Biography and History

The American Whig Society has been a fundamental campus organization for over 200 years. As the world's second oldest literary and debating society, behind the Cliosophic Society, the American Whig Society flourished as the focal point of undergraduate life for decades. Although the society officially merged with the Cliosophic Society in 1941, Whig has a rich history.

The year 1765 marked the founding of the Plain Dealing Club, the predecessor to Whig. The Club's primary interest was literary activities. The Well-Meaning Society, the bitter rival of the Plain-Dealers, was a similar organization. Ironically, one of the main tenets of the Plain Dealing Society “was to outnumber the Well-Meaning [Society].” Unfortunately, the rivalry between the two clubs led to their downfall as the University Faculty decided to intervene in the bitter arguments.

Out of the remnants of the Plain Dealing Club, the American Whig Society was formed on 24 June 1769. The primary founders seem to have been Hugh Henry Breckenridge, later a Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court; Philip Freneau, a Revolutionary War Poet; William Bradford, later Attorney General of the United States; and James Madison, the future President of the United States. However, the extent of Madison's involvement in the creation of Whig has been questioned in Jacob Beam's letters to University President Harold Dodds.

The Society was not, as many believe, named for the political party called the Whigs. William Livingston, the editor of the Independent Reflector, used the pen-name The American Whig. Livingston became a trustee of the College of New Jersey in 1768 and in his recognition, the Society was so named.

The rivalry between Whig and the other campus literary organization, the Cliosophic Society, began immediately and was ferocious for many years. The Paper War of 1771 consisted of a series of derogatory letters exchanged between the members of the two societies. A testament to the importance of the societies, the whole college would assemble to hear the reading of these letters. Later Paper Wars, including that of 1781, were suppressed by the university faculty.

The rivalry between the two societies was deepened by the secrecy in the organization. The names, titles, and duties of the officers of Whig were kept in complete secrecy. In December 1839, a Whig clerk allowed a sheet of paper, containing the names and titles of Whig's officers, to blow out of an open window. A Clio member picked up this sheet. Later, another Clio man, John Crane, circulated this document. He was found guilty of numerous offenses by a joint committee of both Societies and severely censured.

The original Constitution of Whig was based on the organization of the Presbyterian Church. The principal officer was a Moderator, who was elected for a three week term. Among his many duties, the Moderator presided over all Whig meetings. The Clerk, the Treasurer, and two Critics were each elected for six-week terms. The responsibility of the Critics was to point out errors in debates and other spoken performances. There was also a powerful officer called the Censor whose duties were to supervise the conduct and morality of Whig members.

In 1840, a new Constitution was drafted, basing Whig's organization on that of the United States Government. All graduate members were formed into a Senate, headed by the President of Whig. The House of Undergraduates, led by a Speaker, was under complete control of the Senate. Officers of the Undergraduates included the Clerk, the Treasurer, the Librarian, the Secretary of Records, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary of Diplomas, and the Secretary of Internal Affairs. In addition, Whig had an Auditor, a Historian, and a Comptroller. In 1913, the Constitution was simplified and lasted until the merger of the two Halls in 1941.

The society often fined members for not submitting essays, misbehaving, or failing to return library books. Among the most notable members, Woodrow Wilson accrued many fines for failing to submit his essays and forgetting to return library books. Many of the fines seem very archaic according to today's standards, for example, fines for standing too long in front of the fireplace.

Both Whig and Clio were initially located on the top floor of Nassau Hall. On 6 March 1802, a fire destroyed the interior of Nassau Hall and along with all of the records of Whig. After the reconstruction of Nassau Hall, the Societies began to meet there once again. In search of a larger structure, the Societies moved into Stanhope Hall in 1805. By 1836, the interior of Stanhope Hall was insufficient for meetings.

Professor Joseph Henry prepared a plan for the reorganization of the campus in 1836. This plan included two buildings for the literary societies across Cannon Green from Nassau Hall. Whig Hall was completed in 1838 leaving the society with a sizable debt. Both stuccoed brick and wooden structures were based on temples in Ancient Greece. Around 1850, Whig decided to renovate the building in order to create better ventilation in the upper chambers. Unfortunately, the Hall building soon deteriorated and in 1890, two women taking shelter from a storm on the Whig steps fell through the rotting stairway. This embarrassment further necessitated the construction of a new building. On 20 June 1890, construction was started on the new, larger Whig and Clio buildings. The design of these buildings mimicked the original design of the buildings.

With the advent of the eating clubs in the late 1800s, Whig and Clio began a slow decline in membership which would end with the merger of the two societies in 1928. An agreement signed in that year united many of the Societies' functions. It was not, however, until 1941 when a joint Board of Trustees was created, that the merger became truly official. During its 172 year existence as an independent body, the American Whig Society produced many great leaders and political debates which stand highly in University history as well as American History.

Source: From the finding aid for AC011

  • American Whig Society Records. 1785-1941 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC011

    The American Whig Society (1769-1941) served as a major political, debating, and literary force both on the Princeton campus and throughout the nation. The Whig records consist primarily of minutes, financial records, and correspondence of members.

  • 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.

  • Samuel Beach Family Collection. 1783-1884 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C1006

    Consists of eighteenth-century correspondence and documents of Princeton graduate (Class of 1783) Samuel Beach and mostly 19th-century material relating to the Beach and Jones families.