The students at Randolph-Macon gave their loyalties to each other,
not to an educational institution or even to a traditional educational experience.
Their emotions welled from living a common life (into which faculty and president
only occasionally intruded) and from the literary societies, which provided a quasi-formal
education completely under the control of the students themselves.
The common impression of these societies is that they were neither more nor less
than debating societies. Debates they certainly had; indeed, these were their instruments.
The debates demanded very careful preparation and research, which in turn necessitated
libraries, furniture, and writing materials. The debates dealt with topics outside
the curricular obscurities denounced by Lander. These colleges within colleges created
an education at least parallel to that of the formal curriculum and possibly surpassing
it. One historian has gone so far as to argue that the societies set the personal
goals and ideological tone for a majority of the student body.
The very name literarv societies suggests their importance, for literary
in the nineteenth century meant educated, and the colleges, as often as not, were
called literary institutions. Literary did not convey to the young men studying
in Mecklenburg County or elsewhere in the nation simply poetry and prose; it embraced
knowledge as opposed to mere mechanical skill. The literary societies existed at
nearly every school and usually in pairs. From their beginnings in the middle of
the eighteenth century, the societies usually were established in the schools of
the nineteenth century as soon as the student bodies reached sufficient numbers.
To take an example near to Randolph-Macon, two societies were established at Hampden-Sydney
during its first session.
The Washington Literary Society at Randolph-Macon met for the first time (appropriately)
on February 22, 1833, and the students decided to buy paper, ink, quills, 2 1/2
dozen chairs, and books. The next day saw their first debate: Whether aristocracy
or monarchy is the better government. The organization met formally every week,
with twenty to twenty-five members present at the sessions. An active sergeant-at-arms
fined mem- bers for absence, inattention, leaving a chair without permission, and
even for not speaking. Great seriousness of purpose and formality marked the sessions,
so while the organization may have provided the emotional support found in the later
fraternities, it operated very differently. In practice, the students learned the
mechanics of politics as well or better than the theories of political science.
The second society was organized the following September, at the beginning of the
second session of the college. Originally christened the Union Society, the title
was changed three days later (September 7) to the Franklin Society. Union
may have had too many political overtones in the aftermath of the recent controversy
over nullification in South Carolina; as Franklin was safely dead, his name offered
no such embarrassment The members were granted permission by the faculty to meet
at night, usually Thursdays, with the same number attending (around 25) as in the
The existence of the Washington Society received tacit recognition in July 1833,
when the board recessed to hear an address before that group by W. W. Wightman,
a member of the board and a clergyman. A year later, with the societies finally
established, the faculty suggested to the board that those groups be given formal
recognition, permission to occupy permanently rooms in the college building, and
the countenance and protection of the Board so long as we shall deem it consistent
with the interests of the Institution. The trustees acceded. Olin, writing much
later, thought the societies generally good for colleges: Some skill and facility
in extemporaneous speaking were acquired, for which the ordinary routine of college
life affords less favorable opportunities. His view of them contained almost an
equal degree of suspicion: The drawbacks upon these benefits were often party spirit,
rivalries, jealousies, and suspicions; a loose and vapid style of speaking and writing,
contracted in the absence of proper instruction and judicious criticism; and sometimes
an undervaluing of the prescribed studies. Whether the students themselves decided
to have the societies or were prompted by members of the faculty (Garland, for example,
was an alumnus of Hampden-Sydney and would have known about them) our records do
not tell. Shortly after their beginning, the societies became exclusively student
affairs. The members attempted to bring to their rolls and meetings personages that
were as illustrious as possible. A month after its organization, the Franklin Society
invited the chairman of the board to membership. In June 1838, the Honorable John
Taylor addressed the societies, and he did so again in August '41. this time in
his capacity as President of the United States.
The societies possessed extensive libraries and gave the students of the college
access to books the official library denied them. The college rule was simplicity
itself: The Library shall be opened at such times as the Faculty may appoint, and
shall be kept open for one hour. Randolph-Macon's practice here is consistent with
that in other colleges. Princeton's library, open for five one-hour periods a week
in 1831, kept the one-hour rule in the early 1860s.
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Reprinted from Professor James Scanlon's Randolph-Macon College: A Southern History