by Mr. John M. Moore (CLAS 1959)
It was almost a year before Mr. Jefferson drew his last breath at Monticello that the Jefferson Society was born. Sixteen discontented members of the Patrick Henry Society, then the University’s only literary society, gathered at Number Seven West Lawn on July 14, 1825, to form another such group. These men felt that greater forensic endeavors would be spurred by the creation of an organization competing with the one that bore the name of Jefferson’s political rival.
One of the earliest actions of the Jefferson Society was to elect the Father of the University an honorary member. Mr. Jefferson declined, however, through fear of arousing what he referred to as “suspicion of partialities.” Subsequently, Madison, Monroe, and Lafayette were elected honorary members and accepted.
It was during these earliest days that Edgar Allan Poe was a member of the Hall. It is believed that he was elected to membership on June 17, 1826. He apparently had little desire to participate in forensics; according to P. A. Bruce, “He comes to the surface in the minutes of the Jefferson Society only in the character of an essayist and as the incumbent of a minor office” (1). Poe served as secretary pro tem for one meeting. Unfortunately, the minutes which he took as well as many other historical records were destroyed in the great fire of 1895. Before the fire, however, a souvenir seeker managed to snip his signature from the minutes; and although it is believed that this signature is in existence today, all efforts to recover it have failed.
Benefiting from the experience of the Patrick Henry Society, which had trouble because of its open-doors policy, the Jefferson Society instituted a ruling that excluded non-members from attending any of the Hall’s functions. In 1856 this policy was carried to an extreme, as probationary members were administered astringent oath that read in part: “I have in the name of the Society to lay you under the most solemn injunctions not to divulge any of its proceedings, or anything that may occur in our Halls; everything seen, said or done shall be held in utmost secrecy, and any member guilty of a violation of this obligation shall be ignominiously expelled.” Today, with guest speakers and public meetings, these measures seem ridiculously strict. Another curious ruling was invoked when haggling over the constitution became too time-consuming. A motion was invoked to the effect that of one dollar was charged against anyone offering an amendment to the constitution.
Besides constitutional issues, the Society in its early days had the problem of finding a suitable place in which to convene. In 1837, after a rapid succession of moves from one location to another, including Pavilion Seven on the Lawn, it was granted the use of a large West Range room, known then as Hotel C. This building had been constructed in 1820 as a dining hall, in accordance with Mr. Jefferson’s original plan. The Jefferson Society also acquired an adjoining room, and four years later in 1841 was authorized to make necessary alterations in the entire building. Now with the Society permanently settled in Hotel C, the building became known as Jefferson Hall, a title recently commemorated on a plaque placed on the door of the Hall.
The Washington Society’s history parallels that of the Jefferson Society’s to a great extent, and until recently it offered strong but friendly and helpful rivalry. It was either in 1835, according to P. A. Bruce, or in 1836, according to Patton, that “Wash” began to compete with “Jeff” for top place among the then numerous societies. And although the Jefferson Society was to survive all its rivals, the Washington Society was not without prestige.
Somewhat unlike its competing societies, the Jefferson Society was interested in many outside activities and events, and with its large antebellum membership of between 150 and 200, the Society was able to build up a reserve in its treasury on which it drew to contribute to various worthy causes. One such contribution went toward an inscribed memorial stone for the Washington Monument. This stone may still be seen at the 270-footlanding. Further exhibiting its pre-war generosity, the Jefferson Society aided in relieving the penury of Mrs. Clemm, Poe’s mother-in-law.
From an era of prosperity the Jefferson Society went into a four-year period of semi-inactivity during the War for Southern Independence. Since the University’s war-time enrolment was only fifty-four, it is no wonder that the Society found it nearly impossible to operate. This was especially true since, of course, its members would be among the first to sacrifice their lives for a cause so dear as that of the Confederacy.
Even before the War, it was evident that the Society was destined to take on the characteristics of a political society as well as those of a literary one. The reason for the centering of politics in an originally literary group has undoubtedly been that top men at Virginia were also leaders in the Hall. One of the earliest of the fiery elections was held in 1858. After several days of hectically soliciting votes, friends of the candidates became so confident in the victory of their favorites that they were willing to bet anything from “a basket of champagne” to “a double-breasted brandy smash” on the success of their candidates.
Even after the elections were over, the political fires were not quenched, and there arose several challenges to duels, none of which, however, reached the powder-and-lead stage. Jefferson Hall was not then the place for tweeds and beer, and supporters of the victor, in jubilant celebration, carried him on their shoulders to their nearest saloon in Charlottesville. There the beleaguered new office holder would be expected to treat his friends to lager beer, whisky, or brandy. The celebration would last until the bacchanals became too inebriated to carry back the victor.
