Phi Beta Kappa was founded on December 5, 1776, by five students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Dedicated to high purposes, the group functioned as a kind of literary-debating society dealing with relevant and contemporary topics not included in the College’s rigid classical curriculum. Foremost among the founders were John Heath, the first president, and William Short, who was active in the Society’s plan to expand by granting charters at other colleges (and who later became Thomas Jefferson’s secretary).
ΦBK was the first society to have a Greek-letter name, and it introduced the essential characteristics of such societies: an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, and a special handclasp. The organization was created as a secret society so that its founders would have the freedom to discuss any topic they chose. Freedom of inquiry has been a hallmark of ΦBK ever since.
Although the original society at William and Mary lasted only four years, ending when the approach of the British army forced the college to close, it had already admitted fifty members, held seventy-seven meetings — mostly literary exercises and debates — and granted charters for new chapters at Yale and Harvard. The two New England chapters preserved the essential qualities of the Virginia society. Shortly before the end of each academic year, the graduating members selected a small group of student leaders from the rising senior class to carry on the organization. In 1831, after anti-Masonic agitation prompted much discussion about the ΦBK oath, Harvard dropped the requirement for secrecy — an action that probably saved the Society from further open criticism as well as from rivalry with the social fraternities that made their appearance around that time.
Other chapters were added gradually, and the number nationwide stood at 25 in 1883, when the National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was created. At about the same time, the first women and African-Americans were inducted into the Society. The first chapters to induct women were at the University of Vermont, in 1875, and at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, in 1876. The first known African-American was inducted by the Vermont chapter in 1877.
During the next century, Phi Beta Kappa increased steadily in size as chapters were added at institutions carefully selected for high academic standards in undergraduate liberal arts programs. Between 1887 and 1917, 64 new chapters were established, and by 1983 another 147 had been chartered. In 1988 the national organization’s name was changed to The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Today there are 276 chapters. with a living membership of 425,000. Not only has Phi Beta Kappa expanded in size and influence, but it has also made significant changes in its organization and aim.
In the early nineteenth century it began to evolve into its present role of emphasizing and recognizing distinction in the areas of the humanities, arts, and sciences. Our chapter’s criteria for selecting members include an outstanding academic record in a program consisting predominantly of Arts and Sciences courses that are deemed basically intellectual as distinguished from professional or applied courses. Phi Beta Kappa chapters and Alumni Associations also encourage intellectual activities by sponsoring scholarships, awards, visiting scholars, and public lectures. Thus the Chapter and the Society maintain their emphasis on the liberal arts and sciences as important preparation for a meaningful life in a free and democratic society. As one distinguished Phi Beta Kappa said, “Liberal education…means the development of the capacity to appreciate what has been done and thought… It is liberal because it emancipates; it signifies freedom from the tyranny of ignorance.”