Secret societies . . . are the consequence of an effort of individuals—usually and mainly men—to create the social conditions for exercising their gregarious propensities, the expression of which may be (or may seem to be) inhibited by their community.

—Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups (1969)


Bonding in secret—both the internal process, and the external profile, of Yale’s senior “secret” societies—has made them, over the almost two centuries of their existence, objects of fascination, fear, and scorn. Less appreciated is their prehistory of student society predecessors in Europe and more especially England. And almost unknown is how, at their inception in New Haven and in the decades to follow, their members deviated from the common pattern of the new college fraternities being founded on other campuses, and created a particularly American forcing chamber of self-education and prestige, to become nationally renowned over the succeeding decades.

Organized secrecy is a feature of many civilizations. That human beings gather together in social groups is a commonly observed phenomenon, and such groupings are a much examined subject of sociologists and anthropologists. Still, secret societies are not so much studied unless they are part of exotic native cultures, because such organizations are more than vaguely suspect in our own culture. The whole subject is neglected as an area for serious investigation, a noted Oxford historian has observed, because once “the historian passed by, the charlatan, the axe-grinder and the paranoiac long had the field to themselves. . . . All of us have presuppositions which make it difficult for us to appreciate social purposes when they are expressed in an unfamiliar idiom, and these constantly ensnare and divert us when dealing with a topic so rich in irrational elements as this.” Unless a secret association is supported by, or is part of, the political authority of the state, its formation and operation are always regarded by some outsiders as potentially aggressive. Secrecy itself is usually perceived as hostile.1

These societies have been defined as “any social grouping not based on blood relationship which possesses some ritualistic element of secrecy, the knowledge of which is confined to initiated members.”2 Why we form secret societies, for reasons other than plotting conspiracy, and that such societies have been primarily male are subjects also examined by academics, but less understood by the general public. That public does appreciate one prominent feature: fraternal orders, like churches, are “expressive” organizations, directed primarily toward meeting the social and personal needs of their members. In contrast, “instrumental” organizations such as trade unions or professional associations have specific goals to accomplish, and mediate between members and the outside world.

Secret societies are also an expression of the “play element” in American culture, which Johan Huizinga has described as a distinct and fundamental function of life in all societies, where humans create “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” While it cannot be defined exactly, play is “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world.”3 These characteristics are shared by the Yale senior societies: a game, most seriously and solemnly played by their members, which necessarily involved those on the outside as well as on the inside of the game.

This play, however, can be offensive or even frightening to the outsider. Fraternal ritual presumes a surrounding network of relations, the community of birth and rearing. Formation of a fraternity, however, is a violation of that community, an acknowledgment of obligations which transcend it, an assertion that the identity conferred by the greater community is lower in the scheme of things. While still in the larger society, the initiated brothers are never again of it. The fact that fraternal ritual surrounded itself in secrecy and mystery suggests as much. “Whether secrecy is a tool for power or a sacred truth not to be uttered before the profane, the secret presumes those from whom the secret is kept. It is based, as are ‘rites of passage’ in general, on a separation between the included and excluded.”4

Moreover, a private, self-selected fraternity guarding a secret knowledge seems to many to challenge the value of democratic publicity, causing social tension in the contest between a community’s right to knowledge and the individual’s right to privacy. Sociologist Georg Simmel’s work on secrecy helps to provide a framework for trying to understand this, in noting that the “relation which is mysterious in form regardless of accidental content” is an attractive one: secrecy within a community creates a subgroup that has special reasons for a sense of confidence among the members. Exclusion of outsiders heightens the sense of individual difference, provides a center of unity, and, within the subgroup, “countenances the separatistic factors” that Alexis de Tocqueville had lamented as a consequence of American democracy.

To many, it seems puzzling that fraternity has so often been associated with the secret society. Of course, the secret emphasizes the distinction between insiders and outsiders, and thus strengthens the bonds which unite the former. However, what is critical is the nature and purpose of the secret as viewed by the initiates; that, as Georg Simmel knew, is crucial to an evaluation of a secret society to be a “fraternity.” In most instances, the secret is not what is valued most highly by the members. Secrecy is adopted as a means to ends other than the protection of the secret, as is obvious in the case of formal and public “secret” societies. Publicity calls attention to the society and raises the danger that the secret will be discovered. The risk is justifiable only if the members desire the attention which publicity provides, valuing the interest, curiosity, and attention of the community.

A more striking and romantic explanation of the secret society than that of the sociologists and anthropologists, founded on youthful cravings, was offered by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796, translated into English by Thomas Carlyle in 1824), he wrote of a secret university student brotherhood, the Turmergesellschaft, the Tower Society. “The taste of youth for secrecy,” he observed, “for ceremonies, for imposing words, is extraordinary; and frequently bespeaks a certain depth of character. In those years, we wish to feel our whole nature seized and moved, even though it be but vaguely and darkly. The youth who happens to have lofty aspirations and forecastings thinks that secrets yield him much, that he must depend on secrets, and effect much by means of them.”5 The college students who founded the first Yale secret societies were possessed of the same belief.

