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 Phi Beta Kappa at Yale
Phi Beta Kappa was founded at the College of William and Mary on December 5, 1776, in the days of the fledgling republic. Created to be an intellectual society of debate, Phi Beta Kappa became America’s first secret society and fraternity.
The first meeting of Phi Beta Kappa took place in the Apollo room of the Raleigh Tavern, (a tavern that still in existence near William and Mary today), and many of the subsequent meetings were held there. Freedom of inquiry was a critical issue for the founding members. They envisioned a space behind closed doors where an array of highly controversial issues could be freely and frankly considered. Listed among the topics debated throughout the first five years of PBK’s existence are: the danger of supporting a standing army in a time of peace, the advantages and disadvantages of public and private education, and the ethics of African slavery.
To distinguish themselves from other on-campus organizations, the new PBK members adopted for themselves a motto derived from Greek: Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης, meaning “Love is the learning guide 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 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 when Phi Beta Kappa was founded at William and Mary, there was a student enrolled at Yale named Elisha Parmele. But because of the termoil caused by the break out of the Revolutionary War, Yale shut its doors in 1776 advising students to continue studies at the homes of their tutors. 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 was eventually awarded bachelor’s degree 1777.
After spending a year in Cambridge, Elisha Parmele’s health was in decline, prompting him to leave Harvard and settled in Virginia where he worked as a tutor for a short time. While there, he became acquainted with the original Phi Beta Kappa group at William and Mary and was eventually elected to membership in July 1779. So enthusiastic was he about PBK, that when he was to return North, he persuaded fellow PBK members to give him two new charters to take with him, along with 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.
Elisha Parmele went immediately to work on the Yale charter. In April 1780, Parmele initiated four members at his home in Goshen, Connecticut. One was Ezra Stiles, Jr., his classmate both at Yale and Harvard, the son of the president of Yale College at that time, and who would later become the first president of the Alpha of Connecticut. Throughout the duration of that school year and the two following, the group slowly began to grow. At the end of the third year, between 12 and 14 students from the Junior Class would be initiated. Roughly 250 years later, the tradition of initiating this amount of students from the Junior class remains.
Subsequently, Parmele returned to Harvard for the Commencement of 1781 to receive his Masters degree. While in Cambridge, he organized the Alpha of Massachusetts at Harvard. Meanwhile, the devestation of the Revolutionary War had forced William and Mary to close down for years, effectively terminating the original PBK chapter. It was the commitment to excellence demonstrated by the PBK members first at Yale, then at Harvard, that made the continuation of America’s first secret society possible.