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Delivered before the Society.
Of the one hundred and ten student organizations of the University of Virginia in 1965, only one, the Jefferson Society, can identify its establishment with that of the University itself in 1825. The first forty years in the life of the Jefferson Society, 1825-1865, are perhaps the most colorful and exciting of its 140 years in existence. This oldest of all Greek letter debating societies in Virginia, and one of the oldest in the United States, had a turbulent history before the end of the Civil War.
The Society was founded four months after the University of Virginia opened its doors: on July 14, 1825 (1). The founders of the Jefferson Society were originally members of the first debating society at the University, the Patrick Henry Society. This early organization had a brief existence due to its loud and rowdy meetings. As meetings of the Patrick Henry Society were open to the public many of the non-member students and “townies” visited from curiosity, and proceeded to shout, throw books, and start fights. The Society had no permanent place of meeting then, and moved from Pavilion to Pavilion (2). On the night of July 14, 1825, sixteen members of the Henry Society, who were peeved at the organization’s rowdyism, seceded, met in Room Seven of the West Lawn, and organized the Jefferson Society, “for debate and literary improvement.” Four days later the members met in Room 5, West Lawn, and drafted the first Constitution, and elected four officers — “Moderator, Vice-Moderator, Secretarious, and Bibliothecarious” (3).
Mr. Jefferson was very careful not to show partiality to any of the new societies in 1825. He doubtlessly resented the name of the first society, the Patrick Henry Society, since Henry was his arch political foe in Virginia in his later years. He never criticized the choice of the name however. As soon as the Jefferson Society was organized, it voted Mr. Jefferson into the society as an honorary member. Jefferson tactfully refused this honor in a letter of 1825, for the sake of impartiality.
However, Lafayette, Madison and Monroe accepted their elections to honorary membership. The Society refused to ask Mr. John Randolph to join after he attacked Monroe and referred to Jefferson as “St. Thomas of Cantingbury.” (6).
Little is known of the early years of the Jefferson Society since the members were pledged to secrecy. The meetings continued in a disorderly fashion however, for after each meeting a regular court was held, presided over by two judges, who heard all appeals and fines. This custom was discontinued in 1838 since it was so time consuming (7).
Such a great interest was shown in discussion of the Society’s constitution, that the meetings were continually disrupted by proposed amendments. This was changed however when someone passed an amendment which imposed a one dollar fine on anyone who proposed an amendment which did not pass.
At the meeting on June 17, 1826, Edgar Allen Poe was elected a regular member of the Jefferson Society. He took little part in the debates, although a few meetings after joining he read an essay before the Society on “Heat and Cold.” He had the privilege of once acting as secretary pro tem, but the Society can hardly claim him as an officer. Within a year the seventeen-year-old Poe was expelled for not paying his dues — a common proceeding in the early period (and in need of revival) (9).
One of the early crises that was to plague the Society was the severely critical reception by the faculty of the public speech in 1832 given by a Jefferson Society member. Before that year there had been no public speeches by the Society members. The Society elected Mr. Merritt Robinson, a member, to address the public on Jefferson’s birthday, April 13th. Mr. Robinson’s speech, pleading for emancipation of slaves, demonstrated that slavery was morally wrong, by quoting from Southern leaders of the Revolutionary era. He urged the State of Virginia to take steps to end it. The faculty, after hearing the speech in The Rotunda, “considered it to be highly indiscreet,” and took action to suppress another occurrence of similar nature. They issued a notice that in the future “no distracting question of state or national policy, or theological dispute should be touched in any address” (10).
The faculty also decreed that any future speech had to be delivered in writing and unanimously approved by the faculty before it could be given publicly. After the Society applied for permission to give a public speech for the Fourth of July celebration in 1833, the faculty consented, but refused them the use of any building on the Grounds, stipulating that it could be held in Charlottesville, provide “that a tavern was not chosen” (11).
For years the Jefferson Society had no permanent place of meeting, but wandered about the Grounds, often using Pavilions, especially Pavilion VII (12). In 1837, the Jefferson Society was granted the use of the large room of “Hotel C”, the middle hall on the West Range. At this time the building consisted of a large front room and two smaller rooms in the rear. In 1841 the Society obtained permission to remodel the building into one large hall (13). As late as 1853 the Society did not feel certain that their quarters were permanent. That year the roof began leaking and the faculty ordered it repaired at the University’s expense — on the grounds that if the University enrollment continued to increase the University would need it as a dining room (14). However, the Society has never left its quarters since 1837.
