Here then you may for a while disengage yourself from scholastic laws and communicate without reserve whatever reflections you have made upon various objects; remembering that everything transacted within this room is transacted sub rosa, and detested is he that discloses it. Here too you are to indulge in matters of speculation, that freedom of inquiry that ever dispels the cloud of falsehood by the radiant sunshine of truth—here you are to look for a sincere friend, and here you are to become the Brother of unalienable Brothers.
—From the Initiation Ritual of Phi Beta Kappa, College of William and Mary, 1779
The history of the secret societies at Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, begins not with the founding of Skull and Bones in 1832, but with an earlier student society, founded on December 5, 1776, at the College of William Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. This the world knows by the Greek initials of the club’s motto, Phi Beta Kappa—latinized, Philosophia Biou Kybernetes, or “love of wisdom, the guide of life.” It was America’s first college fraternity and secret society. Since the name of the Societas Philosophia, the Philosophical Society, was according to the by-laws to be kept completely secret, the group came to be known by its Greek letters, with no public explanation of their meaning.
Phi Beta Kappa was the first college-based society in the United States to have a Greek-letter name (to contrast with an even earlier society at William and Mary, the Latinate “P.D.A.”).1 In the four years of its initial existence, ended when the British redcoats, commanded by the American turncoat Benedict Arnold, compelled the college to close its doors during the Revolutionary War in January 1781, all of the fundamental characteristics of such groups were appropriated or invented. These were election by undergraduates, induction after an elaborate (and blindfolded) initiation ceremony which included an oath of secrecy, and the award of a metallic badge to wear. For those in the fold, there were mottoes in Latin and Greek, a code of laws, a seal, and a special name, “Brothers.”
At its regular meetings in the Raleigh Tavern’s Apollo Room, the chief activities were literary exercises, especially debating. Four members performed at each meeting, two in “matters of argumentation” and two in “opposite composition,” with their worthy compositions to be “carefully preserved.” Here they enjoyed a freedom of speech that under their college’s “scholastic Laws” they did not enjoy in class; it was this, not merely a taste for the mysterious, which accounted for the emphasis on secrecy. Each initiate was welcomed with the message that “Now then you may for a while disengage yourself from the scholastic Laws and communicate without reserve upon various objects; remembering that everything transacted within this room is transacted sub rosa, and detested is he that discloses it.”2
This formal program was enlivened by social celebrations, especially anniversaries of the founding. High academic scholarship was apparently not a requisite for admission, as it was to become and is today. Its earliest members (fifty over the four years) were distinguished in later life, and included two United States senators, two members of the United States Supreme Court, and two judges of Virginia’s highest court. One member served dual roles as the first clerk of the House of Representatives, and the first librarian of Congress.3
In all these features of small numbers, talented members, badges, rituals, and a pronounced fidelity to secrecy, Phi Beta Kappa in its original form set patterns for the senior societies of Yale which commenced fully half a century later, nearly five hundred miles to the north.
Noting their carefully minuted record of “many toasts” in the Raleigh Tavern, a historian in 1888 described the founding group “discouraging to those who would like to consider Phi Beta Kappa as a band of youthful enthusiasts planning a union of the virtuous college youth of this country who were afterward to reform the world.”4 The minutes also speak of the design, “for the better establishment and sanctitude of our unanimity, [of] a square silver medal . . . engraved in the one side with SP, the initials of the Latin Societias Philosophia, and on the other, agreeable to the former, with the Greek initials of Φ . . . Β . . . Κ . . . and an index imparting a philosophical design, extended to the three stars, a part of the planetary orb, distinguished.” The three stars on the back side symbolized the aims of the society—friendship, morality, and literature—and the pointing hand in the lower corner symbolized aspiration toward these goals.
