The American Whig-Cliosophic Society is the oldest college literary and debating club in the United States. Originally two separate groups, Whig and Clio (as they have been known commonly for most of their history) grew out of two earlier student societies, the Plain Dealing Club (Whig) and the Well Meaning Club (Clio), founded about 1765 to promote literary and debating activities. Similar groups had appeared in other American colleges during the eighteenth century; most of them had been short-lived. Such was the fate of the Plain Dealing and Well Meaning Clubs; conflicts between the two groups led to their suppression in March 1769.
Command of the subtler uses of the written and spoken word was a major instrument of professional and political success in the eighteenth as well as in the nineteenth century. Undergraduate interest in literary and debating activities, therefore, did not end with the dissolution of the clubs. The prime agent in their revival appears to have been William Paterson, later governor of New Jersey. After graduation in 1763, Paterson remained in Princeton to study law. During these years he maintained close contact with students, encouraging their more constructive activities. It seems to have been Paterson, along with a few other alumni, who persuaded the new president, John Witherspoon, to permit the formation of successors to the Plain Dealing and Well Meaning Clubs. The American Whig Society was born on June 24, 1769, and the Cliosophic Society on June 7, 1770. The name “American Whig” derived from a recent series of essays by a new trustee of the College, William Livingston, shortly to become first governor of the state of New Jersey. It signified adherence to ancient principles of British political and religious dissent, principles that later found concrete form in the Revolution and in the founding of the American Republic. The adjective “Cliosophic” seems to have been invented by Paterson. Signifying “in praise of wisdom,” it bears no relation to the muse of history.
The years immediately preceding the Revolution were active ones for the societies. They afforded an arena in which many future leaders of the Republic, such as James Madison (Whig) and Aaron Burr (Clio) developed and sharpened the skills of persuasion, exposition, and cooperation (and conflict) with peers. The disruptions caused by the Revolutionary War brought a hiatus in the societies’ activities. Revived in 1781, they then entered their period of greatest influence and usefulness, one that extended to the 1880s. Housed at first in two small chambers in Nassau Hall, in 1805 Whig and Clio moved into more spacious apartments on the second floor of newly constructed Stanhope Hall. By the 1830s the societies had outgrown these rooms. They then constructed handsome wooden neo-classical halls for their own exclusive use, which were completed in 1838. The present marble halls, opened in 1893, are greatly enlarged copies of the buildings of the 1830s.
Whig and Clio, like similar literary societies at other American colleges, were the main focus of undergraduate life for much of the nineteenth century. Elaborately organized, self-governing youth groups (though often receiving advice from alumni and faculty), they were, in effect, colleges within colleges. They constructed and taught their own curricula, selected and bought their own books, operated their own libraries (often larger and more accessible than that of the college itself), and developed and enforced elaborate codes of conduct among their members. Intense competition for members and for college honors led to creative emulation between the two societies. Their libraries afforded undergraduates easy access to the world outside; their debates trained generations to consider the great public issues of the day, from slavery to American expansion, from women’s rights to the dismemberment of the union. Surviving the challenge of Greek letter fraternities in the 1850s and 1860s, the societies reached their apogee in the 1880s. Woodrow Wilson himself trained in the arts of speech and debate while serving as Speaker (now President) of the Society. Then Princeton, like many other old American colleges, underwent a rapid transformation. It became a university college. In the process enrollment increased enormously, while a network of social clubs, expanded library facilities, and a widened curriculum replaced many of the functions once performed by Whig and Clio. By the time of World War I, Whig and Clio were only two among the scores of student groups that appealed to a wide range of undergraduate intellectual, social, and physical interests.
Dormant during World War I, when the societies were revived in the early 1920s they faced a student generation largely indifferent to their traditional concerns. In an effort to attract interest, in 1925 the Polity, Law and Fine Arts Clubs, along with the Speaker’s Association, were absorbed into the Halls. However, interest continued to decline; in 1928 the two societies merged and moved into Whig Hall.
In 1941 Whig Hall and the assets of the society were transferred to the trustees of the University, with the understanding that the building and funds were to be “used for purposes associated with undergraduate activities in the fields of public speaking, debate, conferences on public affairs, literature and journalism.” These were the main pursuits of the society over the succeeding three decades. In following them Whig-Clio sponsored successfully several subsidiary organizations, such as the Princeton Senate, the International Affairs Council, and the National Affairs Council. But from the 1930s on, Whig-Clio’s most conspicuous public role was in bringing important public figures to speak on the campus. Sometimes controversial, the speakers linked the undergraduates in a direct and personal manner to the wider world beyond Princeton.
A friendly rivalry, however, continues to this day between Conservative and Liberal members, who consider themselves “Clios” and “Whigs”, respectively, and take their places on opposite sides of the Senate chamber, to adversarially continue the nearly two and a half century’s tradition of Parliamentary Debate.
Whig-Clio continues to be the center of Campus debate, sponsoring the world-renowned Princeton Debate Panel and Princeton Mock Trial Association, both of which have won countless distinctions of the highest caliber over the years, as well as the very prestigious International Relations Council, Model Congress, and Woodrow Wilson Honorary Debating Panel. Whig-Clio has also continued in its tradition of annually bestowing the James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service, which has, in recent years, resulted in captivating public lectures from Honorees as prominent as former President Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.