While living abroad in Europe, it was necessary on several occasions to explain one of the more peculiar features of American higher education: the Greek letter fraternities and sororities. My European friends had seen Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds and perhaps The Skulls and wanted to know “the truth of the matter.”[i] I always enjoy telling a good story to a new audience and so I regaled my friends with descriptions of Rush, Pledging and the general debauchery of Frat parties. Now, I had better lay this on the table now, as it will probably become apparent quickly: I am not a member of a Greek-letter social fraternity, never really had a desire to join one and always viewed them as a source of more negative than positive influence on society.
What interests me today though is not the current situation with Greek life on American college campuses, but instead their origins in the 1820s in rural Upstate New York. It seems that in colonial America, secret societies were very much the rage, especially the godfather of fraternal organizations, the Freemasons. Especially on our young college campuses, secret societies devoted to debate, literature and socializing appeared (like the Flat Hat Club  and Phi Beta Kappa  at William and Mary). Like the universities themselves, these organizations were made up of the social elite; they were clouded in the public perception by a self-made fog of ritual, mysticism and myth. Everyone knew that powerful men, judges, lawyers, Presidents and Congressmen, were all members of these organizations, but no one knew for certain who belonged to what organization. In an atmosphere like this, it was easy to fear that an over-arching conspiracy dominated society. The creation of the new republic had sown the seeds of egalitarianism in the common folk and stiffened their faith in their own ability to create social change.
As I’ve mentioned before in my timeline on antebellum Upstate, all of this boiled over in 1826 with the disappearance of William Morgan (here is an article on the event by modern Masons, and here is one by the anti-Mason party at the time) and the resulting waves of anti-Masonic feeling throughout Western New York. This sentiment did not simply affect the Masons, but was targeted at all secret societies, which were seen by the anti-Mason populists as antithetical to the ideals of a republic.
A chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa secret society was started at Union College (Schenectady) in 1817, one of the seven original chapters of the organization. The organization had already pioneered the uniquely American Greek system: three Greek letter names, secret membership rituals and numbered chapters in other colleges. However, as the American Masonic organization was pummeled by its opponents, other secret societies came under intense pressure. In 1831, Phi Beta Kappa removed its veil of secrecy and moved towards being the scholastic honor’s society that it is today.
Yet, the seeds had been planted at Union College. In 1825, another, similar, organization had been formed: the Kappa Alpha Society. Combining Phi Beta Kappa’s use of Greek letters, secrecy and daughter chapters with ideas from older debating and literary societies, Kappa Alpha is today the oldest surviving Greek letter social fraternity. In 1827, two more organizations, Delta Phi and Sigma Phi, were formed, creating the Union Triad (named after the college where all three were located). Campus authorities cracked down on the organizations in the 1830s and Kappa Alpha and Sigma Phi went underground. Delta Phi resisted disbanding and is the longest running college-recognized fraternity today. All three organizations survive today as relatively small, regional Greek-letter fraternities.
So, what does this bit of obscure history mean to York Staters today? Well, of course for members of modern Greek organizations, history is important to understanding their membership today. But for those of us who don’t wear letters on our jerseys, the creation of the Greek letter system in Upstate New York is another window into our fascinating regional history and a glimpse at the social upheavals of the early years of the American Republic. The history of the anti-Masons and the backlash against secret societies is an oft-forgotten chapter in our story, but I think one that has important ramifications forging the character of this region and the path that it would follow.
-Posted by Jesse
[i] Bizarrely, I had several similar conversations about the Prom. It’s strange that these two American traditions have become so important in our films.