The same meeting’s record also preserves the text of an “oath of fidelity,” which the members considered “the strongest preservative” to their new organization: “I, A.B., do swear on the Holy Evangelists of Almighty God, or otherwise as calling the Supreme Being to attest this my oath, declaring that I will, with all my possible efforts, endeavor to prove true, just, and deeply attached to this our growing Fraternity; in keeping, holding, and preserving all secrets that pertain to my duty, and for the promotion and advancement of its internal welfare.” As if this mighty oath were not enough, the meeting of March 1, 1777, further resolved “That a profanation of the preceeding oath of fidelity subjects the Member to the pain of the universal censures of the fraternity as well as the misery of certain expulsion.”5
The next link in the chain joining Williamsburg and New Haven is Elisha Parmele of Goshen, Connecticut. Parmele completed two years at Yale and then, when college did not open in the fall of 1776 because of an outbreak of camp distemper, transferred to Harvard as a junior. Graduating there in 1778, Parmele went off to Virginia to preserve his fragile health, teaching at a neighborhood school in Surry County, across the James River from Williamsburg.6 Not long after his arrival in the south, the founders of Phi Beta Kappa on July 31, 1779, elected him to membership in the William and Mary society.7
Parmele’s election was arranged by chapter president William Short in furtherance of the vision of fraternity brother Samuel Hardy, who proposed to his cofounders a “plan for extending branches of our Society to the different States.”8 Along with eight other members of Williamsburg’s Phi Beta Kappa, Short and Hardy also belonged to Williamsburg Lodge No. 6 of the Masons, which had received its own charter from England only in 1773. It seems patent that Hardy’s proposal to extend Phi Beta Kappa derived from the Masonic example and influence, even though Phi Beta Kappa was more a student literary society for intellectual self-improvement than a mere social group.9
With his connections to both Yale and Harvard (being, with William and Mary, the three oldest colleges in the United States), and his intention to return soon to New England, Parmele was suddenly the perfect agent for Hardy’s scheme of issuing charters to new chapters, on “the great advantage that would attend it in binding together the several states.”10 This notion of organization across states would not have seemed as odd in 1779 as it may today, long after the adoption of the Constitution which federated those states a decade later in 1789.
Parmele was eager to undertake the task of expansion across state lines, and at the third anniversary celebration on December 5, 1779, he petitioned his William and Mary brothers to do so. He seems initially to have believed Phi Beta Kappa to be something like Linonia as a literary and debating organization. Despite the fact that Yale College’s literary societies were also private membership groups, with meetings closed to the public, led by officers whose names were kept confidential, Parmele was nonetheless dismayed when confronted with Phi Beta Kappa’s fierce penchant for secrecy.
Although Parmele’s petition for a charter at Harvard had already been approved at the meeting of December 4, 1779, a debate ensued during the meeting the following day on the terms for Yale’s charter. Minutes of that foundation anniversary meeting (with the secretary’s uncertain grasp on the spelling of Parmele’s name) record that it was “Resolved, that so much of Mr. Parmelie’s petition as relates to the establishment of a Phi: Society to be conducted in a less mysterious manner than Φ Β Κ be not agreed to, as the design appears to be incompatible with the principles of this meeting.” As a grace note, it was “Ordered, however, that Mr. Paremlie be thanked for the proof which he has given of his zeal by openly communicating his sentiments to this Society.”