In the twenty-first century, such an attitude seems remote, and even alien. Yet what has been styled “secret fraternalism” represents one of the major patterns of American civilization. In this country’s early years, it was of course imported from England. Even before 1700, the English had formulated a new respect for private and informal activity, with the appearance of such meeting places as coffeehouses, clubs, and salons, inventions of men and women making new demands on society and discovering new capacities in themselves which could not be given expression within the historic unities of blood, locality, religion, occupation, and legal subordination. Here, too, were founded the first “secret societies,” in the modern sense of that phrase. Sometimes lighthearted, sometimes not, they guarded their secrets jealously and took elaborate precautions against the approach of the profane and uninitiated. Of these societies, immeasurably the most important were those of the Freemasons.6

The first grand Masonic lodge was formed in 1717 out of four London lodges that in turn owe their origins to the masons’ guild in that city. An early masonic document dating from 1659 contains a mason’s oath that a brother “keep all that we or attendees shall be[,] you keep secret, from Man, Woman, or Child, Stock or Stone, and never reveal it but to a Brother or in a Lodge of free masons, and truly observe the Charges in the Constitution.” The order included not only “operative” Masons who gathered themselves into “lodges” (the term Freemason may have come from the designation of those who worked with freestone, a generic term for any fine-grained stone that could be carved), but also “speculative” Masons, men who were honorary members rather than craftsmen. They came to predominate, and the brotherhood devoted itself to building “spiritual instead of material temples.”

The lodge structure was functional, meeting the needs of a craft whose members were often itinerant, assembling sometimes for limited—even if for lengthy—periods on building sites where no urban craft organized. It may have been the craft’s itinerant nature that explained the early evolution of a secret system of signs for mutual recognition of its members. The trade secrets of the operative Masons became the esoteric secrets of the speculative Masons. This led to a heightening and dramatizing of the language of initiation: the aspirants’ oaths were couched in terrifying terms in order to bring home to them the importance of preserving secrecy about trade practices and signs of recognition in whose defense legendary martyrs were supposed to have died. The order had been introduced into the American colonies by 1730.7

In the United States at the dawn of the nineteenth century, there existed only a few thousand members of secret brotherhoods: approximately three thousand Freemasons, five or six hundred participants in the Tammany societies (the Sons of St. Tamina, born of the Sons of Liberty), and the handful of members at Yale and Harvard College chapters of the literary society Phi Beta Kappa (not yet the national scholarly honorary society of today). Growth was explosive thereafter. By 1825, there were twenty thousand Masons in New York State alone; in Connecticut, with seventy-five lodges by that date, the organization served as a vehicle for dissent from Connecticut’s religious standing order. Beyond the eastern seaboard, secret societies, lodges, and fraternities grew like weeds through the nineteenth century, flourishing in any place with a concentration of young men, in cities and towns and colleges, offering social acceptance at a time when other bonds and commitments were severed for a time, or otherwise in flux.8

That such societies formed within America’s very first colleges is not surprising. The honors examinations in the ancient universities from which those of our nation derived were devised to control youthful impulses, as well as to impart then-settled knowledge, and to organize learning for public purposes. In their quest to maintain such control, the administration and faculty distrusted all undergraduate clubs, suspecting them of subversion. In the eighteenth century, social clubs and dining societies had proliferated for various frivolous and ephemeral purposes, and their rites of passage were boisterous associations of drinking, gambling, and other dissipations. As student bodies grew larger, new associations formed to alleviate the anonymity of the larger campuses. These were devoted to more serious and sober purposes, formulated by collegians who were themselves more mature than their generational predecessors, with the interests of young adults rather than those of children.9

These societies were products of our modern age, the Age of Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant had declared, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. . . . The motto of Enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding.” From Kant’s Germany in the Enlightenment, known there as the Aufklärung, came the debating society, with its tendency to submit all the problems of the world to the test of reason. Knowledge and discussion were exalted above the will and the feelings. The contagion of these new ideas spread to England, and from thence to the fertile soil of its American colonies.10


The doctrines of the Enlightenment, originating in Europe, entered America through the port cities and the great plantations, the “ports of entry” for ideas as well as trade. The new theories, moreover, had appeals which specifically commended them to Americans. The Enlightenment removed the constraints from human imagination and seemed suited to the openness of the continent. Social and political goals became freed from the old country fetters of experience and history and, indeed, from those of reason: what a man could conceive, he might achieve, expecially in America, where the hand of the past fell lightly.11

While the first student associations in American colonial colleges were largely religious in nature, like the Moral Society founded at Yale in 1797 by students as a secret society to examine and self-correct their own behavior, the Spy Club at Harvard in 1719 had a different focus. Its constitution stipulated, “That any Difficulty may be propos’d to the Company and when propos’d the Company shall deliver their Thôts upon it,” and “That there be a Disputation on Two or more questions at every Meeting, one part of the Company holding the Affirmative, the other the Negative part of ye question.” (Each of the Spy Club’s six members assumed a nickname by which he would be addressed within the club, a feature that was to be replicated in Yale College’s senior societies).12

