PBK National History

This account was included in the Centennial Handbook of the Alpha of Pennsylvania, compiled in 1986 by Professor Emeritus Warren J. Gates. It is reproduced here without change.



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.

More 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.)

The 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 Havard 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.

The 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.

The 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 organization.

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.

Awards 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.