The discussions occurring thereafter seem to have overcome the New Englander’s objections to “mystery,” and the next week, a momentous resolution was passed by the Williamsburg chapter. “Whereas this Society is desirous that Φ Β Κ should be extended to each of the United States,” it was “Resolved, that a second Charter be granted to our Brother, Mr. Elisa Parmele, for establishing a meeting of the same in the College of New Haven in Connecticut, to be of the same Rank, to have the same Power, and to enjoy the same privileges, with that which he is empowered to fix in the University of Cambridge [Harvard].”11
President Short then had two copies of the charter transcribed and signed by all nineteen officers and members in Williamsburg; the code of laws and form of initiation were made up in duplicate, and he added to this trove two of the society’s medals, for transport to each of the new chapters in New England.12 Parmele’s protest against secrecy had been rebuffed by his new brothers, so the covering letter of greeting which he carried to Connecticut and Massachusetts from the Alpha of William and Mary provided that “the Arcana of this Society be held inviolate.”13
Parmele then traveled back north, taking ten months to reach Connecticut, carrying the medals, the charters with ribbons of “pink and sky blue” (Yale’s being the oldest surviving document of the society), copies of the code of law, and the ritual. Arriving in his hometown of Goshen in November 1780, he initiated his brother Reuben Parmele (class of 1781), Sam Newell and Lynde Lord (1783), and his classmate Ezra Stiles Jr.—who became the first president of Alpha of Connecticut and promptly added the name of his reverend father, Yale’s president from 1778 to 1795, as an honorary member.14 To these initial members were added seven recent graduates and twelve other members of the class of 1781, at a foundation meeting in New Haven on November 13, 1780.15 Membership in the “Alpha of Connecticut” chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in the classes succeeding 1781 likewise approximated twelve to fourteen members each, chosen from the junior class, after the spring vacation and examinations in July.16 (Here again, the practice of holding of election in the spring of junior year by members of the outgoing senior class, and restriction of membership to a small number, are antecedent customs for the Yale senior societies of the next century.)
Following Parmele’s receipt from Harvard of his second (master of arts) degree in 1781 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and some ten months after his missionary work in New Haven, he then on July 17 established Phi Beta Kappa’s second New England chapter, the “Alpha of Massachusetts.” He chose four students from the class of 1782 and presented them with the documents and the model medal for Harvard brought from Williamsburg; they later met to make formal establishment of the chapter on September 6, 1781, and to select additional members from their junior class, replicating what had happened the year earlier in New Haven.17
Exactly nine months before the establishment of the Harvard chapter, on January 6, 1781, as the British fleet bearing the forces of Benedict Arnold and Lord Cornwallis had arrived opposite Jamestown, the Williamsburg chapter assembled to close itself down, at a meeting “called for the Purpose of securing the Papers of the Society during the confusion of the Times & present Dissolution which threatens the University.” They determined to deliver their records to the college steward, “in the sure and certain Hope that the Fraternity will one Day rise to Life everlasting & Glory immortal.”18 The next rising to life did not occur until 1855, although a few years later, in 1861, the Williamsburg chapter succumbed again to the travails of battle, in the American Civil War, not to be resurrected once more until 1893.
If Elisha Parmele ever notified the Alpha of Virginia of his success in delivering the charters and medals to New Haven and Cambridge, the letters miscarried. On January 15, 1782, William Short inquired of the Yale chapter, “What has become of our very worthy member Mr. E. Parmele? He has been silent as the grave since his return northward. Wherever he is, assure him of our sincere regard for him. He has endeared himself to us here, not only by his personal merit, but by his diligence in spreading the ΦΒΚ. Like the great luminary he carries light with him wherever he goes, vivifies all around him, and exhilarates the spirits of whomsoever he pleases to favor.”19 In fact Parmele, whom his best biographer styled “the St. Paul who carried [Phi Beta Kappa] from the Zion of its birthplace to the far-off Gentiles of Yale and Harvard,” had become a minister in Connecticut and then Virginia. He did not long survive the chapter of his brothers: he died of consumption in the upper Shenandoah Valley on August 2, 1784, and was buried on the Abraham Byrd family farm, in a grave that cannot now be located.20
Given the the Williamsburg chapter’s extinction, if the Yale and Harvard chapters had not been founded, Phi Beta Kappa would probably have been forgotten like its predecessor student societies at William and Mary, the P.D.A. and another, the contemporaneous Flat Hat Club, which boasted Thomas Jefferson as a member.21 Instead, Parmele’s dissemination of its detailed charters established a standard of selection based, however imperfectly, on the scholarship and character of a chosen few, in a fellowship encased in a code of secrecy.
