New exhibit highlights Phi Beta Kappa at Union

Publication Date

In July 1813, a group of seniors, promising to promote “the general interests of Literature and Science in our young but promising country,” petitioned for the College to host the first New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

A similar effort in 1803 had failed, in part, because the College, then just eight years old, was “lacking in academic standards” according to representatives of PBK, one of the nation’s most prestigious academic honor societies.

This time, the students at the all-male school got a boost from President Eliphalet Nott, who vouched for these “young gentleman of unblemished moral character and of respectable literary acquirements.”

Four years later, the Alpha of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was granted its charter, joining the College of William and Mary (where PBK was founded in 1776), Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth.

Phi Beta Kappa’s presence on campus immediately boosted the fledgling school’s academic reputation, providing a (sometimes secret) forum for students to debate controversial topics and to host lectures by distinguished orators.

The letter petitioning for a chapter at Union and the original charter are featured in a new exhibit, “Friendship, Morality and Literature: Celebrating 200 years of Phi Beta Kappa at Union College” on display in Beuth Atrium in Schaffer Library.

An opening reception is from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21. The exhibit coincides with Union’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of its Phi Beta Kappa chapter on May 1, 1817.

Election to membership is one of the highest distinctions given for academic achievement. The society’s mission is to champion education in the liberal arts and sciences, foster freedom of thought, and recognize academic excellence.

Some of the College’s most prominent alumni were members, including William Seward, Class of 1820 and Chester Arthur, Class of 1848. There are more than 1,300 living alumni in the chapter, and 53 faculty and administrators and four students in the Class of 2017 are members of the PBK.

“The exhibit is a reminder of how important it was to have the opportunity to debate and for people to grow intellectually,” said India Spartz, head of Special Collections and Archives. She and Linda Stanhope, professor of psychology and president of Union’s PBK, co-curated the exhibit.

“You can really see how the society shaped Union in the liberal arts.”

Spartz and Stanhope combed through more than 100 items related to PBK stored in Special Collections before selecting up to two dozen that comprise the exhibit.

Included are historical letters from prominent figures invited to speak to members, such as Governor DeWitt Clinton in 1821. There are copies of the society’s minutes, providing a window into some of the topics debated during the early years, including Seward on “Ought the territory of Missouri be admitted to the Union?” Seward was assigned the opposing view, facing off against fellow student Leonard Bronk. He apparently lost the debate, though he would undoubtedly go on to win many more as Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, governor of New York, and a state and U.S. senator.

Spartz noted that discussions the society sponsored in the 19th century are relevant today.

A debate in 1820 asked, “Is the growing power of Russia dangerous to the liberties of Europe?” And a copy of a discourse on naturalism in 1849 by Taylor Lewis, a professor of Greek, challenged those who seek to obscure the truth.

“They become hiding places of the worst of errors,” Lewis argued. “They obscure simplicity and innate transparency of truth; they furnish false media through with the light might otherwise be clear, comes refracted, and distorted, and full of absurd and monstrous images to the spiritual eye…”

Other items displayed include letters, business records, invitations to PBK events and a collection of the society’s distinctive keys, presented to each elected member and which typically included three stars to symbolize the aim of the society: friendship, morality and literature.

The exhibit runs through August.