Another factor which endangered the survival of the Society was the competition for membership caused by the organization of numerous other literary societies during the ante-bellum period. Although the Patrick Henry Society folded about 1830, the Academic Society was begun in 1833, meeting in the basement of the Rotunda. The Washington Society, the strongest rival of the Jefferson Society, was established in 1835 and used the present Jefferson Hall from then until 1837 when it moved to Pavilion VII and then to several “hotels” on the East Range (15). This society was in existence as late as the 1930’s. In addition, four other debating societies existed in the 1850’s — the Parthenon Society (1852-53), the Philomathean Society (1849-1851), the Columbian Society (1850-1859), and the Aesculapian (c. 1857-59) (16). These societies were formed by dissatisfied members of the Jefferson Society and the Washington Society, but were all relatively short lived (17).
The disorder and noise caused by the meetings of these societies was another factor which almost caused the irritated faculty to permanently suspend them. In 1837 the faculty was alarmed at the growth of the membership of the societies of “imprudent young orators.” That year the faculty decreed: “The celebration of anniversaries and delivery of literary addresses in public is prohibited to students of this institution” (18). The faculty claimed that the election of officers of the debating societies “were accompanied by such turbulence as to degrade the reputation of the University, cause dangerous personal feuds and divert the members’ attention from their normal studies” (19).
After the Jefferson Society and Washington Society’s petitions to the Board of Visitors to restore the right to speak was refused, the entire student body became indignant. The editor of the University magazine, The Collegian, wrote for the June 1839 issue an article strongly condemning the faculty position:
It is interesting to note that The Collegian permanently ceased publication one month later.
The right to speak publicly was finally restored to the societies in the 1840’s, although the elections continued to present “the baser side of human nature,” as one student of the period wrote. The winner of the election for the student orator of the commencement in the Jefferson Society in 1858 received four challenges to duels the same night and two the following morning. The Society elections were the only topic of conversation on the Grounds the week beforehand. Almost every student campaigned for his man. The editor of The Collegian magazine wrote that: “every other man you met wanted to bet you a box of Havanas, a dozen of Chambertin, a cask of lager, a bottle of Johannesburg, or anything else from a basket of champagne to a double-breasted brandy smash, that his candidate would be the successful one” (21). Each election night the supporters of the victorious candidate carried him on their shoulders, immediately after the election, the entire mile and a half into Charlottesville to the nearest tavern. Each newly elected President of the Society would foot the bills for as much beer and whiskey as the party could hold (22). After this he was also expected to hire all of the available carriages from Charlottesville livery stables to carry the party back to the Lawn and Ranges since they were unable to walk. Since the election of the President of the Society was held every six weeks, very few men could afford to hold office but for one term.
Under the Jefferson Society Constitution of 1858-1859, the President and Vice-President were elected every six weeks, and the Treasurer every three months. The Secretary and Assistant Secretary were appointed by the President. Every January elections were held for the position of Anniversary Orator and Reader of the Declaration of Independence, for the celebration on April 13th, Jefferson’s birthday. The Valedictory Orator (for Commencement in June) was elected every April. The election of officers and speakers was done by ballot of the simple majority and that for membership by voice vote, three-fourths of those members present being necessary to elect. Members were also elected as Speakers before the society two meetings in advance. The initiation fee was ten dollars and was due two weeks after attaining membership. The annual dues for old members were set at $2.50 a session. The roll was called at the beginning and end of each meeting and those absent were to be fined ten cents for each absence (23).
The members were divided into six sections at each meeting and were appointed to debate the affirmative or negative side of each question. The disorder during the meetings continued, so that in the Constitution of 1858-59, an entire section was devoted to a description of violations:
On special occasions the members wore a blue ribbon, while the other two main societies wore ribbons of white or pink (26).
During the 1850’s the membership of the Society tripled that of the previous decades, reaching an all-time high in 1856 with 155 regular members. The highest University enrollment was also that session, with a total of 650 students, making it the second largest university in the United States. Beginning in 1845 the activities of the Society and its importance in University affairs greatly expanded. That year the Society gained permission from the faculty to give an annual ball and supper party in the Jefferson Hall, on condition that no liquor was served and the cost of the supper did not exceed sixty dollars. This first of the “big weekends” was thus continued until the beginning of the Civil War, fifteen years later (27).
