The charter of Yale Phi Beta Kappa is the single oldest surviving document of the Phi Beta Kappa Society in existence. This very charter was issued by the original members of PBK at the College of William and Mary on December 4, 1779. The issuing of this charter was crucial to the history of the Society (see “The History of Yale Phi Beta Kappa”).
The History of Yale Phi Beta Kappa
Phi Beta Kappa was first begun at the College of William and Mary in the days of the fledgling republic, on December 5, 1776, as an intellectual debating society. It was essentially American’s first secret society and its first fraternity, and it carried over some of the rituals and traditions of ancient and medieval secret cults, societies, craft unions, fraternal groups, and brotherhoods.
The first meeting of Phi Beta Kappa is believed to have taken place in a tavern, the Raleigh Tavern, (still in existence near William and Mary today) and it was certainly the case that many of the subsequent meetings were held there. The group met to debate all kinds of intellectual and political issues over drink—just as today’s students might debate them in the dining hall or indeed in certain senior societies one hears of here at Yale. Freedom of inquiry was a critical issue for the Society. The idea was that behind closed doors, in secret, an array of highly controversial issues could be freely and frankly considered. Listed among the topics debated in the groups first five-year history were - whether anything is more dangerous to Civil Liberty in a free state that a standing army in time of peace; whether a Public or a Private education more advantageous; and, quite remarkable for the time, the justice �of African slavery.� And- of extrapolated philosophic consequence in there revolutionary times - whether William the Norman had the right to invade England.�
To distinguish themselves from other on-campus organization, the new PBK members adopted for themselves a motto - not a Latin motto - many societies had Latin mottos so Latin was thought to be declasse, but the Greek motto “Philosophy is the helmsman of life.” Since the name “Philosophical Society” was, according to the by-laws, to be kept totally secret the group came to be known by its Greek initials - Phi Beta Kappa.
At its first meeting, the group decided to strike a medal, a special emblem to be carried in the pockets of each member, with the Latin initials S.P. for “Societas Philosophiae” on one side and the Greek initials of the motto on the other. Also appearing on the back-side of the medal were three stars, symbolizing the aims of the Society: Friendship, Morality, and Literature. A pointing hand in the lower corner symbolizes aspiration towards these goals. This iconography is still used on the key that succeeded the medallion as the emblem of membership in the Society.
Now why, you may ask, is Yale so very famous in the history of Phi Beta Kappa? At the time of the founding of the Philosophical Society at William and Mary there was a student enrolled at Yale named Elisha Parmele. But after the Revolutionary War broke out and New Haven was threatened with attack from the British, Yale decided not to open in the fall of 1776, and advised its students to continue their studies in the homes of their professors.
Mr. Parmele did not particularly like the idea of living off campus, so he opted instead to transfer into the Junior Class at Harvard, and in 1777 was awarded a Harvard bachelor’s degree.
However, after spending a year in Cambridge Elisha Parmele’s health seems not to have been good - do we wonder - and for that reason, after he left Harvard he went south and settled for a while as a tutor in Virginia. He met the original Phi Beta Kappa group at William and Mary, and was elected to membership there in July 1779. So enthusiastic was he about PBK that when he was about to return North, he persuaded his fellow PBK members to give him two new charters to take with him, together with �the medals, copies of the code of laws, and the ritual.� These were to be used for PBK chapters to be established at Yale and Harvard.
The Yale charter was made effective first. In April 1780 Elisha Parmele initiated four members at his home in Goshen, Connecticut. One was Ezra Stiles, Jr., his classmate both at Yale and Harvard, and the son of the president of Yale College at that time, who became the first president of the Alpha of Connecticut. Slowly that year and in following years more Yale members were added until memberships ran to 12 or 14 students from the Junior Class - approximately the same number that we still try to initiate from each year’s Junior Class.
Subsequently, Parmele returned to Harvard for the Commencement of 1781 to receive his M.A. degree and while in Cambridge, he organized the Alpha of Massachusetts at Harvard. Both the Yale and Harvard chapters were crucial to the continuation of the society because William and Mary closed down in 1780 for the duration of the Revolutionary War. By the time that the college opened again in 1782, there were no members of Phi Beta Kappa at William and Mary to continue the Society. It was not reinstated until 1851, about 70 years later.
Thus we see that the continuation of Phi Beta Kappa - as so much else in this great land of ours - hung on the fate, fortitude, and strength of Yale.