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Further on the Origins

The following may be of use to those interested in the origins of honor societies in general:

Student associations of a social nature were formed hundreds of years ago in European universities. These student groups, guilds and other social, literary, and religious associations, existed in Europe over many centuries and in many forms. By the time colleges were founded in the American colonies, however, nearly all traces of student organizations and independence in lifestyle had been eliminated. Thus, the institution of American college Greek-letter fraternities is the unique development of American students.

Of the nine colonial colleges established in the 1600s and 1700s, the College of William and Mary was among the most prominent and had some of the best classroom and residential buildings. Founded in 1693, it is second in age only to Harvard. It was at William and Mary, during the Revolutionary War, that the first Greek-letter college fraternity was established.

When the United States Declaration of Independence was read in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, it proclaimed the right of the colonials to have government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Adoption of that galvanizing idea soon reached Williamsburg, Virginia, a hotbed of agitation for independence. The flame of revolution spread among students at William and Mary, and they were eager to discuss the burning issues of the day, especially topics more directly affecting student life.

However, the opportunity for students to form a group and to debate any issue was severely restricted within college walls, so students gathered in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg for the limited discussions which were possible. In this atmosphere, on December 5, 1776, five close and trusted friends remained after other students returned to campus. They formed the first permanent Greek-letter society in North America . The name they chose was Phi Beta Kappa ().

It is believed that Phi Beta Kappa grew out of an older William and Mary organization, founded in 1750, named the Flat Hat Society; notably, Thomas Jefferson was a member. Phi Beta Kappa was, of necessity, a secret society. To protect its members, it had all of the attributes of most modern fraternities--an oath of secrecy, a badge or key, mottos in Greek, an initiation and a handshake.

Before the British invasion of Virginia forced closure of the College of William and Mary and the disbandment of Phi Beta Kappa in early 1781, students in New England colleges established other branches of the society. The second chapter was founded at Yale University in late 1780, the third at Harvard University in 1781, and the fourth at Dartmouth College in 1787. From them, Phi Beta Kappa evolved from a fraternity with principally academic and some social purposes to an entirely honorary organization recognizing scholastic achievement. While Phi Beta Kappa developed the distinctive characteristics of Greek-letter fraternities, it was left to other students to fill the natural human need for fellowship with kindred students by extension of fraternity to a social context.

Further chapters appeared at Union College in 1817, Bowdoin College in 1825, and Brown University in 1830. The original chapter at William & Mary also was reestablished. Secrecy was abandoned in 1831 during a period of strong anti-Masonic sentiment. The first chapter established after becoming an "open" society was at Trinity College in 1845.

As the first collegiate organization of its type to adopt a Greek-letter name, it is generally considered the forerunner of modern college fraternities as well as the model for later honor societies. Ironically, it was partly the rise of true "social" fraternities modeled after Phi Beta Kappa later that century which obviated the social aspects of membership in the organization, transforming it into the honor society it is today.

By 1883, when the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa were established, there were 25 chapters. The first women were elected to the society at the University of Vermont in 1875, and the first African-American member was elected at the same institution two years later.

Each chapter is designated by its state and a Greek letter indicating the order in which that state's chapters were founded. For example, Alpha of Pennsylvania refers to the chapter at Dickinson College (1887); Beta of Pennsylvania at Lehigh University (1887); Gamma of Pennsylvania at Lafayette College (1890); and Delta of Pennsylvania at the University of Pennsylvania (1892).