On December 5, 1776, Phi Beta Kappa External, America’s most prestigious undergraduate honor society, was founded. Organized by five students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Phi Beta Kappa was the nation’s first Greek letter society. From 1776 to 1780, members met regularly at William and Mary to write, debate, and socialize. They planned the organization’s expansion and established the characteristics typical of American fraternities and sororities: an oath of secrecy, a code of laws, mottoes in Greek and Latin, a badge and a seal, a special handclasp, and an elaborate initiation ritual.
When the Revolutionary War forced William and Mary to close in 1780, newly formed chapters at Harvard and Yale directed Phi Beta Kappa’s growth and development. By the time that the William and Mary chapter was revived in 1851, Phi Beta Kappa was represented at colleges throughout New England. By the end of the nineteenth century, the once secretive, exclusively male social group had dropped its oath of secrecy, opened its doors to women, and transformed itself into a national honor society dedicated to fostering and recognizing excellence in the liberal arts and sciences.
In 1988 the organization changed its name to The Phi Beta Kappa Society, which today has over 270 chapters. Membership in the national organization is based on outstanding achievement in the liberal arts and sciences. Approximately ten percent of the nation’s institutions of high learning have Phi Beta Kappa chapters–typically limited to students in the upper tenth of their graduating class. In 2008, the society counts seven of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices and former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton as members.
Phi Beta Kappa sponsors campus and community activities, fellowships, and service and literary awards. Since 1932, the society has published The American Scholar, a quarterly journal inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 Harvard lecture. The journal aspires to Emerson’s ideals of independent thinking, self-knowledge, and a commitment to world affairs as well as to books, history, and science.
- Search on Phi Beta Kappa in the collections The Nineteenth Century in Print (Cornell University) External and The Nineteenth Century in Print (University of Michigan) External to read various addresses, poems, and orations given by society members.
- The collections contain thousands of photographs of campuses and college life. Search across the Pictorial collections on college to view dormitories, sporting events, class photos, and commencement ceremonies.
- See drawings and photographs of buildings that are part of William and Mary College by searching on that term in Built in America: Historic Building American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering, 1933-Present. See, for example, Brafferton Hall built in 1724 as the first permanent Indian school in the colonies, and the President’s House, attributed to Sir Christopher Wren.
- Search Today in History on college or university to find features on historic American schools including Columbia, Howard University, and Vassar College.