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When the University of Virginia opened its portals to students, the presence of Thomas Jefferson pervaded the adcademical village. Appropriately, on July 14, 1825 at room number seven, West Lawn, sixteen discontented members of the Patrick Henry Society founded an organization dedicated to the spiritual tradition of the University’s father. Since those first days, the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society — the oldest continuously functioning Greek letter society in America — has developed a rich history intimately linked to the events and personalities that have shaped the University. Together with the University, the Jefferson Society has assumed as its guiding philosophy Jefferson’s proclamation: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error, as long as reason is left free to combat it.”
From its inception, the Society has sought a prominent role in the political and social affairs of the University. Although Jefferson himself rejected honorary membership in the Society due to his “suspicion of partialities,” James Madison, James Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette accepted. The early years of the Society are clouded in obscurity, for many valuable historical records including minutes were destroyed in the great fire of 1895.
In contrast to the Patrick Henry Society, the Jefferson Society maintained in its formative years a closed-door policy. In the tradition of secret societies at the University, members identified themselves only by means of a blue ribbon they wore. In 1856 probationary members were admonished to the “utmost secrecy” concerning the proceedings of the Society. For violation they would be “ignominiously expelled.” In more enlightened times, however, the cult of secrecy has been abandoned, and the Society invites the participation of the University community in its meetings.
As one of the more important Southern literary and debating associations in an era devoted to oratory and prose writing, the Jefferson Society attracted many of the foremost talents of the University and gained its reputation as a fellowship of intellectual elite. For example, one finds Edgar Allen Poe among the membership in 1826. “He comes to the surface in the minutes of the Jefferson Society only in the character of any essayist and as the incumbent of a minor office,” Phillip Alexander Bruce notes in his History of the University of Virginia, “Poe served as secretary pro-tem for one meeting.”
In the ante-bellum years the Society pursued literary endeavors with special interest. During the 1850’s it presented to the University’s library a large number of volumes which it had accumulated. These were the years when it welcomed satires and other essays from the student body and read them at its meetings. Neither was oratory neglected. For many years the Society possessed the unique privilege of selecting orators for closing exercises. An intense rivalry with its counterpart in the Washington Society produced lively oratorical contests. Competition for the “final oratorship” of the Society was often tumultuous. In 1858 one victor considered himself “the happiest man in the world.” The laurels of the Society were coveted to a point verging on violence. In the process of the competition one lucky winner had received six challenges to duels, though none of these culminated in “powder and lead.” Machinations within the society sometimes departed from the codes of honor and Southern gentility. “The University is a miniature world in its defeats and victories, successes, and disappointments, rivalries, jealousies, squabbles, and enmities,” one observed commented, “A Jefferson Society election for final orator is a rare piece of fun, in some respects, but in others it presents the observer with the baser side of human nature.”
Elections for officers were equally strained. Customary practice required the victors to treat their supporters to beer, whiskey, or brandy at the nearest watering-hole in Charlottesville. Begun with a “cheering and singing procession,” the celebrations climaxed in debauchery and wanton revelry. But the University was a fairly raucous, undisciplined place in those ante-bellum decades, and the Jefferson Society fitted well the prevailing spiritual ethos. A typical campaign was full of scheming: “Each separate clique had a man, who was, by all odds, the smartest fellow and best speaker in college . . . What winning ways they (the candidates) had about them, how overpoweringly delighted they were to meet you, how they shook you by the hand . . . ” Nevertheless, by 1861 the Jefferson Society — not least because of its famed festivities — had gained a place of distinction among the numerous literary and debating societies that included the Washington, Philomatheon, Parthenon, and Columbian.
It was in the course of these halcyon days that the Society acquired its lasting fame in social functions. The Society often gave cotillions in its Hall. In 1845 the faculty granted a request for a dance, with the restriction that all drinking be avoided! The occasionally unrestrained exuberance of members has not lessened. Only a few years ago Dean Runk expressed his dismay at the consumption of over twenty-three bottles of alcohol at an Easter’s Weekend cocktail party. The Society also began its elaborate annual commemoration of Jefferson’s birthday.
