Biography and History

The Cliosophic Society was the oldest college literary and debating society in the world until its merger with the second oldest, the American Whig Society, in 1941. It served as a focus for students and alumni at Princeton for almost 200 years, and served as a training ground for many statesmen and orators while they were in college.

The Cliosophic Society traces its roots to a small organization of students known as the Well-Meaning Society founded at the College of New Jersey in 1765 by William Paterson, signer of the Declaration of Independence, Oliver Ellsworth, later Senator from Connecticut, Luther Martin, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Tapping Reeve, founder of the first law school in the United States, and Robert Ogden. The purpose of this society was to collect “the first young men in point of character and scholarship as its members”. However, in 1768 or 1769 the competition with the Plain-Dealing Club, the antecedent of Clio's sister society the American Whig Society, had reached such a fevered pitch that the faculty was obliged to close both organizations. However, the society was reorganized on June 8, 1770, and took the name the Cliosophic Society at that time.

While the Cliosophic Society invoked Clio, the muse of history as its patroness, it was not named after her as some people believe. Rather, it took its name from a speech given by William Paterson delivered at his graduation in 1763 entitled “A Cliosophic Oration”. He appears to have created this word himself, meaning “in praise of wisdom” from the Greek words kleio, I praise, and sophos, wisdom.

Whig and Clio quickly came to dominate student life on the campus, the first example of this being the Paper War of 1771, during which the entire student body assembled on a daily basis in order to hear the latest attacks that the literary societies had prepared against each other. The activities of the Society were extensively curtailed during the Revolutionary War, while Nassau Hall was occupied by British and American forces. The society renewed its activities on July 4, 1781 and continued to grow stronger.

In 1802 Nassau Hall burned down, destroying all of Clio's records except for one book of minutes. In addition, the fire forced the society to meet in several different locations during the next few years, settling in 1805 in the building which is now known as Stanhope Hall. The society met in a room on the top floor of that building until 1838, when it moved to a new wood frame building on Cannon Green called Clio Hall. The members used this building until it was demolished to make way for a larger marble building which they occupied in 1892.

Clio's relations with Whig consumed a great deal of its time during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of these relations revolved around a series of treaties which the Halls repeatedly drew up, broke, and reaffirmed as if nothing had happened. They signed the first of these treaties in 1799, establishing the groundwork of their relationship for the next hundred and thirty years. This treaty provided that a person could belong only to one of the societies, not to both, and that neither society could induct a freshman until after he had been on campus a specified period of time. One result of the intense rivalry between the societies and their attempts to outdo each other was that in 1820 Clio decided to make itself older than Whig (which had been officially founded in 1769) henceforth acknowledging 1765 as the date of its founding.

One of the promises members had to make when they were initiated was not to reveal the secrets of the Hall to any non-member, especially a Whig. These included the names of the offices and officers of the Society and the traditions which they maintained, such as referring to each other as Brother and taking fictional names. They took names of all sorts sometimes drawing upon the classical tradition (Aeneas, Odysseus) or a more modern American tradition (Old Knickerbocker, Natty Bumpo), while others seem to have chosen their names so that they would be easy to remember (A,X,Z). Members used these fictional names for all of their dealings within the Society, and the records reflect this, referring to members by fictional name and real name [e.g., Toledo (Bro. Jones)], until this tradition was abandoned in 1862.

The main officers of the Society were the President, who ran the meetings, the Clerk, who handled all the administrative affairs including keeping minutes and handling correspondence, and the Treasurer, who kept the books and handled the Society's financial affairs. Other offices included the Librarian who was responsible for maintaining the Society's library and ascertaining what books and periodicals the members wanted, and the Historian, who prepared a report for the Annual meeting of the Alumni at commencement detailing the Hall's activities during the preceding year. Also, the Court of Appeals was added during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in order to deal with discipline and attendance problems within the Society.

The Society reached its high point of influence over life in the College during the 1870s and 1880s. During the 1890s, a slow decline in the importance of the Society began and became much more pronounced after 1900. This was mirrored by a parallel decline in the American Whig Society. Whig and Clio declined for many reasons, but the most important of these were probably the rise of other extracurricular activities at Princeton, especially the eating clubs and athletics, the growth of Princeton from a small liberal arts college to a major university, and the development of high-speed transportation, specifically railroads, which gave Princetonians a new easy access to New York and Philadelphia that they had never had before. Princeton was no longer isolated in the New Jersey countryside.

In 1914 Whig and Clio finally decided to eliminate the ban of secrecy that they had maintained for so long, in the hopes that by increasing communication between the Halls they would be able to bolster each other and stop the decline that both Halls were in. However, their efforts failed, and in 1928, under pressure from the University and also the financial strain of each society trying to maintain its own building, Whig and Clio merged. They carried on their activities together in Whig Hall, while Clio Hall was rented to the University, generating revenue for the societies. While Whig and Clio started acting as one society in 1928, carrying on almost all of their activities together on the undergraduate level, they each maintained their own trustees and officers and continued to issue separate diplomas for several years. The merger became official in 1941, when the trustees of both societies agreed to form the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.

Source: From the finding aid for AC016

  • Cliosophic Society Records. 1789-1941 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC016

    The Cliosophic Society (1770-1941) was a political, literary, and debating society on the Princeton campus that played an important role in the development of the college and also the intellectual and social development of generations of Princeton students.

  • Cliosophic Society Records. 1789-1941 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC016

    The Cliosophic Society (1770-1941) was a political, literary, and debating society on the Princeton campus that played an important role in the development of the college and also the intellectual and social development of generations of Princeton students.

  • American Whig-Cliosophic Society Records. 1908-1999 (inclusive), 1928-1992 (bulk).

    Call Number: AC023

    The American Whig-Cliosophic Society (1941-present) is a literary, political and debating society which has had an important impact on the lives of generations of Princeton students. It provides students with both social alternatives and an opportunity to develop skills not emphasized by the University curriculum. The contents of the records were acquired between 1941 and 1993 in agreements between Princeton University and the American Whig-Cliosophic Society. The library initially cataloged some of these records into the P Collection. Subsequently, an attempt was made to organize some of these records in 1975, but it lacked certain archival necessities.

  • Nicholas Biddle Collection. 1800-1838 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C1013

    Consists of material, primarily correspondence, relating to Nicholas Biddle, one of the first directors of the Bank of the United States and author of the official Lewis and Clark narrative.