Despite such intemperate activities, it was not until 1874 that the faculty, then also the administrative organ of the University, intervened in an abstemious move to choose debaters and orators and to act as arbitrators. “The Hall has at last come out in its true colors as a political rather than a literary society,” re-ports the December 23, 1891 issue of College Topics, forerunner of the Cavalier Daily. This was undeniably true despite faculty intervention, for only two years before this statement was made some eighty-six new members had signed the roll, ten of whom came forward to take part in a debate. It was said then that nothing like that had happened in a decade. For better or for worse, it was not to happen again for some time.
In the 1892-1893 session, the political era reached its pinnacle, and the following year found the Hall nearly deserted. The Age of Politics had passed.
1895 marked the first year in a new era for both the Jefferson and the Washington Societies. The former (Jeff) during the past year had grown from under ten members to over thirty and continued to expand. Now, both societies turned the object of their interests from university politics to forensics, particularly on the inter-collegiate level. They, both individually and jointly, joined various debating leagues. Men were chosen from each society to cooperate in winning honors for Virginia as well as for the individual societies in such events as the annual debate with Penn State, for several years the chief attraction at the University. There was also during this time considerable interest in oratory. Each year the faculty offered a fifty-dollar gold medal to be awarded to the best orator at Virginia. The two societies held contests either in the Chapel or in Public Hall, now Cabell Hall, to determine the winner of the medal. Another prize was made available in 1895 by Professor James A. Harrison who offered a medal to be awarded the best debator of the two societies. Like some other historical items of the Hall, this medal cannot now be found. A comparatively recent interest in fostering the art of debate took shape in a 1913 joint proposal by the Jefferson and Washington Societies 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 which was soon to have seventy-five member schools. For a number of years, the societies shared in the administration of the league, and the Jefferson Society can be proud of having influenced the establishment of so important an educational development.
The influence of the Hall infiltrated intramural sports to some extent, and both societies actively participated in baseball and football. Examining the minutes of the Jefferson Society, one quickly sees that this group was consistently victorious, although scores are often omitted. While baseball by 1904 had its own definite rules, College Topics reported that the umpire in the first game between these two societies was to be guided by Robert’s Rules of Order.
With its diversified interest in politics and sports, the Jefferson Society did not fail to live up to expectations that it should be active in literary undertakings; it has, in fact, during the greater parts of its existence been connected with a series of leading publications of the student body. At times it has merely elected representatives to serve as directors and editors, while at other times it has been in complete control. Until recently these different publications have in reality been the same magazine. Although it had a succession of different names, it was usually referred to as the “Mag.” According to all available information, the “Mag” was first published in 1856, and it was not again mentioned in the minutes until October 21, 1865, when the title, University Magazine, was used. This name was changed to Virginia University Magazine in 1886, to the University of Virginia Magazine in 1894, and to the Virginia Spectator in 1938. Under the last name, the magazine has gained a reputation in excess of all expectations. Having an originally modest purpose of fostering interest in literary achievements and other interests at Virginia, the “Spectator” was soon to take on the characteristics of a strictly humorous magazine. It is now one of the most widely read, if not appreciated, college humor magazines in the East. On April 6, 1956, the Society became sensitive to the need for a publication fit to print serious material, and realizing that most other universities could boast of a literary magazine, the Hall launched such a publication under the old title, University of Virginia Magazine. The control that the Society now has over both magazines takes the form of choosing for each a board of directors who function as heads of the respective corporations, with all members of the Hall being nominal stockholders. [(2)]
It is only natural that a society with so many interests and activities would attract competent men at the University who were later to achieve national fame. The most notable of the Jefferson Society’s alumni of recent times was President Woodrow Wilson, an active member of the Hall as well as its presiding officer for some time. Other distinguished sons of Jeff have been Senators Bruce, Swanson, Williams, and Underwood; Governor Manning of South Carolina; the late President of the University, Dr. Edwin Alderman; Virginius Dabney of the Richmond Times-Dispatch; and President of the University, Colgate W. Darden.