The first effective agency of intellect to make itself felt in the American college was the debating club or “literary society.” These appeared first at Yale, founded in 1753 (Linonia) and 1768 (Brothers in Unity), and soon thereafter at Princeton (the American Whig, joined in 1769 by future president James Madison when a student, and the Cliosophic, founded in 1770), and at Harvard (the Speaking Club, afterward the Institute of 1770, and then Hasty Pudding). John Quincy Adams, Harvard class of 1787, who belonged to both the Speaking Club and Phi Beta Kappa, wrote: “Of these societies friendship is the soul, and literary improvement the object; and consequently neither of them is numerous.” Yale also led in establishing the American college tradition of founding not one but two competing societies. Where the writing of compositions drew the student into the interior world of the vita contemplativa, the literary society’s debates pushed him outward, upon the public stage of the vita activa.13

“Literary” did not in this era mean “mere” literature—fiction, verse, and drama. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the American college itself was styled a literary institution, meaning, roughly, all knowledge (conveying much of the present German word Wissenschaft). Students went to college to become men of knowledge, men of literature, men of letters, to become literati. Parents and guardians were clear about their motives in sending their sons to Yale and other colleges, and students too agreed that becoming a member of the literary world was demanding but inspiring.14

The earliest American college literary society known to have existed anywhere is Crotonia, founded at Yale in 1738 but disappearing before 1767; it paved the way for both Linonia and Brothers in Unity, which together after 1802 were to include all members of Yale College—the incoming freshmen divided between them alphabetically—up to and beyond the creation of the senior societies. In rivalry, they had not only badges but their own mottoes and colors (red for Linonia, and blue for Brothers), and constitutions permitting membership to all undergraduates who were not a member of the other society.

The waves of political interest produced by Revolutionary War made the new nation’s college literary societies for fifty years the strongest force in American student life, with two prominent societies—a strong testimonial to the competitive principle, replicated in the later history of the Yale senior societies—at each of Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Amherst, Williams, Brown, Wesleyan, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. When Yale’s Southerners formed Calliope in 1819, the New Haven college was indeed to have three. Futhermore, in their prime on college campuses, these societies were the major, and often the only, student extracurricular activity.15

The society members intended themselves for the professions and politics. In the decade of the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to the fact that one-eighth of the members of Congress had been born in Connecticut, a state whose population comprised only one forty-third of the nation’s. By 1835, the law rivaled the ministry as a professional choice of graduates of Yale, Bowdoin, Brown, and Dartmouth. At Yale, the ministry slipped from 33 percent as a professional choice of graduates in 1821 to 15 percent in 1861. Those who survived the rigors of university examination, developing the skills of puzzle-solving, mental speed, and verbal agility into tools for self-preservation and representation, knew that eloquence and rhetoric were essential devices for the translation, mediation, and interpretation of their world and work. Clarity of thought, reason and eloquence, and quickness of mind all contributed to their cultural authority to move others, in the legislature and in the courts, from one side of a proposition to another, or one side of a case to another.16

This was, in other words, the age of the “self-made man,” a term coined by southern Senator Henry Clay in 1832 (the year Skull and Bones was founded) to describe the ability to perfect the self through sustained, concentrated efforts to improve the mind, morals, and body, with an identity that was a voluntarily chosen and consciously constructed. This ideal was not something that had to be achieved by an individual in isolation, nor was it then narrowly identified with entrepreneurship and money-making. In the nineteenth century it applied not to Americans who succeeded in the material world but rather to those who pursued inner self-improvement, forging a balanced character from nature’s raw material.17

This was to be cogently expressed by Daniel H. Chamberlain, a member of the Yale class of 1861 and Skull and Bones (and later the governor of South Carolina), in an article on the role of American college literary societies written in his senior year. “What is the secret of the success of men whom the world calls self-made?,” he asked, and answered: “The self-made man . . . is able to marshal his mental forces more readily and precipitate them more effectively than he who has passed through a liberal course of study in the schools, but neglected to use his powers and acquirements, in his progress. To correct this great error and supply this great defect, we think no other agency is so admirably adapted as the Literary Society, since there is scarcely a single faculty of mind which may not here find its appropriate field of activity. . . . Here, in the flash and glow of mental combat, all effeminate softness must be put away, and the strong armor of argument, principle, history, logic, must be put on. But over all this severity and out of all this austerity, shall grow a grander Beauty, a more delicate Grace.”18


In this American student practice of organizing secret societies as preparation for entering the great world, two conditions were essential. Secrecy was the first, a protection against authority (particularly in the consideration of religious questions in a speculative manner), as well as a barrier against the frivolous, the curious, and the idle who would challenge or demean the entire enterprise. The emergence of individuality and cognitive daring was permitted by privacy, and secrecy actually encouraged intellectual dissent. When discussions became more personal, confronting the young men’s individual doubts and fears about themselves (and about women), privacy became even more vital; withdrawal behind closed doors was in such circumstances eminently reasonable. Such groups had no public function: their role was to provide an environment within which their members could consider separate, sometimes clashing, and certainly private views without public explanations.19

In organizing fraternities in the 1820s and 1830s, which they called and were secret societies, these students were also going against the political temper of their times. The nation had largely embraced the Jacksonian ideal of this era—everyone equal before God, equal before one another—but the collegians had perhaps known too much equality, with the same class program, the same class subjects, the same professors, the same prayers, the same drab cubicles in uniform dormitories. In the very decades of the Age of Jackson, the students clearly preferred the privileges of secrecy and club life to equality before the Creator, and were inspired and energized by the very exclusiveness which the Jacksonian temper rejected. However paradoxical it may seem, they also came into being during the anti-Freemason fervor in the United States which excoriated secret societies in general and the Masons in particular, a protest and a scandal of which the students cannot have been ignorant, and yet they forged ahead nonetheless.