With the extinction of the Alpha of Virginia, the Alphas of New Haven and Cambridge were in charge. These two concurred to found new Alphas in other states: in New Hampshire at Dartmouth College in 1787, in New York at Union College in 1817, in Maine at Bowdoin College in 1825, and in Rhode Island at Brown College in 1830,22 all with the mandates of secrecy first pronounced in Williamsburg in 1776. Because of the society’s secrecy and selectivity, its first half century in Northern institutions aroused not only loyalty, emulation, and curiosity, but jealousy and animosity,23 all strong emotions which the Yale senior societies, indirectly descended from the Phi Beta Kappa of the late eighteenth century, were themselves to engender.
The exclusiveness of membership and secrecy at weekly or fortnightly meetings, combined with very public celebrations of anniversaries held in connection with college commencements—and perhaps further provoked by condescension or conscious swank—aroused significant opposition to the Alpha of Connecticut, which erupted in successive raids on the Yale chapter’s records. The first time, in December 1786, three students “under the united influence of envy, resentment, and curiosity” broke open “the Secretary’s door, in his absence, entered his study and feloniously took, stole and carried away the Society’s trunk with all its contents.” Discovered, the thieves were compelled to restore their booty, including the trunk, paying for the damage done. After confessing in an open meeting, they bound themselves “by a solemn oath, to confine within their own breasts all the knowledge of the secrets of the Society which they had criminally obtained.” Six months later, in June 1787, a further theft occurred, and the records were not to be recovered for another fifty years.24
Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa archives also contain a letter dated August 26, 1789, from Jonathan Nash of the newly founded Dartmouth chapter about a raid there: “We lament that this sad misfortune happened to our young Alpha. . . . Rancorous envy still lies broiling in the breasts of a few, who in that way discover how highly they esteem the ΦΒΚ society.”25 The Harvard chapter took official notice of this outrage in New Hampshire, and voted, for its own conduct of business, “That because several persons not members of the Society have endeavored to discover the manner of salutation peculiar to the ΦΒΚ; this manner to be suspended until the next anniversary.”26 Milder protests had been met with caution: the meeting at the Anniversary Day for the Harvard chapter on September 5, 1788, had voted “that by reason of the dissensions in the Senior Class on account of the election of members, no more than ten members be chosen previous to the anniversary,” and a letter to the Yale chapter on September 18 noted that “disagreeable consequences have attended the initiation of persons into the Society, previous to that period.”27
Secrecy remained a flashpoint. The “oath of fidelity” transmitted by the Alpha of Virginia to the chapters at New Haven and Cambridge contained a stipulation against change, but the mother Alpha was gone, and Yale was then purportedly free to simplify the oath when revising its organizational law in 1787, to read more simply: “You solemnly call the Supreme Being to witness that you will be true and faithful to this Society, that you will obey the Laws and preserve all the secrets of the same, so help you God.”
Phi Beta Kappa had drawn support from the example and reputation of the Freemasons, but in the two decades that followed, the Masons suffered from public attacks by those who disapproved of secret societies. The conflict was severely heightened in 1827, when William Morgan, initiated as a Mason in Virginia but not well received by the Masonic lodge in Batavia, New York, wrote and threatened to publish a tell-all book. Titled Illustrations of Masonry, it included the organization’s first three degrees’ oaths of fealty and, for oath-breaking, agreement to blood-curdling penalties of disembowelment, dismemberment, and death. Morgan was arrested in September of that year for petty larceny. Acquitted, he was arrested again in Fort Niagara, and then disappeared, perhaps drowned in the Niagara River or Lake Ontario: a decomposed body was found on the shore not far from the place of Morgan’s abduction.