This “Annual Celebration” of the Society took place on Jefferson’s birthday, April 13th. This occasion was very elaborate and formal. Invitations were sent out to guests, including “the most distinguished and most respected” in Charlottesville. Many ladies were “imported” from the surrounding counties and a brass band was hired from Washington or Richmond. The opening meeting was begun with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and was followed by a patriotic address by one of the members. By 1859 the occasion was being held in the “Public Hall” (Rotunda Annex) due to lack of space in the Jefferson Hall. Afterwards the group retired to the Lawn for refreshments. The editor of the Virginia University Magazine, a member of the Society, described the ladies present on the occasion, in the contemporary literary style:
Three major societies of the 1850’s, the Jefferson, Washington, and Columbian, jointly sponsored a national literary figure to speak at Commencement each year. Mr. Edward Everett, the noted New England historian, addressed the University audience several times in the decade preceding the Civil War. Mr. Everett generously donated the fees for his appearance to the University of Virginia Library, which at the time contained 30,000 volumes, the largest library in the South (29).
There were several peculiar customs established before the Civil War which were never resumed after the conflict ended. Every year a special committee was appointed to investigate the record of each member. If he were found to have been without any record of disorder at the meetings, were not censured for missing class, or arrested for public drunkenness or engaging in riots, he was presented with “a formal and elaborate certificate of upright character” (30). In order to enliven the meetings, the Society decided to attach a wooden box to the door of the Hall for deposit of any humorous or sarcastic essays about other members. These were then read at the next meeting before the Society. The privilege was “outrageously abused” as most of the members of the Society were humiliated. This custom of “offensive grossness” was finally ended, to the relief of everyone, when the box was secretly removed one night (31).
The questions debated at both the Jefferson Society and the Washington Society were widely varied — being concerned with the literary, historical, political, or current fields of interest. Some of the subjects of debate included: “Ought capital punishment to be abolished?”, “Was the English Government justified in banishing Napoleon to St. Helena?”, “Are Short Terms of Political Office Desirable?”, “Who Has Exerted the Greater Influence on the Destinies of Europe?”, “Napoleon I or Napoleon III?”, and “Has the Union of Ireland and England Been Detrimental to Ireland?” (32). The question of sectional differences between the North and South were rarely debated, even as late as 1860.
Of the many services rendered the University during this period, the Jefferson Society, along with the Washington Society, supported and edited the University magazine. This publication assumed various names: The Virginian Literary Museum (1829), The Chameleon (1831), The Collegian (1838-1842), The Jefferson Monument Magazine (1849-1851), and the Virginia University Magazine (1856 to present) (33).
The societies jointly raised the funds to present an annual gold medal, worth fifty dollars, for the best article in the Virginia University Magazine, beginning in 1858 (34). The following year, the visiting commencement speaker, Mr. Edward Everett, presented a fund to establish a second prize — for the best essay on American biography in the Virginia University Magazine (35).
The Jefferson Monument Magazine was directed by a corps of four editors elected from each of the literary societies in existence at that time. Their aim was to raise funds to build a monument to Jefferson on the Grounds of the University. Shortly before the magazine collapsed, after only two years of publication, the editor burst forth with the following plea to support the magazine:
In the 1850’s the Jefferson Society gave its large collection of books, accumulated since 1825, to the University Library. Another service the Jefferson Society attempted to perform was to raise funds in 1861 to present to Mrs. Clemm, the mother-in-law of Poe, who was living in extreme poverty. However, the rapid decrease in the Society’s membership and resulting depletion of its treasury, caused by the War, resulted in an abandonment of this project (38).
In 1860 the Jefferson Society adopted to build a new building on the Grounds, to house itself and the Washington Society, in two large halls separated by a middle room, and capable of seating 450 people in each. Their plan to borrow $3,000 to begin construction of the building failed to win the support of the Washington Society. If the funds had been borrowed at that time, both societies would have been bankrupt by the end of the war and would have been permanently disbanded (39).
With the outbreak of war in 1861, the University declined drastically in enrollment, from 604 in 1861 to 66 in 1862. The Society, as soon as Virginia seceded, voted its entire treasury to the Confederate government to aid in the war effort (39-a). The Jefferson Society, already greatly depleted in membership by the enlistment of their members in the Confederate service, was caused further worry when its Hall became a hospital for the wounded Confederate troops from the First Battle of Manassas in 1861. Again, in 1862, its Hall was full of wounded, from part of the 1,300 casualties sent to the University for convalescence from the Battle of Port Republic (40). The wartime roll-book of the Society shows that the Society did not meet during the first two years of the war. However there were twenty-three members in the session of 1863-64 and twenty-seven members in that of 1864-65 (41).
