This website, which is intended for Princeton students and the general public, contains information about the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, an undergraduate student group that is the oldest college literary and debating club in the United States. To find more archival records of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, visit the Princeton University Archives Collection on the American Whig-Cliosophic Society finding aid at https://findingaids.princeton.edu/collections/AC023.
American Whig-Cliosophic Society
The American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society, founded in 1769 and 1765 respectively, were student organizations on the Princeton campus from the eighteenth century through the middle of the twentieth. During the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth, they were the major focus of student life outside of the classroom, fulfilling the students' social needs as well as providing educational opportunities which were not part of the college curriculum. The societies provided fora for public speaking and creative writing, as well as access to extensive libraries for their members. The rivalry between the societies was very intense, and it was forbidden for members of one society to join the other society or even to enter the other's building.
The societies began to lose their monopoly on student life near the end of the nineteenth century as the college grew into a university and other social alternatives appeared, such as athletics and the eating clubs. They declined both in terms of membership and activities. By 1928, the societies were so weak that the undergraduates felt that they could no longer support two separate societies and buildings. The undergraduates merged their societies and conducted activities in Whig Hall. They called themselves the American Whig-Cliosophic Societies, and rented Clio Hall to the university.
The alumni of Whig and Clio did not consider the merger to be constitutional, and some alumni, who remembered the "good old days" considered the very idea of the merger anathema. The alumni, undergraduates, and university eventually came to an agreement in 1941 by which all the property of Whig and Clio was transferred to the university. A new "American Whig-Cliosophic Society" was created as the successor organization, with a board of trustees, appointed by the president of the university, who still control the property transferred to the university.
During the 1930s the undergraduates transformed the structure of the society. Whereas the activities of the halls had previously centered around formal meetings of the entire membership of the society, the society developed during this decade into a decentralized association of committees or subsidiaries. A small central office coordinated the activities of the various subsidiaries, which included the Princeton Debate Panel, the International Relations Club, the Nassau Lit, and the Speakers Bureau. Each subsidiary acted independently of the others, under the supervision of the Governing Council, made up of the central officers and the heads of each subsidiary. The only subsidiary in which the division between Whig and Clio was still maintained as important was the Senate, which served the dual purpose of an assembly for the entire society and a public forum for debate on campus. In the early part of the decade, in order to facilitate debate within the Senate, it was decided that the Whigs would be the liberal party in the society, while the Clios would be the conservatives. This division had no basis in the traditional rivalry between the societies, but it has been maintained for the last sixty years as the criterion for separating Whigs from Clios.
Soon after the official merger in 1941, the activities of the society were curtailed by World War II. Due to the accelerated program which the university adopted during the war, the society was unable to attract enough members and so suspended its activities in 1943 for the first time since the Revolutionary War. For the duration of the war an undergraduate organization called "The Roundtable" met to carry on as a substitute for Whig-Clio, but had no official connection to the society. The trustees revived the society in 1946, and it soon assumed much the same shape as it had had before the war.
Some old subsidiaries gained a new prominence during the postwar period, while others declined, and still others came and went. One subsidiary which became more important was the Speakers' Program, which brought many prominent political and literary speakers to campus. A few of the speakers brought great controversy with them, such as Alger Hiss. When Whig-Clio invited him in the 1950s, there was such an uproar that the Society was condemned on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Another controversial figure was William Schockley, the inventor of the transistor and Nobel Laureate, who, in the 1970s, was a strong proponent of certain racial pseudo-scientific theories.
One of the most disruptive events in the history of the Society was the fire which gutted Whig Hall in 1968. Most of the society's records which were stored in the building were destroyed, along with a large section of its portrait collection. Many of its historic documents had been transferred to University library for safe keeping, however, and thus were saved. However, an unknown amount of the society's records from the post-merger era was destroyed in the fire. The society made its home for several years in offices in Palmer Hall while the University fulfilled the prophecy of Whig-Clio's president that the interior of Whig Hall would be redone "in a charming mix of concrete and plastic."
During the late 1970s and early 1980s membership in the society reached an all-time high of well over a thousand members and more than a dozen separate subsidiaries. This put considerable strain on the resources of the society, while moving it in many new directions. In 1986 the Governing Council decided to eject several of the subsidiaries from the society because they abused the building, were a financial liability to the society, had offended many people and organizations on campus, and did not help fulfill the society's traditional mission of literary and political education.
Since 1986 the focus of the society's activities has been primarily off campus. While the Speakers Program and the International Relations Council still bring speakers to campus and provide fora for discussion of political issues, competition in intercollegiate debates the Model United Nations conferences, as well as running a Model Congress program in Washington, D.C. for high school students have dominated Whig-Clio activities.