Although no legal case for kidnapping or murder was established (twenty-six Masons were indicted, six came to trial, and four were convicted of conspiracy), the incident was widely publicized and gave new strength to the Anti-masonic movement and political party, the first third party in American history. The outrage turned the office of Freemasonry, in the words of historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, “from that of a handmaiden to Christianity and republican liberty to that of a secret and impious conspiracy against the rights of freemen and the majesty of the law.” Thousands of Masons were compelled by public opinion to resign, and about three thousand lodges gave up their chapters; those in Connecticut were decimated. Four years later, this had a direct effect on the Phi Beta Kappa chapters, when one Avery Allyn published A Ritual of Freemasonry, Illustrated by Numerous Engravings, To which is added a Key to the Phi Beta Kappa. The book was dedicated to “the Freemen of America,” and dated “Boston 1830,” with a copyright entry of February 18, 1831.28
The Allyn exposé should perhaps have been only another glancing blow at the society, since his book devoted 290 pages to the features of the Masons. Only eight pages described Phi Beta Kappa, but included a plate illustrating the “sign,” the “grip,” and “both sides of the medal,” although he omitted the anapestic knock at the door. The “sign” was given by placing the two forefingers of the right hand so as to cover the left corner of the mouth, and then drawing them across the chin. The “grip” was like the common handshake, only not interlocking the thumbs, and at the same time pressing the wrist. The book’s author—whose true identity is still obscure—followed his name on the title page with “K.R.C., K.T., K.M. &c.” and claimed membership in Phi Beta Kappa in the text, although his name does not appear in any Phi Beta Kappa catalogue or in the catalogue of any of the six colleges with society chapters on that date. (It was to be said that it was a Harvard man who gave away the secrets.)29
Because his book had such adverse consequences for his claimed “respected brethren,” it bears extended quotation: “In this day of laudable excitement and anxious investigation into the nature and principles of secret societies, it is my humble opinion, there ought to be no concealment; and that the public good imperiously demands a fair and full disclosure of the nature and principles of all secret societies, and that what is said and done under the cover of darkness, should be openly proclaimed on the housetop. . . .”
“But the reasons I give, which particularly induce me to make these disclosures,” he continued, “are principally two: one is the secret nature of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and the other it its infidel motto. . . . That the Phi Beta Kappa Society is a secret association, is well known to the public. It is a species of Freemasonry, and bears a strong affinity to it; and for aught I know, may be a younger branch of the same tenebrous family. . . . Like Freemasonry, the Phi Beta Kappa Society has its secret obligation, sign, grip, word, and jewel, by which its members are enabled to recognize each other, in any company, in any part of the world; and though it has no bloody code, as I know of, with savage penalties, and consequently none of those crimes which blacken the Institution of Freemasonry; yet, as a secret society it is as susceptible of being perverted to unholy and dangerous purposes.”30
Allyn then repeated his general attack on secret societies as a potential threat to American liberties and as being against religion, detailing the historical myths regarding Phi Beta Kappa as “a branch of the [Bavarian] Illuminati, that spurious offspring of the celebrated Weishaupt,” while simultaneously, inconsistently, and falsely claiming that “this Institution was imported from France” and planted in this country by “Thomas Jefferson at William and Mary.”
Upon the “extinction of that college during the Revolutionary War,” he continued, “a charter, technically called an Alpha, was obtained by the students of Yale College, where it still flourishes. From thence it was imparted to Harvard and Dartmouth, and since that time, charters have been granted to the students of Union College, in N.Y., and to Bowdoin, in Maine; and very recently, I understand, to Brown University, in Providence, R.I.” Yet “all the literary and honorable advantages it affords, might as well be obtained without secrecy as with, and the danger thence resulting, be avoided; and I cannot but wonder why the authorities of our colleges allow of their existence.”31 Those authorities, so challenged, duly took notice.
