I recently came across Lawrence Biemiller’s March 1997 profile of two Lancaster, Pennsylvania college literary societies. Biemiller’s piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I’m excerpting some of it below.

In the 19th century, many American colleges brilliantly combined the humanities (liberal arts) with the mechanical-industrial (servile arts) to create a new form of education meant to be accessible to any young person—not only the elite that the Ivy League institutions had long catered to. What’s less well known is the extent to which young people themselves often led the way in creating, shaping, and really breathing life into this new model. Biemiller’s piece tells some of that story as it related to Franklin & Marshall College:

Generations of Students Learned Oratory and Debate in 2 Literary Societies

Lancaster, PA. In the Goethean Literary Society’s first formal debate, in June of 1835, students argued the question, “Ought imprisonment for debt to be abolished?” The debate took place in York, Pa., at what was then called the High School of the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church. The society’s minutes record that the question “was decided in favor of the negative both as to the merits of the arguments and those of the question.” Afterward the members chose a topic for the following week’s discussion: “Has not the civilization of mankind been as much affected by the influence of the fair Sex as by any other cause whatever?”

So began an extraordinary run of debates and orations that continued on three different campuses for more than a hundred years, from Andrew Jackson’s Presidency to Dwight Eisenhower’s. Along with its twin sister, the Diagnothian Literary Society, the Goethean Society prospered as the “high school” moved to Mercersburg and changed its name to Marshall College. At weekly meetings the societies’ members delivered speeches and poems and argued the issues of the day, from whether women should hold public office and whether the Roman Catholic Church was “an enemy to liberty” to whether man “is the creator of his own destiny.”

Both societies assembled libraries and built Greek-revival meeting halls. There they met for hours each Saturday morning, mixing parliamentary procedure with splashes of ritual and secrecy and with floods of declamation. In January and February of 1842, for example, the Goetheans addressed a range of issues. “Would it be beneficial for the United States to admit Texas to the Union?” “Is England justified in carrying on war against China?” “Would it promote the interests of the United States to elect Henry Clay, President?” The minutes for February 23 add a contemporary-sounding note: “A Resolution was offered by Geo. L. Staley, prohibiting the chewing of Tobacco in Society on the ground of its disrespect and insult to the dignity of Society.” The resolution failed, but “Mr. Brewer then moved a vote of censure to Mr. Staley for presuming to offer such a resolution.” It, too, failed, and the members moved on to choosing the next question for debate: “Would it be beneficial for the Northern and Southern States, if they were peaceably disunited?”

The two societies continued to thrive after Marshall merged with Franklin College in 1853. The new institution, Franklin and Marshall, commissioned a Gothic-revival building with a soaring tower here in Lancaster; the literary societies put up matching halls, one on either side. The halls had first-floor rooms for the societies’ libraries—larger than the college’s—and also rooms for their “cabinets,” or museums. Upstairs were the spacious meeting rooms, frescoed by local artists. The college’s curriculum was then centered on classical texts, history, and mathematics, but the societies offered students opportunities to practice writing and public speaking and to consider subjects from politics to the nature of mankind.

In those years orators and debaters were judged more on composition and delivery than on content. Henry Kyd Douglas, a Diagnothian who attended the college in the 1850s, reported in his diary on speeches at the society’s programs: “…5th Oration, J. B. Tredwell on ‘The Dawn of a New Era.’ This was nicely written and nicely spoken. Jim is a pleasant speaker but has not enough animation. 6th Oration, ‘Christian Martyrdom,’ by J. M. Mickly. This was a first rate speech and although he did well last year, he has made quite an improvement. His production gave evidence of thought…” Douglas’s own oration that day—May 28, 1858—was titled “Tombs of the Illustrious Dead,” and it was well received. “I never saw such an abundance of bouquets,” he wrote. “I got 12, and Mr. Tredwell even more. They came in showers.”

The few orations that survive are more interesting as samples of 19th-century writing than because they offer insights into their authors’ lives; even the poems are almost entirely impersonal. The topics are general and often grand: “Marriage,” “Justice,” “The Past Character and Recent Prospects of Pennsylvanians.” The prose is confident. …

The Goetheans, whose records are more complete, elected and received acceptance letters from John James Audubon, James Buchanan, Samuel T. Clemens, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ulysses S. Grant, Washington Irving, Thomas Mann, Jean Sibelius, and Daniel Webster, among others. …

The museum curator noted the acquisition of a tortoise shell, a bottled snake, a rock from “a cave in Minnesota territory,” and “a specimen of peacock coal, beautifully colored.” The curator added that Professor Agassiz, as yet, has given us no information concerning the gar-fishes he borrowed from us several years ago.” The corresponding secretary, the curator added, had written to the professor “in a style not to be mistaken.”

The literary societies at F&M outlived most, remaining active into the 1950s. Like societies at Davidson College and Princeton University, they left behind handsome halls that still carry their names, perhaps reminding current students of the charge with Edmund Eck opened an oration titled “Who Are College Students?” It begins beautifully: “We are the embryo of stars, in the process of development, which are to illuminate the dark world when those before us have disappeared.”

This caught my attention because of Penn State’s experience with the Washington and Cresson Literary Societies. These were forerunners of both Penn State’s fraternity and sorority systems, and Penn State’s library, and much like Franklin & Marshall’s societies these provided the basis for bringing many young people together to form a critical and “unplanned” part of their collegiate experience.