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The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society was founded on July 14, 1825, by sixteen disgruntled members of the now-defunct Patrick Henry Society in Room Seven, West Lawn. In the intervening 180 years, the Jefferson Society has distinguished itself as the oldest continuously existing collegiate debating society in North America, and indeed the second-oldest Greek-lettered organization in the United States. The Society, named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, father of the University of Virginia, boasts among its membership the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, former Virginia Governor James Gilmore, President Woodrow Wilson and former University President John T. Casteen III. Honorary membership has been conferred upon such dignified ladies and gentlemen as President James Madison, President James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Official meetings of the Society begin at 7:29 every Friday evening in which classes are in session. People refer to “the Hall” and “the Society” synonymously. Before the program starts, members stop by Room 7 on the Lawn for “Sippers” The Room 7 Resident of the Society provides food and beverages for Society members every Friday afternoon starting around 5:30. If you are of age, be sure to try a whiskey sour, our signature drink.
At approximately 7:29 p.m., the esteemed President of the Society gavels in the meeting. Next, our Vice President introduces the program for that evening. Usually, the program takes the form of a guest speaker, though at other times it is an oratorical or literary contest. Because the Society hosts these speakers as a service to the community, all programs are free and open to the public. Recent speakers have included N.O.W. President Patricia Ireland, National Security Agency Director Lieutenant General Mike Hayden, Poet Laureate of New York Sharon Olds, Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, Florida Senator Bill Nelson and Westinghouse CEO Charles Pryor. Oratorical programs throughout the year include the Moomaw Oratorical Contest, the Tell-tale Literary Contest and the Edgar Allan Poe Reading Contest. In addition, we have the Smith Simpson Debate on Diplomacy between the Jefferson Society and the Washington Society every spring. Every fall, the two Societies compete in an ethics debate, and a humorous debate known as the Harrison Cup.
After the program ends, we take a brief recess during which regular members storm the food and beverage table provided by the Keeper of the Hall. All catch up with their friends and the officers of the Society scurry around trying to prepare for the meeting.
Eventually, the meeting comes back to order and we proceed with the regular business of the Society. Committee reports, presentations by the regular membership and, most importantly, probationary presentations follow. Probationary membership entails passing an interview, and full membership comes after passing a presentation and meeting several other requirements. Generally, meetings include much oration and discussion, with an appropriate mix of playful banter and serious debate. Occasionally, members propose formal debates on such issues as affirmative action, the state of world affairs and biomedical ethics, to name a few. Other activities during meetings include flaming contests, declarations of war and even duel challenges. The Society strikes a delicate balance between the need for substantive debate and the fact that everyone wants to have a good time on a Friday night. It is difficult to truly characterize Society meetings; you just have to attend the meetings and see for yourself. Typically, save for membership proceedings at the beginning and end of each semester, the entirety of our meetings are open to guests.
The Society also sponsors several events for its members outside of Friday meetings: a Meet the Probies party, a Probie vs. Regular Member football game, the Wilson Day and Founders Day formals, the Restoration Ball (co-sponsored with the University Guide Service) and many more. The Society prides itself on providing this wide variety of activities for its members.
Members of the Society come from myriad corners of the University and reflect many of its varied facets: there are members from the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the Undergraduate and Graduate School of Education, and the Engineering, Commerce, Law and Medical Schools. We boast an appreciable number of students who hail from beyond the Commonwealth’s borders, and have a large contingent of people from outside the United States. Some members have always been students in an academic setting, while others have ventured outside the world of academia to serve in the military, to work as law clerks or to otherwise delve into the real world.
For more information about the Society, please browse through this web site.
Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts or omissions.
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