Phi Beta Kappa

The establishment of Phi Beta Kappa at Williams
S. Kennick Brown

At least once a year Williams’ Phi Beta Kappa charter is on view to society members. The charter, dated 1864, is an impressive document. The Latin text covers a large vellum sheet which sports silk ribbons and a red wax seal. You’ll notice Harvard’s name placed quite prominently. Harvard, as the alpha chapter of Massachusetts, had rights to charter other chapters in the state, and duly approved ours when we applied for the second time.

Indeed few realize that Phi Beta Kappa nearly arrived at Williams in the 1790s. In 1797, Williams made overtures to the Yale chapter and, following positive signs, composed an official application to Harvard the next year. Although Williams was in its infancy, our president and several of our tutors were members of Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and it is this that may have influenced the initial positive reception. The Williams application, however, apparently became caught in disagreements among the existing Phi Beta Kappa chapters regarding applications from Rhode Island College (now Brown) and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth could not agree on admitting Brown and Princeton, and were loath to grant Williams a charter while refusing the other applicants. Harvard, which seemed to have forgotten that it had rights to charter societies in Massachusetts, dithered. And the Williams charter did not appear.

Lore has it that a Phi Beta Kappa charter nearly appeared in Williamstown in 1833. That fall, two seniors, Azariah S. Clark and Alexander Hyde, travelled to Union purportedly to obtain a Phi Beta Kappa charter. In reality, the Union chapter had no rights to grant a charter to Williams, however, so we can only surmise that the students made the trip out of curiosity in the Union chapter or, indeed, to gain a charter for a Kappa Alpha society which is exactly what they did.

It would take several more decades before Williams students or faculty thought of Phi Beta Kappa. While our Presidents Fitch, Moore and Griffin had all been members of the society, President Mark Hopkins was not. He was also wary of the fraternities already at Williams, and was not inclined to pursue the establishment of another. In July 1864, however, several students took it upon themselves to form a provisional chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and subsequently an official application was made to Harvard. This time, Harvard exerted its chartering rights. The decision was made in less than three weeks. The Williams chapter was the only one established during the Civil War.

The physical charter was presented three years later. The Latin text had been composed by William Everett of the Boston Latin School. It reads:

The President and members of Chapter A of the Society of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard College in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts send everlasting greetings in the name of the Lord to all those to whom this document should come before.

Since we have been made more certain by alumni of Williams College that there are certain men present in that institution who should not be spurned because of their number and talent, men whose great love and desire of joining our venerable Society and carrying out its rites must not be checked, and consequently since it has become apparent that we should admit those who are especially worthy into our group and bond, let it be known by this document that we, the President and Members of this society, create and establish that most distinguished man, Emory Washburn, one time Governor of our most beloved Commonwealth, the most learned men, John Tatlock, Paul Ansel Chadbourne, John Bascom, Arthur Latham Perry, Franklin Carter, Professors at Williams College, the most notable Joseph White, Treasurer, the widely experienced Nathaniel Herrick Griffin, Librarian, and the most learned William Theophilus Rogers Marvin, as Chapter Gamma of Phi Beta Kappa and share with them all the privileges and honors that belong to it and receive them into our friendship and company.

In witness to this act we, the President and Secretary, have signed this document on the Ides of July [= July 15] in the 1864 year of our recovered Salvation.

J.R. Lowell, President

J.E. Hudson, Secretary


  • Current, Richard Nelson. Phi Beta Kappa in American life: the first two hundred years. New York: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1990.
  • Parsons, Rev. E.B. Phi Beta Kappa, Gamma of Massachusetts, Williams College. Williamstown, Mass.: Ingraham Printing and Publishing Co., 1903.
  • Rudolph, Frederick. Mark Hopkins and the log: Williams College, 1836-1872. The bicentennial edition. Williamstown, Mass.: Williams College, 1996.
  • Voorhees, Oscar M. The History of Phi Beta Kappa. New York: Crown Pubs., 1945.
  • Translation of the charter courtesy of Charles Fuqua, Garfield Professor of Ancient Languages, 1996.