In a more serious vein, the Society employed its financial prosperity in behalf of worthy causes. At the 270 foot landing of the Washington Monument one can observe a plaque placed there by the Jefferson Society. It also sought relief for the penury of Mrs. Clemm, Poe’s mother-in-law. The large ante-bellum membership of between 150 and 200 enabled the Society to build up considerable financial reserves.
By the time of the Civil War, despite the Society’s prestige, it had still not been granted any certain meeting place. IN 1837 its meetings were held in Pavilion 7, and occasionally in either the chapel or the old public hall. In 1841 the University granted Hotel C, West Range, to the Society for its use, but reserved the option of using it for the expanding student population. Only through the course of a century and a half has the Society gained de facto possession of the “Hall.” The vicissitudes the Society has faced, even in the most recent times, is graphically depicted by one of its famous chroniclers, Alan Wambold:
It may truly be said that the “Hall” is the physical embodiment of the Society’s spirit, for its tradition abides there.
During the long years of that deplorable conflict, the Civil War, the Society inevitably suffered decline in membership. At one point attendance at the University itself was as low as fifty-four. After the war, politics continued to dominate the Hall. The members of the Society, who were also among the leaders in University affairs, competed viciously for offices and honors. Factionalism and the influence of fraternities were rampant throughout the 1870’s. “It was sad, without overstatement, that the race for honors was not decided on the floors of the two halls, but in the secret caucuses assembled in the dormitories.” In 1870 the University Magazine censured the Society for the electioneering methods and partisanship displayed by its members. A study of the political infighting of the period reveals much about the “image” cherished by members of the Jefferson Society. The final presidency, Dr. Culbreth observed, “exacted a man with a social and friendly nature, clever and frank manners, and abundant time for indulging these qualities, -- always urbane and polite, but avoiding excessive demonstration.” This characterization may indeed be timeless.
The faculty gradually came to the conclusion that the final orators produced by the Society were “singularly impoverished in thought and flat in expression.” Consequently, in 1874 the faculty intervened to temper proceedings by choosing debaters and orators and by acting as arbiters. Still, this intercession failed to stem the political currents in the Society. In 1891 a writer in College Topics remarked that “The Hall has at last come out in its true colors as a political rather than a literary society.” During the 1892 to 1893 session politics reached a fever pitch, burned itself out, and left the Hall nearly devastated.
In 1895 the Hall claimed only about thirty members. Yet, during the preceding decade its most famous alumnus Woodrow Wilson had presided at its meetings. In the 1890’s the Society experienced a regeneration. Both the Jefferson and Washington Societies took a renewed interest in forensics, especially at the inter-collegiate level. The Society joined various debating leagues, won honors for the University, and fostered such events as the annual debate with Pennsylvania State. The two societies competed for a gold medal awarded yearly to the best orator at Virginia. In 1895 Professor James A. Harrison offered a medal for the best debater of the two groups.
In the aftermath of the War, both the Washington and Jefferson Societies had been acutely aware of the need to reorganize and reinvigorate their organizations, and they exhibited a great spirit of cooperation. “We congratulate the Jefferson upon the brilliancy of its past career, and especially of its recent session,” the Washington Society stated, “upon its present high position, and its bright prospects for the future . . . The Washington remembers, with deep pleasure (the previous labors) . . . in the great field of literature.” They worked together to reinstitute the University Magazine (1867) that had been started in 1856. This publication was continued and in 1983 renamed the Virginia Spectator. Having an originally modest purpose of fostering interest in literary pursuits, and other interests at Virginia, the “Spectator” soon assumed the characteristics of a strictly humorous magazine. In 1956 the Society established a more serious literary publication entitled the University of Virginia Magazine. In more recent times, however, both of these magazines have fallen prey to prohibitive costs and have ceased publication, though the University of Virginia Magazine corporation persists on an insolvent, ad hoc basis.
From 1895 until 1906 the membership of the Society remained stable at between thirty-five and forty-five. The Society successfully competed in and against athletics, which had become during the 1890’s a craze at the University. Not unexpectedly, Robert’s Rules of Order was used to umpire baseball games! In the two decades following 1906, the Society grew steadily. The Poe Banquet of 1908 and the Founder’s Day Banquet initiated in the same year testify to the Society’s burgeoning activities.