Even secret societies which hide neither their aims nor their members’ names still take extraordinary efforts to forbid disclosure of their rituals. Given this mindset, the most vicious form of disloyalty, according to the principles of the secret society, is disclosure of the ritualistic features of the order to outsiders.20

Notably, these manifestations of secrecy were intertwined with the Enlightenment. Language about being enlightened, and at the same time secretive about the commitment to the Enlightenment, was used self-consciously by Freemasons to identify their society with “the highest aspirations of the new secular culture . . . [but this] only reinforced the masonic dedication to secrecy that was as much metaphorical as it was real. The belief that most people were incapable of, or hostile to, the new culture of Enlightenment was widespread both within and without the lodges. Indeed, Kant himself had carefully qualified his description of the age; as he ruefully observed, ours is not an enlightened age.”21 The attitude was one that Phi Beta Kappa in America, founded by newly minted Freemasons who were students at the College of William and Mary, was to pass on in barely diluted form to its successor institutions, the Yale senior societies.

The second essential condition for a secret society was friendship, the foundation of college youth culture. Linonia’s first name was the “Fellowship Club,” and its constitution held its first two objects to be “to promote friendship [and] Social Intercourse.” Away from things familiar and surrounded by young men of largely similar age and circumstance, university students formed close friendships with their classmates: “A hundred boys entering college together—all strangers to its customs, most of them coming unsophisticated from the family roof—conceive for each other an affection that often lasts for a lifetime, without any better reason than that early community in the charms and against the terrors of a strange life.” If liberal learning, after the Enlightenment, was “an intellectual free-trade territory into which those from outside the orthodox and conventional world could now enter,” friendship was also an abiding value in a world whose metaphors were drawn from an antique past, fundamental as a political truth in the ancient republics and of first importance to ancient religious feelings as well.22

With the Greeks, it involved the love of teachers and their pupils; with the Romans, in Cicero’s De Amicitia, it involved the love of equals; with the Christians, it called for the feelings described in the Gospel of St. John. C. S. Lewis observed that, for the ancients, friendship “seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue.” Man must pay homage to the social needs of continuity, nurture, and education, mindful of the hierarchy inherent in human improvement. Only among brothers, however, was a man free to follow up what was best in him at any time, and hence climb the ladder of excellence. The possibility of moving forward in the search for identity requires the support of persons who assure our identity anew, not as authority might, by giving us the conviction of a new, “known” self, but by stimulating us to seek the self which remains unknown.23

It was not pretense that caused such student societies (literary societies, then college fraternities) to adopt, as slogans, variations on the idealistic triad of friendship, love, and truth. These very values had been nurtured in the American home and maintained in family life for virtually two centuries past in the growing nation The nineteenth-century families which the young men left for their respective colleges were themselves strong social organizations, often being large, and certainly patriarchal, communal, and socially self-sufficient for the most part. The student society was intended to domesticate the frontier college community.24

Yale president Timothy Dwight, an undergraduate member of the Skull and Bones club of 1849, described the centrality of friendship sensitively and eloquently, in the context of the New Haven senior year and secret societies, in his memoirs. “[T]here can be no doubt,” he wrote, “as to the positive influence of the smaller bodies [as opposed to the class-wide old literary societies] on the development of friendship among their members. This was especially true of the societies pertaining to the Senior year—and naturally so, in view of the fact that in our College, as contrasted with many others, the active membership in the [underclass] fraternities of the earlier years ceased when those years came to an end. The men who were united in the fraternity fellowship as Seniors came together, accordingly, as a small and selected company, in the latest period of their course, when their minds and characters had developed to the highest point of college life; when the great questions of their future, with the seriousness attendant upon them, were arising before all alike; and when the very approach of the end of the happy period, which they had found so full of blessing, was bringing a sadness of spirit that could not but make the heart open itself with tenderness and sympathy.”25

More than a construct of literature and sociology, friendship provided the code and social insulation necessary for collegians as they sought vocation. It was the avenue through which they could escape the rigidities of family and religion, and slip away from the confines of the colleges which were otherwise so important to them for their identities. More than companionship, friendship represented a means of social and personal survival in a fraught and antagonistic world, a way they could confront, not alone, the most personal and elemental features of life encountered in their new college community: harsh discipline, financial catastrophe, disease, and death. “Some [in college] fail through indolence,” a graduate wrote, “some through want of health; some through poverty, perhaps; some get dishonorable dismissions; some die—too early to be entered with an asterisk in the triennial catalogue” (the usual way in postgraduate publication of noting a society or fraternity member’s death).26 Two of Yale’s freshman dormitories on the Old Campus are memorials by their parents to young men who died as juniors or seniors: Lawrance Hall is named for Thomas Garner Lawrance, class of 1884 and Skull and Bones, and Vanderbilt Hall for William H. Vanderbilt, class of 1893 and Scroll and Key.

