Secret Societies at Princeton in the 19th Century

by Iliyah Coles ’22

A couple of decades after The College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University in 1896) was first established, there were only two known social clubs in existence at the school. These were “the well-meaning club” and “the plain-dealing club,” which eventually evolved into the Whig and Cliosophic societies that we still recognize today. The two societies merged in 1928 and is now known as Whig-Clio. In the 1760s, these two clubs were the biggest part of social life at the college, and students usually joined one or the other. As time passed, though, more and more alternatives to these two clubs began to emerge. Many of them were well-known among students and faculty alike. Others, however, were more underground and became closely-kept secrets. These secret societies ultimately changed social life at Princeton, and sparked a debate about whether or not the school should discourage them.

The presence of secret societies was not fully made known until around 1852, with the rise of Greek life on campus. However, the Princeton University archives contain written letters from students to faculty, pledging to resign from secret societies that date back to 1832.

Student pledge to withdraw from all secret societies except the American Whig and Cliosophic Societies and not to join any other secret society while students at Princeton, November 17, 1832. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 212, Folder 18.

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This Week in Princeton History for September 27-October 3

In this week’s installment of our recurring series, the Board of Trustees approves a plan for French classes, a student is sent home for involvement in a secret society, and more.

September 27, 1843—The Board of Trustees vote to require students to pay a $5 deposit in order to study French, which will be refunded if, and only if, they complete the full term of the course.

September 28, 1789—A member of the Class of 1789, upon graduating, writes of leaving Princeton: “Freed from tyrannic tutor’s sway, I leave thee, sacred doom! This day, Adieu ye reverend hypocrites! Ye holy despots, little wits!”

September 30, 1956—Director of Admission C. William Edwards reassures students and alumni that coeducation is “impossible” at Princeton and “Princeton has never considered the possibility of co-education.”

October 1, 1855—Samuel Betts, Class of 1856, is suspended from Princeton for wearing the badge of a forbidden secret society.

Although we don’t know specifically what badge Betts wore, this is an example of a mourning badge that members of the society, Phi Kappa Sigma, wore in 1863. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 212, Folder 2.

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

This Week in Princeton History for July 12-18

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, two juniors evacuate their summer program abroad when war breaks out, word is spreading about a ban on secret societies, and more.

July 13, 1895—Native Americans are rumored to have raided a party of Princeton students on a scientific expedition in the American west, but this will later prove false.

July 16, 2006—After days of uncertainty, Callie Lefevre ’09 and Emily Norris ’09 flee Beirut for Cyprus following the outbreak of war between Lebanon and Israel. “I felt like a first-class citizen on the Titanic,” Lefevre will later reflect.

Callie Lefevre ’09 reunites with her mother at Newark Airport, 2006. Clipping from the Daily Princetonian.

July 17, 1930—A bronze memorial tablet is dedicated in Pershing Hall in Paris, the first such memorial to be placed there. It contains the names of the Princeton alumni who died in World War I.

July 18, 1855—Virginia’s Alexandria Gazette reports that Princeton has banned secret societies and students will be required to sign a pledge not to join one. Any student found to be in a secret society will be promptly dismissed.

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

This Week in Princeton History for December 18-24

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a newspaper’s editorial cartoon satirizes the contrast between the presidential leadership of John Maclean and James McCosh, a Princetonian becomes Senate Majority Leader, and more.

December 18, 1772—John Witherspoon writes to the New York Gazette to defend himself against charges that by praising the College of New Jersey (Princeton) he is denigrating the College of New York (most likely this refers to King’s College, which will later be renamed Columbia University). “There are many real Advantages attending a College in a large City, for the Instruction and Improvement of Youth. Should any Gentleman think fit to recommend the College of New-York, on these Accounts, pray how would it be taken if I should resent it as an Injury to the College of New-Jersey?”

December 22, 1875—The Daily Graphic runs a front-page editorial cartoon depicting the faculty of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) as the frogs, former president John Maclean as the Log King, and current president John McCosh as the Stork King in Aesop’s fable, “The Frogs who Desired a King.” Three student fraternities waving signs in the background reference recent controversies over secret societies at Princeton.

Cartoon from Daily Graphic, December 22, 1875. Click to enlarge.

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