naturally leads to a necessary bonding of different men with one purpose.

The Founding of Phi Beta Kappa

On Thursday evening, December 5, 1776, five young undergraduates had dinner in the Apollo Room at the Raleigh Tavern. They were members of the well-respected and very competitive Latin-named literary societies at William & Mary. On this night, these men decided to form a secret organization, one which would be different from the ones which "had lost all reputation for letters, and [were] noted only for the dissipation & conviviality of [their] members," such as the notorious Flat Hat Club which existed briefly at William & Mary about 25 years before. Phi Beta Kappa "was purely of domestic manufacture, without any connexion whatever with anything European, either English or German." Therefore, John Heath, the instigator of Phi Beta Kappa suggested the development of a fraternity which would have honorable intentions, "and in conformity with his own reputation formed and adopted the Greek phrase indicated by the initials" PBK (Hastings 83-85).

The principles of Phi Beta Kappa were "Fraternity, Morality, and Literature." A badge was designed in the shape of a square; a secret handshake was devised; a secret ritual, including an obligation, was written; a motto---"Philosophy is the guide of life"---was patterned after the name of the fraternity: Phi Beta Kappa. The men decided to use Greek letters for their society because Latin was already used in the names of existing literary societies and because Heath, who later became a Congressman from Virginia (U.S. Government Printing Office), "was the best Greek scholar in college." They recruited new members from students at the college. "They declared the society was formed for congeniality and to promote good fellowship, with "friendship as its basis and benevolence and literature as its pillars.'"

Although the concept of Phi Beta Kappa was not unique, it developed uniqueness because it became "highly selective, it was secret, and [later] it initiated a pattern of sister branches within and without the state." At first the only secrets were the mysterious letters used on the badge. (Hastings 4-5. Hastings believes that the "S" and "P" on the badge, which meant Societas Philosophiae, Philosophical Society, was the original name of the Society and that the name Phi Beta Kappa came from the motto "Philosophy the Guide of Life." The heading on the original list of members states: "A List of the members, who have been initiated into the S.P. alias Phi Beta Kappa Society." Hastings 54.) In May, 1777, two new signs were devised: "a salutation of the clasp of the hands, together with an immediate stroke across the mouth with the back of the same hand, and a return with the hand used by the saluted"; these new gestures were for the purposes of distinguishing Phi Beta Kappa members "in any foreign country or place" (Hastings 59).

Gaining Stability

At the first meeting on Sunday, January 5, 1777, four men were selected to join and they, along with the founders, were the first to obligate themselves to preserve the secrets of the fraternity.

"I, [name], do swear on the holy Evangelists of Almighty God, or otherwise as calling the Supreme Being to attest this my oath, declaring that I will, with all my possible efforts, endeavor to prove true, just, and deeply attached to this our growing fraternity; in keeping, holding, and preserving all secrets that pertain to my duty, and for the promotion and advancement of its internal welfare."

Soon after, twenty-seven governing laws were presented "as proper and most conductive to the advantage of our growing fraternity" (Smith 53-81). All concerns were expressed in these laws: dues and fines, meeting times, qualifications for new members, officers and their duties, conduct and restrictions, punishments for violations, purposes of the society, content and format of declamations, and amendments. During the five years of its existence on the campus of William & Mary, the fraternity would have to add only three additional laws, the most important one dealing with chartering new chapters. It is interesting to note that the first governing law indicates the men's strong belief in God, but acknowledges different beliefs. The rest of the governing laws are specific in nature. Later, the student members decided to admit tutors and faculty members. They also took on a philanthropic endeavor.

Phi Beta Kappa was not formed merely as a social fraternity; it was based primarily on philosophical ideas. At each meeting the debated issue was the focal point. Phi Beta Kappa "was intended to form a philosophical club, whose purpose should go far beyond the narrow range of the college studies of those days, and should include not only the wide range of what was then called 'philosophy', but the consideration, at the same time, of political questions. These, too, were discussed, not in the abstract, but in their bearing on the events of the day" (Hale 99).

Recruiting New Members

Initially, when a new member was voted in, he was given full membership status, but it was quickly discovered that sometimes an individual would not fulfill his obligations or he would do something which embarrassed the entire group. Therefore, a probationary period for prospective members was instituted.

Many of the fifty men who became members of the Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Kappa over a four-year period became noted in law and politics; most fought and some died in the Revolutionary War; many participated in the Continental Congress which ratified our Constitution. The most famous of these fifty was John Marshall, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but others were equally prominent as congressmen and senators.