Many of the Hall’s celebrations have been in honor of its past notables. The first recorded annual banquet was held on January 21, 1908, in honor of Edgar Allan Poe. Unfortunately, because of conflicts in the exam schedule based on the two-semester system, the Poe Banquet has not been held recently. The Society’s annual banquet, which is still observed, was first held in 1908 on Founder’s Day in honor of Mr. Jefferson. An observer of these festivities remarked that the Founder was honored with the aid of “brass bands and the presence of lovely ladies, who lent the charm and grace of their beauty to the occasion.” On November 18, 1926, the Jefferson Society held one of the most splendid celebrations of its history. On arriving at the hundredth year of its existence, the Hall felt it appropriate to hold a centennial. Senator Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama, once President of the Hall, was the chief speaker at the ceremony that was held in Cabell Hall. In the evening, many dignitaries attended a formal banquet at the Dolly Madison Inn. After these festivities, hardly anyone imagined that in only eleven years there would be a celebration to rival the centennial. The ceremony of 1936 was to honor Woodrow Wilson. A dinner was given at the Monticello Hotel with Mrs. Wilson and two Senators present. At a special meeting of the Society called following the banquet, Mrs. Wilson was elected to honorary membership. To this date she remains the only woman so honored by the Hall. Aside from these special occasions, the closing exercises occupied much of the Society’s enthusiasm and interest. These yearly events were characterized by a good deal of preparation and elaborate displays of oratorical eloquence, and the honor of participating in these programs was highly coveted by all societies at the time.
It was fortunate for the Society that these special and yearly activities served to focus its interests, for during the late ’twenties well into the Depression, the Law School’s moot court upstaged the Hall and gained much of the enthusiasm that the University once had for the Jefferson Society. The Washington Society fell under the burden of the competition, but Jeff managed to become revitalized in the mid ’thirties and retained an upper hand until the war years ushered in a period of mediocrity. After the War and the return of the hard-bitten veterans, much of the frivolity was eliminated from the Hall. It was not until the ’fifties that the humorous side of the Society could again be seen; and although the later ’fifties show an increased volume of activities, humor has remained entrenched as a characteristic of the Society. A recent speaker before the Hall, lecturing on all the phrases of development of the Society, characterized this stage as the “Beer Keg Era.”
Among its many functions today, the Jefferson Society sponsors two contests that are the outcome of the generosity of two of its past members. The Francis F. Phillips Memorial Contest was initiated by Captain James Earle Phillips of Staunton Military Academy in May of 1950 (3). It provides for a cash prize of twenty-five dollars and a trophy to be given for the best literary work entered in a contest open to the entire student body. The Benjamin C. Moomaw Contest is supported from a $1,200 endowment, a gift of Dr. Moomaw, one of the Hall’s most loyal supporters. It was begun in March, 1948, as an oratorical contest open to all members of the University. The winner’s name is inscribed on a plaque, and a painting or an engraving of the University is presented to him.
Paintings, as a matter of fact, are close to the Hall’s heart, as only in 1957 it renovated the portrait of Thomas Jefferson which hangs over the chair of the President of the Society. This painting is from a small sketch by John Trumbull that was copied by Miss Fannie Burke, Mr. Jefferson’s great-granddaughter. Although this painting is quite valuable, it is not nearly so prized as the Sully portrait of Thomas Jefferson which was purchased in1853 for fifty dollars. This purchase proved to be a sound investment as the present value is approximately sixty thousand dollars. The Sully portrait can now be seen in the University Museum.
It is impossible to conclude the history of an organization as active as the Jefferson Society. One can only bring it up to date. And even this is difficult in the case of the Hall, since it is as much a tradition as a society. In furtherance of its ideals, the Jefferson Society has recently begun inviting guest speakers for the benefit of the entire University. Its co-sponsoring a program featuring an address by John Dos Passos resulted in an evening that saw an auditorium in Clark Hall bulge at the seams as listeners were forced to stand outside the windows to hear the great American author. An address by T. Coleman Andrews, 1956 presidential candidate, also drew an enthusiastic crowd. The Hall and the University have also benefited by talks from President Darden of the University and from William Faulkner, Virginia’s writer-in-residence. Shortly after his inauguration as the fourth President of the University, Dr. Edgar F. Shannon delivered an address to the Hall.
Preserving its close ties with the founder of the University, the Society was addressed by Dumas Malone, one of the greatest living scholars on Thomas Jefferson. In 1960, the tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence at the meeting before Founder’s Day was revived. Members of the Hall also participated in the 1960 Founder’s Day exercises at which Adlai E. Stevenson, twice the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, delivered the principal address. During the 1960-61 session, the Society sponsored a series of speakers on Africa among whom was Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, United Nations undersecretary and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Society has not failed to recognize current problems involving both the administration and the students of the University. Projects of the Hall never cease, but always change. The eyes of the University are always on Virginia’s traditions, among which the Jefferson Society is distinguished. As such it can eagerly look forward toward the future, proud of being the oldest functioning collegiate literary society in the nation.
Revised and Edited by Taylor Hoskins II, John Henderson, Duff Green, and Henrich Boruni
1. P. A. Bruce, History of the University of Virginia. [return to text]
2. Since the original publication of this article, the Spectator Corporation has been dissolved. The Mag, however, carried on. [return to text]
3. The Phillips award has been temporarily discontinued. Steps are being taken to reinstitute the contest. [return to text]