Student associations of a social nature were formed hundreds of years ago in European universities. These student groups, guilds and other social, literary, and religious associations, existed in Europe over many centuries and in many forms. By the time colleges were founded in the American colonies, however, nearly all traces of student organizations and independence in lifestyle had been eliminated. Thus, the institution of American college Greek-letter fraternities is the unique development of American students.
Of the nine colonial colleges established in the 1600's and 1700's the College of William and Mary was the most prominent and had the best classroom and residential buildings. Founded in 1693, it is second in age only to Harvard. It was at William and Mary, during the Revolutionary War, that the first Greek-letter college fraternity was established.
When the Declaration of Independence was read in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, it proclaimed the right of the colonials to have government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Adoption of that galvanizing idea soon reached Williamsburg, a hotbed of agitation for independence. The flame of revolution spread among students at William and Mary, and they were eager to discuss the burning issues of the day especially topics more directly affecting student life.
However, the opportunity for students to form a group and to debate any issue was severely restricted within college walls, so students gathered in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg for the limited discussions which were possible. In this atmosphere on December 5, 1776, five close and trusted friends remained after other students returned to campus. The formed the first Greek-letter society in North America. The name they chose was Phi Beta Kappa.
It is believed that Phi Beta Kappa grew out of an older organization, founded in 1750, named the Flat Hat Society. Phi Beta Kappa was, of necessity, a secret society. To protect its members it had all of the attributes of the most modern fraternities - - an oath of secrecy, a badge or key, mottoes in Greek, an initiation and a handshake.
Before the British invasion of Virginia forced closure of the College of William and Mary in early 1781, other branches of Phi Beta Kappa had bee established in new England colleges. From them, Phi Beta Kappa evolved from a fraternity with principally academic and some social purposes to an entirely honorary organization recognizing scholastic achievement. While Phi Beta Kappa developed the distinctive characteristics of Greek-letter fraternities, it was left to other students to fill the natural human need for fellowship with kindred students by extension of fraternity to a social context.
Several local organizations with Greek-letter names sprang up on campuses between 1812 and 1824, but none of them continues to exist, nor did they have any lasting influence on the fraternity movement. However, in 1825 the Kappa Alpha Society (not to be confused with the Kappa Alpha Order) was founded at Union College in Schenectady, New York. It continues to exist today as a national fraternity with a small number of chapters in the Northeast. It no doubt took its Greek-letter characteristics from Phi Beta Kappa which had formed a chapter there in 1817. Other students at the college, impressed with the idea of close fraternity association, soon founded competing groups, Sigma Phi and Delta Phi, both organized in 1827. These three fraternities, known as the "Union Triad," were the pattern for the fraternity system. These three certainly provided the impetus for fraternities at Union, leading to Psi Upsilon, 1833; Chi Psi, 1841; and Theta Delta Chi, 1847. Of the original Union Triad, Sigma Phi was the first to establish another chapter, know as Beta Chapter, at Hamilton College, New York, in 1831.
A year later Alpha Phi was also formed at Hamilton. the I.K.A. society was established at Washington (now Trinity) College, Hartford, Connecticut, in 1829, and became a chapter of Delta Phi in 1917. In 18433 a chapter of Kappa Alpha Society was established at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts. One year later, rival anti-secret societies know as the "Social Fraternity," at Williams were united into Delta Upsilon.
Alpha Delta Phi expanded to Miami, Ohio, in 1833. Founded, however, at Miami, were Beta Theta Pi in 1839, Phi Delta Theta in 1848 and Sigma Chi in 1855. The latter three became known as the "Miami Triad" and spread over the western and southern states. Earlier, however, other fraternities had made their appearance on the national scene: Delta Kappa Epsilon at Yale in 1844, Alpha Sigma Phi at Yale in 1845, Delta Psi at Columbia College in 1847; Zeta Psi at New York University in 1847, and Phi Gamma Delta at Jefferson College in 1848.
Several fraternities were founded during the second half of the nineteenth century, including Sigma Alpha Epsilon in 1856 at the University of Alabama. The Civil War closed many colleges and severed connections between fraternity chapters. Fraternity life almost ceased in the South during the War Between the States, and it fared only slightly better in the North. Theta Xi, being founded in 1864 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was the only fraternity formed during that period.
After the war, however, fraternities proved their durability. Several new Southern fraternities were founded, especially at military institutions. At Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, Alpha Tau Omega was founded in 1865, Kappa Sigma Omega was founded in 1867, and Sigma Nu in 1869. At Washington & Lee University, also located in Lexington, Kappa Alpha Order was founded in 1865. Kappa Sigma was founded at the University of Virginia in 1867, as was Pi Kappa Alpha in 1868. Altogether, between the close of the war and the dawn of the new center, 13 national fraternities were established, including Delta Sigma Phi in 1899.
During this period of time women's Greek-letter societies were also founded. There are three "firsts" among them. Alpha Delta Phi sorority is believed to be the first secret sisterhood for college women, being founded as the Adelphean Society, at Wesleyan Female College, Macon, Georgia in 1851. Pi Beta Phi sorority, founded in 1867 at Monmouth College in Illinois, was the first organization of college women actually established as a national college "women's fraternity." (The word "sorority" came into usage later). However, Pi Beta Phi did not officially adopt a Greek-letter name until 1888. Kappa Alpha Theta, founded in 1870 at DePauw in Indiana, was the first Greek-letter society for women. Kappa Kappa Gamma Fraternity was founded in the same year at Monmouth College, Illinois. By 1888, 12 women's Greek-letter societies had been established.
During the first 50 years following the founding of Kappa Alpha Society, fraternities were poorly organized, and their chapters were loosely held together. They had no centralized national organizations to unite them and direct their destinies. Fraternity periodicals were lacking, and chapters learned little of one another. Fraternity men met in the rooms of members or perhaps in secret meeting places elsewhere in town. Slowly the idea of a lodge or club room gained popularity, and from it came the ownership of chapter houses where fraternity members could live together.
The expansion of the fraternity system did not stop at the beginning of the 20th century. More than 25 national fraternities have been founded since 1900, several of which are well known including Sigma Phi Epsilon (1901); Alpha Gamma Rho (1906); Lambda Chi Alpha (1909); Sigma Alpha Mu (1909); Alpha Epsilon Pi (1913); and Sigma Tau Gamma (1920).
It was during the early years of the century that the interfraternity movement began. Representatives from seven sororities met in Chicago in 1902 and founded the National Panhellenic Conference. In 1909 representatives of 26 fraternities, including Delta Sigma Phi, met at the University Club in New York City and founded the National Interfraternity Conference.
The wide extent of the collegiate Greek-letter fraternity system may not be readily realized by an observer whose perspective is based only on his own campus organizations. There are fraternities at more than 600 colleges across the United States and Canada, approximately half a million undergraduate members, and several million graduate members. There are almost 60 national fraternities and nearly 30 national sororities.
The fraternity system in the Unites States and Canada has weathered many storms since its founding. Opposition amounting to outright hostility failed to daunt it in its youth, and world wars and depression have failed to kill it since its maturity. It has sometimes been sharply criticized, even by its friends, but has exhibited the vitality of a system which fills a basic human need. As long as fraternities continue to serve the specific purposes for which they were founded, and as long as they remain sensitive to the realities of campus life, they will continue to serve students, colleges, and our nations well.
It is interesting to note that all but four presidents of the United States born since 1825, when the oldest existing fraternity, Kappa Alpha Society, was founded, have been fraternity men.