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 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 higher learning have Phi Beta Kappa chapters, with membership typically limited to students in the upper tenth of their graduating class. As of 2020, the society counts five of the nine current U.S. Supreme Court justices and former presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, plus 14 others 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 and to books, history, and science.
- Search Phi Beta Kappa in the collections Making of America (Cornell University) External and Making of America (University of Michigan) External to read various addresses, poems, and orations given by society members.
- The Library’s collections contain thousands of photographs of campuses and college life. Search across Photos, Prints, and Drawings using the term 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 the name of the college in Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. For example, see 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.