Life’s temptations and devastations, through friendship and fellowship, could be foreseen, better understood, and mastered. Again, friendship was the bridge which the students might cross from self-formation to some vocation in adult life. It allowed young people, secure only with one another, to attack hierarchy, to associate themselves with free-thinking and enlightenment beyond hallowed certainties, to ask and answer, when freed within their secret societies of family restraints and social connections, the fundamental question: what should one believe and in that belief, to what and whom should one be loyal, in a dangerous and risky world? In their quest for learning to be true to themselves, to their duty as they saw it, and to a pure if abstract truth, friendship galvanized and sustained them.


If all this is so, then it is fitting that the motto “only connect” was formulated by the English novelist E. M. Forster,27 elected in 1901 to the first famous Anglo-American college secret society. This, the Cambridge Conversazione Society, was founded in 1820 in Cambridge, England, in that town’s namesake university by George Tomlinson, who would become Bishop of Gibraltar, and eleven other members of St. John’s College. Because they were originally twelve in number, and because their evangelical views were somewhat pronounced in the club’s first several college generations (of the original twelve, nine took holy orders), they became known as “the Apostles,” although they referred to themselves simply as “the Society.” Because they believed they were gathered for serious purposes, and not merely convivial gustatory or social pursuits, or for the celebration of athletic victories, they distinguished themselves in tone and membership from other student societies at Oxford or Cambridge. And because these purposes and proceedings were confidential, even to mention membership in the society in memoirs was to break the rules of secrecy.28

Although in time the personal and professional distinction of their graduates (including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lytton Strachey, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Forster) would make them famous—and with certain later twentieth-century members, the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, notorious—there is no evidence that the existence of the Apostles was known in New Haven a dozen years later when Skull and Bones was founded in 1832, or that this English university club provided any pattern for the membership number or traditions of any Yale senior society. Still, the transatlantic parallels in cloaked customs and coded nomenclature are striking. The Cambridge-birthed traditions constitute further evidence that the social and historical forces that converged in the creation of the Yale groups were not unique to America, and in consequence similar institutions flowered at two widely separated locations, alike only in their institutional settings as seminaries of learning for their respective countries’ future leaders in church and state.

More than seventy Apostles were elected between 1820 and 1830, but thereafter slightly more than three, on average, were elected each year, their numbers narrowing to members who mostly would attain great marks of success in the Tripos examinations. They did not seek uniformity, but valued individual differences, candor, openness, and intelligence, because only in this way could they learn from one another; they also sought manners, charm, and affection because these qualities were necessary for an environment of intense intimacy. Birth, social position, and wealth counted for virtually nothing in election. They met each Saturday evening after meals in hall during term, with all members obliged to attend and each, at regular intervals, to read an essay.29

The Cambridge Conversazione Society, like the Yale senior societies which were to follow in its wake, although not inspired by its example, left an indelible mark upon its members by creating feelings of self-discovery and enlightenment, and giving them feelings of self-confidence, belonging, consequence, and liberation. In his presidential address to the Apostles’ annual dinner in 1896, Sir Donald MacAlister of Tarbert, by then the chancellor of the University of Glasgow, said that “The voice that issues from the hearth-rug on Saturday nights has gone through all the earth, its sound to the world’s end. It speaks in Senates, though men know it not, it controls principalities and powers, it moulds philosophies, it inspires literatures. To those of us in the world of the unreal who are constrained ‘to keep the up-right hat, the mid-way of custom,’ the memory of it is a priceless possession.”

“We have been young,” he continued, “we have drunk delight of battle with our spiritual peers, we have dared to question everything, we have sworn at the words of every master. We know that there are such things as liberty, equality, fraternity: for we have reveled in free and equal brotherhood.”30 In those words are all of the fierce joy and unbridled arrogance of membership in this Cambridge secret society, sentiments for which the senior societies at Yale were later to be celebrated and damned. But although they still have their Ark, the Cambridge men, unlike those New Haven societies, have never had a permanent home: ironically, these Apostles have never entered a tomb.


It seems doubtful that anyone on the campus in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1832 knew of Goethe’s celebration in Wilhelm Meister of the Studentnorden, the German secret student orders, which were not to have an accessible popular description in America until the publication of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad in 1880. The Cambridge Apostles, born in one college of several in that university in England in 1820, would have been similarly distant and unfamiliar. The young men in New Haven were members of, and most familiar with, their own three Yale literary societies, but these were not in any way exclusive, taking in all members of every class, in which they participated throughout their four-year college course. These were secret societies, but the secrets were clearly widely shared, and their internal proceedings remarkably similar.