Although the Jefferson Society often came close to closing its doors during its first forty years, it managed to survive the problems that caused the other dozen literary societies to collapse. Its continued existence was due to the devotion and loyalty of the majority of its members. Yet it was not only a debating and literary society in its early period, but a social fraternity as well. Although its meetings were enlivened by many hard-fought debates and though it was often divided on election nights into sharply opposed bodies, behind it all was that spirit of solid friendship common with the gentlemen of the University of that era. This spirit is ably expressed in the order of initiation of the 1850’s, when the President impressed upon the new members the principles of the Society and the spirit of comradeship which existed in that union:
1. Catalogue of the Jefferson Society, 1859, University of Virgina, p. 3. (Virginiana *AB251031, v. 70, McGregor Room, Alderman Library, University of Virginia). [return to text]
2. Philip Alexander Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919 (5 vols.) N.Y.: MacMillan Co., 1922. Vol. II, 354. [return to text]
3. Catalogue of the Jefferson Society, 1859, p. 3. [return to text]
4. Bruce, History of U.Va., II, 355. [return to text]
6. Bruce, History of U.Va., II, 356. [return to text]
7. Catalogue of the Jefferson Society, 1859, p. 4. [return to text]
9. “The Early Days of the Jeff. Soc.,” UVM, XLII, 4, Jan. 1899, p. 183 [return to text]
10. Bruce, History of U.Va., II, 358. [return to text]
11. Ibid. [return to text]
12. Ibid., 357. [return to text]
13. Ibid., 359. [return to text]
14. Bruce, History of U.Va., III, 171. [return to text]
15. Bruce, History of U.Va., II, 359. [return to text]
16. Cat. Of the Jeff. Soc., 1859, p. 6.; and The Jefferson Monument Magazine, University of Virginia, Vol. I, No. 8, April 1850, p. 264; and Catalogue of the Washington Society of the University of Virginia (Richmond, Va.: James E. Goode, printer, 1866), pp. 1-50. (Virginiana, *F221, V.319, McGregor Room, Aldermen Library, U. of Va.) [return to text]
17. Catalogue of the Washington Soc. of the U. of Va. (1866), pp. 1-50. [return to text]
18. “Editor’s Table”, The Collegian (magazine), U. of Va., Vol. I, No. 9, June 1839. p. 346. [return to text]
19. Bruce, History of the U.Va., II, 359. [return to text]
20. “Editor’s Table”, The Collegian (magazine), U. of Va., June 1839, I, 9, pp. 346-47. [return to text]
21. Bruce, History of the U.Va., III, 173. [return to text]
22. Ibid., 172. 2123 [return to text]
23. Catalogue of the Jeff. Soc., 1859, p. 13. [return to text]
24. Ibid. [return to text]
25. Ibid., p. 5. [return to text]
26. Ibid. [return to text]
27. Catalogue of the Jefff. Soc., 1859, p. 9; and Bruce, History of U.Va., III, 170. [return to text]
28. “Editor’s Table,” Virginia University Magazine, Vol. III, No. 8, May 1859, p. 476. [return to text]
29. Ibid. [return to text]
30. Bruce, History of U.Va., IV, 87. [return to text]
31. Bruce, History of U.Va. III, 170. [return to text]
32. Ibid., 176. [return to text]
33. Catalogue of Jeff. Soc., 1859. p. 6. [return to text]
34. Ibid. [return to text]
35. Bruce, History of U.Va., III, p. 110. [return to text]
36. Jefferson Monument Magazine, II, 3, Dec. 1850, p. 95. [return to text]
37. Bruce, History of U.Va., III, p. 107. [return to text]
38. Ibid., 212. [return to text]
39. Ibid., 174. [return to text]
39a. “Virginia’s Literary Societies — A Historical Sketch,” UVM, May-June 1912, p. 462. [return to text]
40. John H. Moore, “The University of Virginia During the Civil War,” Virginia Cavalcade, XIII, 3, Winter 1963-64, p. 27 & 29. [return to text]
41. MS, Roll-Book, 1856-1886, of the Jefferson Society of the University of Virginia, MSS Room, Alderman Library, Univ. of Va. [return to text]
42. Ibid. [return to text]
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