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Cliosophic Society (Princeton University)
Princeton University. Library. Special Collections
Cliosophic Society Records
Princeton University Archives
Permanent URL:
89 boxes and 1 folder
Storage Note:
Mudd Manuscript Library (mudd): Box 1-89


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.

Collection Description & Creator Information


Consists of records of the Cliosophic Society (1770-1941). The material documents the growth and development of the second-oldest literary and debating society in the United States, from its inception in 1770, through its rivalry with the other campus literary organization, the Whig Society, to its final merger with Whig in 1941. Included in the records are minutes, treasurer's bills, committee documents, attendance rolls, membership lists, constitutions and by-laws, and publications.


The Records of the Cliosophic Society are divided into thirteen series, primarily by the officer or committee who generated the documents. They are:

Collection Creator Biography:

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.

Collection History


The contents of the records were acquired in 1941 in an agreement between Princeton University and the Board of Trustees of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society. An attempt was made at organizing the records in 1975, but this report lacked certain archival necessities for organization.

Archival Appraisal Information:

In the process of organizing the Clio records, several items were purposefully discarded. These included the attendance rolls, which were extremely repetitive, bulky, and uninformative. In addition, several checkbooks were discarded since the transactions were recorded in the treasurer's records. Also, several debate itineraries were discarded, while one was kept as a sample, since the information was recorded in the minutes.

Processing Information:

This collection was processed by Douglas Ray in 1992. Finding aid written by Douglas Ray in 1992.

Access & Use

Access Restrictions:

Collection is open for research use.

Conditions for Reproduction and Use:

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. For quotations that are fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. The Trustees of Princeton University hold copyright to all materials generated by Princeton University employees in the course of their work. If copyright is held by Princeton University, researchers will not need to obtain permission, complete any forms, or receive a letter to move forward with non-commercial use of materials from the Mudd Library. For materials where the copyright is not held by the University, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold the copyright and obtaining approval from them. If you have a question about who owns the copyright for an item, you may request clarification by contacting us through the Ask Us! form.

Credit this material:

Cliosophic Society Records; Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
65 Olden Street
Princeton, NJ 08540, USA
(609) 258-6345

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Related Material:

Related Princeton University Library manuscript collections most prominently include the Records of the American Whig Society and the Records of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.

Subject Terms:
College students -- New Jersey -- Princeton -- Political activity.
College students -- New Jersey -- Princeton -- Societies and clubs.
Debates and debating -- New Jersey -- Princeton -- Societies, etc.
Genre Terms:
Cliosophic Society (Princeton University)
Princeton university