Despite peddling historical misinformation, Allyn does seem to have described accurately the prevailing manner of election and quality of the initiates of Phi Beta Kappa, which is striking for the parallels it offers to the Yale senior societies, waiting to be born within the next few years. “The way and manner in which this secret institution is perpetuated in our Colleges (and I know of no other places where they exist and meet as societies) is this,” he recorded. “Towards the close, or during the last term of the college year, the members of the Senior Class, who belong to the Society, make a selection from the Junior Class of one third of its members; and their aim is, however much they may be mistaken, to take those who are reputedly the best scholars, and the most prominent members of the class. They are privately informed of their election; and at the appointed time, are initiated into the Society; not indeed naked, and barefoot, hoodwinked, and cable-towed, but in a more gentlemanly manner, where a promise or oath of secrecy is first exacted of them.”32
At Yale, Phi Beta Kappa was esteemed over membership in the older literary (debating) societies Linonia and Brothers in Unity. A member of the class of 1821 remembered that “The exercises of Φ. Β. Κ. were generally of a higher order than those of the other societies. They ought at least to be so, since the members, from the higher classes only, are selected for their talents and attainments. The desire to be elected to this society was hardly less than that of appointments at commencement; and for the same reason, namely, that it was regarded as proof of scholarship.”33
While there had been concern and protest for decades about the secrecy of Phi Beta Kappa, the publication of Allyn’s book, in Boston in the spring of 1831, was a breaking point. Edward Everett, president of the Alpha of Massachusetts since 1826 (and fated to speak at length after Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863), concluded that something must be done before the Harvard chapter anniversary meeting held on September 1. He wrote to Joseph Story, then a justice on the United States Supreme Court, saying he wished to call a meeting to change the constitution: “Several friends, with whom I have conversed, think it expedient wholly to drop the affectation of secrecy and all its incidents.”34
At the subsequent meeting at the Hall of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston on July 21, 1831, Everett read an extract of Allyn’s work, and John Quincy Adams, then a member of the United States House of Representatives, offered a resolution: “That in the admission of all future members of the Society, no oath shall be administered, and no secret be disclosed to or imposed upon or required of the member admitted.” This motion was defeated, but a second moved by Justice Story was adopted, to form a committee to further consider the question; Adams’s diaries provide most of the information known about the deliberations of that group, on which he and Story served with eight others. Adams’s previously defeated motion was then approved by the committee, and after further electoral skirmishes was adopted on August 11, and again at the anniversary meeting on September 1,35 in these words: “No oath or form of secrecy shall be required of any member of the Society, and all injunction of secrecy heretofore imposed by this branch of Phi Beta Kappa shall be removed.”36
Allyn promptly declared victory, writing about Phi Beta Kappa in the second edition of his book, “The members of this Institution have recently removed the injunction of secrecy imposed by its obligations, and have left the world to form a just notion of its moral and social principles. This event has doubtless been hastened by the revelation of its mysteries published in the first edition of this Ritual.”37 However, this action of the Alpha of Massachusetts had been unilateral, in defiance of the fraternal concerns expressed by Harvard members back in 1806 when they had queried the Alpha of Connecticut about changing the oath and stricture of secrecy. Everett may thus have felt compelled to travel to New Haven, because that chapter appears not to have been unduly upset by Allyn’s criticism of Phi Beta Kappa’s secrecy.