The Chi Phi Society had been founded in 1824 at the College of New Jersey in Princeton by faculty members for students, but a year after became inactive, and in any event was unknown up in Connecticut; Chi Delta Theta, founded earlier at Yale in 1821 for seniors with recognized literary ability, also at faculty instigation, was thus likewise not a model. Such societies, whether instigated by professors or by students alone, then and thereafter took Greek letters for their names because they were all composed of students who, given their intensive study of the language, knew Greek as well as modern college students know English. It was during the antebellum period that Greece eclipsed Rome as the model for a virtuous citizenry in the American imagination, at colleges particularly. To be Greek was to subscribe to notions of self-improvement through literature and oratory—Demosthenes speaking through the pebbles in his mouth—and more grandly, to hearken back to the ancients, and to their ideals on which Western Civilization was founded.31

In November 1825, at Union College in Schenectady, New York, the Kappa Alpha Society was established by six seniors and two juniors. All had been members (two of them its chief officers) of an organized military company at Union that had recently been dissolved by the college’s president Eliphalet Nott in summary resolution of an electoral dispute about new officers. These collegians, feeling what was described as “an aching void” left by the company’s dissolution, thereupon decided to form a secret society to fill it; by the middle of December, they had initiated another eight members. As for “the most important definite objects of the Association,” these were, “as they all thought better, left to the collective wisdom of the active college membership—for the time being—from class to class, as time and experience would suggest.”32 Kappa Alpha was the product, thus, of the twin desires for friendship and secrecy, but no had special programmatic purpose.

Such fraternities from the start—and Kappa Alpha is agreed by most scholars to be that start in the United States—and the Yale senior societies which paralleled them in measured growth offered fellowship to their members and a way to be distinguished from non-members, perhaps as proof of an elevated status. Smaller and more exclusive than the literary societies, and more strictly secret, they became increasingly more popular as well. That bond, their internal language proclaimed, was thought to last well beyond the time together on campus: calling each other “brother” and cementing ties through a familial model was emotionally comforting, and allowed fraternity/society men to trust one another, believing that this trust would not be betrayed. Brothers would always be brothers, not only in their loyalty, but also in the lack of hierarchical relations between them. Implicit in this construct, however, was exclusivity, which fraternity membership was always understood to be. Competing for new members was naturally acceptable, but membership meant “brotherhood” for life. In offering election, once there were two Yale senior societies after 1842, the candidate for one society was always asked if he had a prior affiliation with the other.

Absent from this shadow family construct were fathers, because young men in nineteenth-century colleges had abundant father figures, charged with trying to control college life. Collegians were adolescents in a particular context: they were a subject people, in a community where they did not make or enforce the rules. Fraternities were begun in no small part to establish an independence from patriarchal eyes, of the real or substitute variety. Their members’ dependence was to be upon their peers, not upon someone with the new power to punish them. Mutual dependence was a comforting midway point between the dependence of childhood and the independence of adult manhood.33

American fraternities were thus themselves a symbolic form of rebellion against authority, constituted in deliberate disregard or even in repudiation of college administrators. They were initially formed because some student “right” had been curtailed or abolished (the military corps’ dissolution for Kappa Alpha, and, as will be seen, the abolition of secrecy in Phi Beta Kappa for Skull and Bones at Yale, and also for Psi Upsilon for the same reason over at Union). The founding of Phi Beta Kappa itself in 1776 has been celebrated as “a revolt against authoritarianism of the college and the assertion by students of their right to assemble, to choose those they wished to associate in their enterprise, to be free to speak their minds, and to make decisions affecting their own welfare.” College authorities of this era were accustomed to student outbreaks and did everything in their power to curb them; they logically sought to regulate when, where, and for what purposes students gathered. Yale president Noah Porter, himself an undergraduate member of Philagorian, a secret society which survived only two years, described fraternity life generally in the nineteenth century: “The aggression of constant interference [by the faculty] provokes the resistance of boyish mischief and arouses the wrath of manhood that is half-developed and is therefor intensely jealous of its invaded rights.”34

And of course, by joining together in secret, their members were often able to engage in forbidden activities, either noble like debating topics in politics or religion which the faculty would not have countenanced in public, or less noble, such as drinking liquor and indulging in profanity or other immoralities illegal under lengthy books of college rules called “laws” on their title pages. The Laws of Yale College for 1832, for example, mandated incoming freshmen each to sign an oath “particularly that I will faithfully avoid using profane language, gaming, and all indecent, disorderly behavior, and disrespectful conduct to the Faculty, and all combinations to resist their authority35 (emphasis supplied).

College officers not only supposed that plots might be hatched, or rules broken, at secret meetings, but objected to the very fact of secrecy. If they were doing nothing wrong, as many society members claimed when queried, why the need to hide? In colleges founded by Protestant denominations that demanded abstinence and self-denial, members could break the official codes among trusted brothers. The professors were not wrong to fear that fraternities institutionalized various escapes—whether drinking, smoking, card playing, or singing—but the student-invented groups did not invent these diversions, which long antedated their founding. Rather, they channeled traditional means of escape into a brotherhood of devoted men, and in time, on many campuses, it became hard to distinguish purpose from manifestation.36