In 1925 the Jefferson Society marked with great fanfare its one hundredth anniversary. The extensive celebrations included an address by Senator Oscar W. Underwood, who claimed that he had learned the “fundamentals of parliamentary law” in the Society. The Jefferson Society had a commission, eh believed, “to think right, to act right, to do right, and to send its sons forth free from prejudices and the bonds of time.” President Alderman of the University lamented the decline in appreciation of the “beauty and power of language,” and cited the Society “as a department of political science, government, and forensics.”
By this time the Society no longer stressed literary arts, but rather oratory and debating talents. The minutes reveal extemporaneous remarks on the profundities of “How far is up?,” and “Who went where and why?” Serious debates included, for example, “Resolved that the ease of modern divorce is undermining American morals.” The affirmative side won! The Society did not rely wholly on its own wealth of talent to attract the interest of the University community. Speakers from the faculty were frequently invited to address the Hall. Professor Kepner, who had testified in the Scopes’ Trial, spoke on evolution. Also feature in 1925 was a music night and an address on oriental philosophy.
The centennial gave the Society pause to consider its role in the life of the University, its ideals, its purpose. One detects a conscious effort to rededicate the Society to the literary and oratorical arts and to establish an irreproachable image. There were two types of college men, a member explained, society men and scholars, and Jeff men were the latter. A letter to probationary members during 1937 to 1938 session described the function of the Society: “to encourage a health interest in those matters which concern the University as a unit in itself and as a unit of the world at large.” The Society faced much competition from the fraternities for allegiance of students. In the fall of each year, the Hall held a “Pink Nimbus” open rush smoker which featured oratory by members.
During the latter 1920’s and into the Depression, the law school moot court upstaged the Jefferson Society, and in fact, the Society held for a time its own moot court proceedings. The Washington Society fell and, in general, it was not a propitious era for literary and debating organizations. Perhaps the age of flappers was simply to frivolous and dilatory to allow literature and debate to flourish. Yet, in the ‘30’s the Society experience don of its periodic revitalizations. A celebration in honor of Woodrow Wilson was held in 1936 and Mrs. Wilson was made an honorary member of the Society. For the Hall, this was a time of debates mainly on political questions and foreign affairs.
But the banal spirit of political rivalry surged from beneath the surface and threatened once more to jeopardize the Society’s prosperity. On February 6, 1938, a special meeting of the Hall was called to discuss certain matters relating to membership and elections. IN reality, the Society was bitterly rent into factions: one consisting of the American Student Union people and the other led by a Musselman and his “machine.” As a consequence of the acrimony, only ten new members were inducted into the Society. Musselman’s legendary influence apparently allowed him to dominate the leadership of the Society through 1940. He left the Hall proclaiming that “I Musselman shall be with you as a member of the Jefferson Society, even unto the end of the world!”
Throughout this period the Society continued its active interest in community affairs. In 1913, for example, the Jefferson and Washington Societies made a joint proposal to the State Teachers Association to establish a debating league among the high schools of Virginia. This move resulted in the Virginia Literary and Athletic League that soon embrace seventy-five member institutions. For a number of years the Jefferson Society and the Washington Society shared in administration of the association. More recently, in 1948, the Society began its annual Moomaw Oratorical Contest. This competition, open to the student body, is supported by a $1,200 grant from Dr. Benjamin C. Moomaw, an avid supporter of the Hall. The victor’s name is engraved on a permanent plaque in the Hall and he is given a copy of the Sully portrait of Jefferson. This event is a major highlight of the spring semester.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Jefferson Society existed egregiously in happy mediocrity. For a number of years following the War, the influence of veterans and the Society at large precluded gaiety in the Hall. Only in the latter 1950’s during the “Beer Keg Era,” did humor and sometimes high wit become entrenched in the Hall. The revival of the University of Virginia Magazine in 1956 and the restoration of the Hall a year later were high points of the decade. The rumors that Hotel C would become a “campus lounge” proved totally unfounded and the members, described by one scribe as “the derelicts, alcoholics, addicts, perverts, and otherwise popular fellows around the grounds,” continued to hold forth in their natural abode.