The New Haven chapter’s public anniversary was scheduled for September 13, and in attending the business meeting which preceded it, Harvard’s emissary insisted that the question of repeal of secrecy be considered. His attendance had also been urged by the notability of the occasion: this was the semi-centennial of the Alpha of Connecticut, and the fiftieth anniversary of the graduation of the orator for the occasion, James Kent, chancellor of the State of New York.38 Kent’s diary describes what happened, at least among the graduate members at Yale, upon hearing of Everett’s anti-secrecy initiative. “At 11 A.M. I attended the meeting of the Ph. B. K. in the 3d story of the old Chapel,” he recorded. “There I saw Ed. Everett and a crowd of civilians and clergy and Professors. The question was on abolishing the secrets of the Society. Professor Silliman, Doctor Ives, Rev. M. Robbins, the Rev. Mr. Bacon of the 1st Presbyterian Congregation & Judge Daggett spoke. The rule of secrecy was abolished with acclamation.”39
The contrasting view of the students was only described publicly some forty-two years later, in 1874, in a speech by Charles Tracy of the class of 1832 (a member of Phi Beta Kappa that election year, and president of Linonia). “In those days,” he told his audience at the Yale Alumni Association in New York City, “free-masonry and anti-masonry fought their battles; and a grave question of conscience arose about the promise of secrecy exacted on initiation into the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Harvard was for resolving the secrecy and it sent Edward Everett to the private meeting at Yale to advocate the cause. He used a tender tone, stood half-drooping as he spoke, and touchingly set forth, that the students at Harvard had such conscientious scruples, as to keep them from taking the vow of secrecy, and society life was thus endangered. There was stout opposition, but the motion prevailed, and the missionary returned to gladden the tender consciences of the Harvard boys [in truth, the Harvard graduates]. The secret, of course, was out. The world did not stare at the discovery; and when a few years had passed, the society took back its secrecy and revived its grip.”40
Tracy’s sarcasm makes it clear that the Yale students’ view was that while their Harvard brothers (and also the Yale graduate members of his own chapter) had lost their collective nerve, flinching from Allyn’s exposure, it was all for nothing, as ending the secrecy had the effect of confirming his revelations while spoiling all the fun. The Alpha of Connecticut’s minutes subsequent to the General Meeting of September 13, 1831, show that the undergraduate members remained very unhappy with the course of events. The record of that meeting (which concludes with the addendum “Six Weeks Vacation”) straightforwardly reports the result: “A motion was made ‘That the injunction of secrecy now existing on the members of this society be removed and that it be no more required of those who may be admitted.’ After some remarks from Hon. E. Everett explanatory of the course which had been taken by the Cambridge branch with regard to this subject and also from other gentlemen the motion was passed.”41
Four meetings later at the annual session on December 1, 1831, a small committee was appointed to “examine the constitution of the Soc. in regard to its bearing upon the abolishing of the secrets of the Society.” While there is no report of that group’s conclusions, the meeting of February 27, 1832, witnessed a broader debate, which probably explains why there was no resolution. “The debate,” wrote the recording secretary, “was beyond dispute the most remarkable of all that have been held before any society in any age. The question made—‘Ought secret societies to be abolished?’—the arguments were perfectly convincing on both sides and equally clear and as was to have been expected then produced on each side an equal number of votes thus placing the determination of the question ‘in equlibro.’ Mr. [Seth Collins] Brace then at the request of the meeting gave forth in an extemporaneous motion his sentiments respecting the present agitation of the ‘public mind’ in regard to secret societies. He touched feelingly upon the dire misfortunes which this agitation had brought upon New England, upon his own state and even upon his native town.”
Still nothing was resolved, and the meeting of June 7, 1832, brought into the chapter twenty-six new members, in a class that then had ninety-three members and was to graduate eighty-seven in 1833. These included William Huntington Russell (the first to be elected, ultimately the valedictorian and class orator), Alphonso Taft (to be the “high-stand” man ranking third in his class), John Campbell Beach, and George Ingersoll Wood. Another eight were elected four days later, including Noah Bishop and Robert Robertson (later class poet), bringing the new membership, at thirty-four, to just over one-third of the class limit mandated by the chapter constitution of 1787 (only eighteen had been elected the year before). None of these neophytes had witnessed the vote or debates on secrecy, and none were made to swear the oath of secrecy, but all would have been aware of the strongly held but evenly divided feelings of their electors, argued in the debate on the abolition of secret societies held only seventeen weeks before. The minutes for the meeting of July 5 were the last for the class of 1832; four days later, the incoming seniors of 1833 began their academic year, electing their new chapter officers, including Russell as their leader as secretary.42
These young men of Yale, deprived of their secrecy in one organization, could easily found another, with the good old ways in place.43 Of the thirty-four members of Phi Beta Kappa,44 six—Beach, Bishop, Robertson, Russell, Taft, and Wood—chose, with eight of their classmates not in the Alpha of Connecticut (including Asahel Lewis, class orator to be), to form what came to be called Skull and Bones—the first of the Yale clubs to be characterized as “the mystic fifteens.”45