“Their secrecy,” a nineteenth-century commentator observed, “consists of but two elements: the members hold meetings with closed doors, and do not tell the meaning of the Greek letters by which they are known.” Because the constitutions and rituals of many of these fraternities were to be stolen in the early days by members of rival organizations, that general resemblance also existed. Harper’s Weekly was to report in 1874 that “They ‘Mask their business from the common eyes,’ but even if their doings were open to public inspection, but little would be revealed not already known or surmised.” Their members could still draw a line between those who knew the secrets and those who did not. Fraternal secrecy serves at least two functions: its possessors are elevated by the loyalty engendered when they are first told the mysteries upon initiation, and they are in turn protected when they break the rules of their larger society, in this case, their college.37

As evidenced by the existence of at least two literary societies in every American college of note, on-campus competition was another key feature of the fraternities which succeeded them in popular favor. This was more than a natural continuation of childhood games, or a precursor to the competition of the marketplace to be encountered after graduation: a man succeeded by contributing to a group effort, and if that effort failed, he was not alone. Banding together, they could first identify as a select group, and then compete in that group. Loyalty to one’s brothers was prized above all else because it was precisely the competition with other individuals that made men so anxious.38

This in turn pushed competition among such fraternities to the fore, fascinating their members and the greater world. Logically, competition—having archrivals who might be appraised, discussed, and derided—was not necessary for the enjoyment of the camaraderie which was the groups’ ostensible first purpose. Nevertheless, such competition became its own focus of activity on the campus, created entirely by the societies’ memberships. This competition was self-perpetuating, since the only way for one fraternity or secret society to win a decisive victory was for one of its competitors to dissolve (but there were always others to take up the fight when the vanquished had expired). Even then, there could never be a decisive victory, because the rules were never clearly established, or could be changed by new entrants into the system.39

In 1817, some years earlier than the founding of Kappa Alpha, the young men at Union College with the blessing of their faculty had petitioned Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter for membership in that fraternity, which with the sister Harvard chapter’s concurrence was granted. Kappa Alpha adopted many of Phi Beta Kappa’s practices, since most of its founders were members. Its badge, square and silver like PBK’s, bore a coffin above a scroll and surmounted by a rising sun, and the letters “C.C.,” for Collegium Concordiae (in an uncanny anticipation of the symbols of both Yale’s oldest senior societies, Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key). When students at Williams went to the Union campus in 1833 to secure a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, they came back with Kappa Alpha keys, the resemblance of which to his PBK key from Yale in 1790 caused the Williams president to welcome them back.40

Still, this first nineteenth-century fraternity’s organization was, as an exclusively student group, without faculty instigation or supervision, or further graduate participation or annual dinners as occurred with Phi Beta Kappa, and it doubled as a literary society because that was its only familiar model. The constitutions of successor fraternities almost always included literary pursuits among their stated purposes: that of Alpha Delta Phi, to be founded at Hamilton College in 1832, mandated that each member would “exhibit” three essays per year. Delta Kappa Epsilon, whose mother chapter was to be formed at Yale in 1844, explained that “the objects of the organization are the cultivation of general literature, the advancement and encouragement of intellectual excellence, the promotion of honorable friendships, and the union of stout hearts and kindred interests to secure merit its due reward.”41

The example of Kappa Alpha sparked the formation of two competitors on the Union College campus, the Sigma Phi Society, formed in March 1827, followed by Delta Phi in November. The three became known as the Union Triad and were followed by three more fraternities on that campus in the next decade. Sigma Phi was the first American fraternity in the classic mold to expand, by opening a second chapter at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, in 1831; that and an effort by Kappa Alpha to also enter the Hamilton student body led to the formation of Alpha Delta Phi the following year.

None of these fraternities had attempted to expand to Yale by then, although Alpha Delta Phi soon did, as would Psi Upsilon, another fraternity birthed at Union, in 1833. From the several parent chapters at Union and Hamilton, the Greek-letter fraternity by 1840 was introduced into several of the colleges of New England and New York. Most college presidents, before they quite knew what had happened, discovered their undergraduates had ushered into the American college community a social system the administrators had neither invited nor encouraged. None of these fraternities by this time considered Phi Beta Kappa a rival, but in a class by itself, an honor society in which members could accept membership as evidence of scholarly standing.42

For the young men who joined them, the first fraternities—or secret societies, as the Union fraternities’ members called them—fulfilled a number of needs. From their inception, fraternities “have been middle-class equivalents of the youth gangs, no less likely to make trouble and no less suffused by a spirit of peer loyalty.” Primarily, they allowed a form of resistance to the control of an overbearing college faculty. By contemporary standards, these students were neither merely boys nor fully men, and yet they were treated as the former by their instructors, and forming a secret society allowed them to assert, even if only confidentially, an independence and autonomy not otherwise available. Such societies also broke the monotony of college living through bleak winters and its incessant round of prayer, recitation, and study in dreary student housing. Finally, they provided companionship and a substitute for the families that had been left behind. Later, they would be seen by students bound for the professions, or finance and business, as a way of securing a network of patrons who like them had vowed loyalty and secrecy to the death, as they were launched into an increasingly competitive market economy with daunting competition.43

For the administrators charged with confronting this unlooked-for student invention, those same societies were abhorrent. Just as Union saw the birth of the first American fraternity, so too was it the site of the first attempt at extinguishment: on December 3, 1832, President Nott tried to rid his college of the societies’ “evil influence” by announcing in chapel before the assembled student body that “The first young man who joins a secret society shall not remain in Coll[ege] one hour, or at least only while we can get him off.” About a year later, Nott had relented and given full sanction to such clubs.44 That set a pattern that was often repeated across American college campuses, with faculty attempts at suppression causing the overground societies to go underground and persist in deeper darkness and defiance.