Although carousing, including an occasional trip down the road, became an integral part of the Hall’s life, the Society did not abandon its commitment to service to the University and to the ideals of oratory and debate. John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, G. Mennen Williams, and Admiral Lewis Strauss were among the more distinguished speakers before the Society. Probationary speeches were the principal attraction at the meetings. One “lamb,” Mr. Ploden-Wardlow, dared to criticize the Society and bemoan the passage of the “Old Hall.” Upstart probationaries several times attempted coup d’etats, but never succeeded.
During the ‘60’s, membership in the Society varied between forty-five and sixty. This decade witnessed a rejuvenation of the Hall, evidence in one way by an increasing interest in the political life of the University. In the 1962 to 1963 session the Society supported its president in his race for student council. Members were prominent as office holders, committeemen, and seekers of office in the University’s government. Yet, the Hall always maintained a layer of reserved between itself and the administration. In 1964, for example, the Society passed a resolution expressing a lack of confidence in all of the candidates for student council and appointed a committee to investigate “unJeffersonian activities.”
Politics continued to play an important, but less divisive, role in the Society. Committee appointments became cherished sinecures for a select few. Though less bitter than in the past, politics invariably resolved itself into factionalism and elections were marked by the “usual amount of blood-letting, character assassinations and probationary purges.” “Old Hall” traditionalists often found themselves opposed to the reform-minded new members. In the session of 1962 to 1963, for example, the conservatives succeeded in defeating a proposal to mimeograph the roll and pass it out to save time. This absurd idea threatened to cut short the measured responses of individuals like Frank Caneen.
Social life prospered and reflected the healthy state of the Hall. The weekly happy hours of meetings were supplemented with cocktail parties to which many members of the faculty were invited. Founder’s Day Banquets featured distinguished speakers such as Bernard Mayo and Dean Paulsen of the law school. In 1964 the Society, in conjunction with the University Guides, undertook the Restoration Ball. Planned to help raise money and publicize the need for restoration of the Rotunda, the ball has for a decade been a major social event of the year.
The Hall has thrived in recent years due to a devoted membership and vibrant leadership. While meetings once lasted but a few hours, they now consume many hours filled with debates and carefully planned programs. Co-education, the future of the University, and the honor system have formed topics of discussion. The Society’s yearly debate with Princeton has featured such controversial and humorous subjects as: “Resolved, that the education of women is a fruitless task.” Programs have involved notable guests including philosopher William Weedon, Reverend Smith, a missionary to the Congo, and Senator Byrd. Members of the faculty like James Childress, Edward Younger, and William Harbaugh have maintained a close association with the Society.
The last few years have in many respects been difficult for the Society. Procedural battles over constitutional amendments often become tedious. Only after a long struggle did the Hall agree to co-education. Factions have sought domination of the Hall, and Young Republicans have battled Young Americans for Freedom to no avail. Moreover, the Society has faced unfavorable publicity from the Cavalier Daily, notably their scurrilous editorial of September 1972. Doug Golden made a devastating reply and the result, Howard Taft Macrae noted, “was one of the largest probationary classes in the past few years.”
The Society has shown a remarkable viability in changing with and responding to University sentiment. It has challenged the Gay Student Union to debate, expressed disfavor at the cut-back of classical programming by WTJU, and invited local and statewide candidates for office to debate in its Hall. It has somehow survived the intrigues of the New York Conspiracy, the New Jersey Mafia, the Georgia Mafia, and the perennial “loyal opposition.” With rare exceptions, the members have remained faithful to the spirit of the Hall. “Although indefinable, this spirit includes dedication to Mr. Jefferson’s ideals of free speech, personal liberty, an open mind, and friendship.” The heated debates on criteria that should determine the acceptability of probationary speeches reveals the extent of dedication to excellence in intellectual endeavors. The Society seeks to promote the “general culture” among its members, and that includes speaking style as well as content. The quality of minutes in recent years indicates the high esteem with which the Society regards literary talent.
There have been many “Old Halls,” many “New Halls,” and yet none. For the Society is in perpetual change and deplores any hint of stagnation in its affairs. This is shown above all by its extensive preplanning for the sesquicentennial of the Society to be held in the spring, 1975. Already, steps have been taken to secure an appropriate speaker for the occasion. Looking back at the centennial celebration one may be certain that ideals alone remain relatively constant as the Society evolves.
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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