The founders decided to form chapters at other colleges in 1778. Four chapters were added in 1779, and were, at first, given names that corresponded with the order of the Greek alphabet---Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta---which started the tradition of most fraternities which identify their chapters this way. In 1780, a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was established at Yale, and in 1781, when William & Mary was closed because its buildings were used by British, French, and American troops in the war, another chapter appeared at Harvard. If these two chapters had not been created, Phi Beta Kappa may have died out, but these chapters remained strong. Yale members renamed their chapter Alpha of Connecticut, which started the alternative practice of naming chapters that some fraternities use today (Sigma Phi Epsilon and Alpha Tau Omega are examples). Expansion stopped for several years, but in 1817, a chapter was installed at Union College in Schenectady, New York, which eventually led to the founding of more fraternities structured similarly to Phi Beta Kappa. (Today Phi Beta Kappa is an honorary fraternity.)

The Union Triad

At Union College, three fraternities were created in the mid-1820's. In 1825, Kappa Alpha Society (considered the oldest college fraternity as they now exist) and in 1827, Sigma Phi and Delta Phi were founded, and the Union Triad was born. These fraternities primarily competed in literary and philosophical debates with each other; the campus winner would then represent its college in competition with other colleges. It was quite a prestigious honor to be declared the best; consequently the best debaters on campus were attracted to these fraternities. These fraternities soon became an important asset to the colleges and each established chapters at other schools.

Although the Union Triad fraternities did not spread as widely as ones which came later, they firmly established the college social fraternity as it is now. In the 1830's five new fraternities were founded at four Northern colleges and one in the South. Because of the successful growth of these fraternities, several others followed. For example, in 1844, Delta Kappa Epsilon (Dekes) was founded at Yale and quickly installed chapters at several colleges, one of them being Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

The Miami Triad

In 1855, the Miami Triad was completed with the founding of Sigma Chi. The Triad, composed also of Phi Delta Theta and Beta Theta Pi, greatly influenced the fraternity "system" because of their advancements and influence. For example, between 1846 and 1850 at the University of Michigan, where fraternities were called a "giant evil," Beta Theta Pi resolved the hostility of the faculty by initiating professors (Ferguson 39). Soon, because of the prestige of the men who joined the Miami Triad fraternities and the fraternities' involvement with the colleges, positive feelings about fraternities prevailed.

Fraternities Become Integral Part of College Life

During the last half of the 19th century, Greek-letter societies were considered "valuable adjuncts of student life and, instead of opposing them, most institutions decided that they might be put to work helping run the school, keeping recalcitrant students in line, acting as convenient units of discipline in college life" (Ferguson 40). Many felt that fraternities were important in character development and many prominent men acknowledged that their fraternity involvement helped them achieve success. John Addison Porter, private secretary to President McKinley, stated: "The most prominent characteristic of American undergraduate social life" is the college fraternity (Stevens 328). Thomas Marshall, Vice-President under Wilson, stated that "the influences which had been the greatest in his life were his faith in God and his college fraternity" (Ferguson 35).

Today there are over four million initiaties of the 56 recognized college fraternities and nearly 5,000 chapters. Sigma Chi ranks second in total initiates and fourth in number of undergraduate chapters.

Works Cited

  • Ferguson, Charles W. Fifty Million Brothers. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1937.
  • Hale, Edward E., "A Fossil from the Tertiary," The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. XLIV, July, 1879, 99.
  • Harris, William H. and Judith S. Level, eds. The New Columbia Encyclopedia. New York, Columbia University Press, 1975.)
  • Hastings, William T. Phi Beta Kappa as a Secret Society. Washington, D.C.: United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, 1965, 83-85.
  • Hume, Ivor Noel. 1775: Another Part of the Field. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966, 16-17.
  • "Old William and Mary," The Southern Literary Messenger. Vol. XXVIII, March, 1859 (1965), 172-176.
  • Smith, Thomas [the first Clerk of Phi Beta Kappa], "The Records of the Alpha of Virginia, 1776-1781" in William T. Hastings, Phi Beta Kappa as a Secret Society, published by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, 1965, 53-81.
  • Stevens, Albert C. The Cyclopedia of Fraternities. New York: E. B. Treat and Co., 1907.
  • U.S. Government Printing Office. Biographical Directory of the American Congress: 1774-1971. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971.
  • Vanderbilt, Arthur T., "An Example to Emulate," The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LII, No. 1, Jan. 1953.

(Completed on Aug. 15, 1995; updated 5/6/96; checked 9/1/98) by Bill Fleming