Fraternities in American colleges were not only founded to push back at an overbearing faculty: some were formed to correct what their members perceived to be abuses, unfairness, and hypocrisy by their fellow students in the conduct of existing societies. This history has been buried because modern fraternities are pilloried as expressions of exclusiveness, snobbery, or other antidemocratic motives, or seen as almost indefensible pits of depravity.45 Samuel Eells started Alpha Delta Phi in 1832 because of what he deemed to be partisan rivalry between the two literary societies at Hamilton College: “It was a contemplation of these and similar evils that first suggested to me the idea of establishing a society of higher nature and more comprehensive and better principles, providing for every taste and talent.”

When Eells moved west and personally sponsored a second chapter of his fraternity at Miami University in Ohio, the resulting dissension impelled John Reily Knox to start Beta Theta Pi, which he hoped, “would embrace the good without the ingredient of evil [and] . . . show how far human friendship can carry us from the shrine of the idol self.” Sigma Chi was to emerge on the same campus within a few years, “to exalt justice and to stand for the square deal,” when members of Delta Kappa Epsilon were enraged by the refusal of the elder brothers in their chapter to support the election of a well-qualified but unaffiliated candidate for the office of poet in the campus literary society. Rejecting “authoritarianism” and “violations of the fundamental dignity and rights of individuals,” they formed a new fraternity “based on no narrow ideal of manhood.” In these and other instances which might be cited, those creating new collegian brotherhoods believed themselves to be making an effort to enhance individual liberties and broaden the opportunities for student participation.46

These, then, were the common and national foundations of the American way of college fraternities and Yale secret societies. They were provoked by some perceived injustice (administrative action deeply resented by those acted upon, or student political maneuver which offended a minority); were founded on friendship in homelike clubs with lateral and not hierarchical bonds; were formed without prior permission of any authority; and were self-justified in their aims of individual liberty and self-improvement. They were to confront and celebrate competition with other societies in election and renown, insisting on loyalty and exclusivity, and conducting their proceedings in privacy—which was called secrecy by those excluded.

Back in New Haven in 1832, where there were as yet no fraternity chapters imported from other schools, the Connecticut chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was the closest and most obvious model for students seeking to form a new college society there. PBK was a society for seniors, secret as to its proceedings but not its members’ names. However, it took in upward of one-third of the class, valued scholarship over good fellowship or other talents, and was a fraternity for life, mounting annual anniversary dinners with public speakers for graduates in attendance, having voting privileges that in numbers trumped the students. The first Yale senior society, Skull and Bones (and thus its successors in that mold), was in all these respects to be very different from any predecessor student organization at Yale or on any American college campus elsewhere.

This new Yale senior society was to be only half the size of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and only a tenth of the size of either of the all-class literary societies. It severely limited its annual membership intake, and its yearly drafts silently projected election standards which most candidates could not expect to meet. This society refused to justify its existence, or otherwise engage its critics, or to expand beyond New Haven. Its chosen but confidential name, the “Eulogia Club,” was not Greek, like the fraternities founded elsewhere, but Latin, in differentiation from Phi Beta Kappa on campus and the new fraternities on other campuses. In these several ways, the Yale secret society was to be a distinctly new breed of fraternity, compared to those being founded before and after it in other northeastern colleges in the same decade. Furthermore, the men of this new society consciously formulated a specific educational purpose, narrower than that of the ancient literary societies or Phi Beta Kappa, and invented a different and more frequent drill for self-taught speaking skills. In their quest to become “self-made” men, they did not seek administration blessing, and had no faculty connections (until their “high-stand” graduates themselves became Yale College tutors, and then professors, and then university presidents).

Most strikingly, Bones, as it soon came to be known, in its elections was to employ a more autocratic manner and more democratic scope, recognizing, even before popularity or general sociability, proven leadership talents in all fields of college endeavor. These included but were not limited to academic appointment or intellectual achievement certified by the professors whose marking system made Phi Beta Kappa membership possible, or not. Rather, their diverse membership, including some who were strangers to one another before initiation, embraced most forms of student endeavor and all varieties of regional origin.

And that pattern held when those fields of endeavor changed, in the rise at Yale, then the nation’s largest college, of the extracurriculum of music, sports, journalism, and religious outreach, followed by the increasing demographic, ethnic, and gender diversity of the student body itself. When, in the classic American fraternity pattern, rival senior societies were self-formed to give opportunity for recognition to more of the growing student body, that notion of membership first for the competitively deserving was to persist, and its very application subject to righteous judgment, printed and otherwise, by their classmates. Over time, the senior, “secret” society system in New Haven became a magnet, and concentrated training ground, for talent and achievement.

It took the ending of secrecy in Phi Beta Kappa to effect the new direction.

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