Founded on July 14, 1825, the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society is the oldest continuously existing organization of its kind in America Established just months after the beginning of the University of Virginia’s first academic term, the Society has shaped and grown with an institution that has since gained both size and stature. Jefferson Hall, the Society’s meeting place, is filled with tradition and is a source of constant innovation. The Cavalier Daily (the Commonwealth’s oldest daily newspaper), Student Council, and the University of Virginia Magazine (continuously published for more than a century) all found their origins within its walls. With a membership including liberals, conservatives, historians, engineers, and all sorts in between, the Society has been a place where the University’s leading minds have come to trade thoughts, build friendships, and learn from one another.
The Society was established when 16 disgruntled members of the now-defunct Patrick Henry Society rebelled from its rowdy meetings and formed a society more suited to Mr. Jefferson’s University. The dissidents gathered in Room 7, West Lawn (now a permanent Society residence) and set out to build an organization dedicated to intellectual pursuits. The group adopted the Greek letters ΦΠΘ (Phi Pi Theta), standing for Φιλοι (pronounced “FILL-oy”), Πατρισ (“pah-TRISS”), Θεοσ (“theh-OSS”), and which are translated, respectively, as Friends, Country (or Fatherland), Divinity (or God). The Society is, in fact, the second-oldest Greek letter organization in North America. They also took as their motto the Latin quotation “Hæc olim meminisse iuvabit,” a line from Virgil’s Aeneid roughly translated as “someday, it shall be pleasing to remember these things.”
The Society moved to the center of student life before long: its array of cotillions, banquets, and other events all but defined the University calendar. Along with the competing Washington and Columbian Societies, it selected the students who addressed the University during the annual commencement week. The honor was highly coveted and inspired countless episodes of political combat. The infighting took a violent turn in 1848 when the Society’s selected orator was challenged to six duels – four on the night of his victory, and two the morning after! Needless to say, the practice was soon discontinued. Edgar Allan Poe was elected into membership during those early years, as were scores of others who went on to success in politics and business across the antebellum South.
The Society managed to scrape through the Civil War – a near miracle, considering that it gave its entire $500 treasury to the Confederacy in 1861. Nevertheless, a small cadre continued to meet during the conflict, and with the arrival of Reconstruction and war veterans at the University, the Society regained its former vigor. Among its members in those days was Woodrow Wilson. He was elected to a term as the Society’s president; he is probably better known, however, for his service as the president of the United States
The Society took on its present character in the years after the Second World War. It was then that it began inviting guest speakers to take part in its meetings, a practice that continues to this day. Among it s guests have been such noted luminaries as Messrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dos Passos, William Rehnquist, William Faulkner, and Jimmy Carter. Noteworthy speakers of recent years include Dr. Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of HIV; sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer; General William Westmoreland (ret.); former Navy Secretary Lawrence Garret; Senator John Warner of Virginia; Bob Woodward, Watergate journalist and author of All the President’s Men; Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker; and Donald Regan, former White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury. Commentator George Will, who named Mr. Jefferson the “Man of the Millennium,” was the Society’s featured guest during the 1993 commemoration of the 250th anniversary of our namesake’s birth.
The Hall remains a pillar of student life; it counts numerous leaders of student government on its rolls. Committed to discourse, the Society annually hosts candidate debates for student offices. The Society has kept up its rhetorical practices, as well, hosting competitions for readings or original and historic speeches, readings of the works of Poe, and presentations of original poetry and fiction. As a keeper of many of the University’s traditions, the Society co-hosts the annual Restoration Ball, originally held to fund the renovation of the University’s landmark Rotunda, and commemorates Mr. Jefferson’s birthday with an evening banquet and a pilgrimage to Monticello at dawn every April 13.