The first general fraternity that there are records of was organized in 1750 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Known as the “Flat Hat Club”, the members met periodically in an upper room of the Raleigh Tavern, and over a bowl of punch, their laughter reportedly shook the house. Thomas Jefferson, author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, was a student member of this club.
The first Greek-letter society came into being because a student had been refused admission into a William and Mary organization known as PDA. The PDA club was supposedly a literary society but had long lost those purposes. The rejected man was a superior Greek scholar. With four friends, he organized a society of his own, using Greek letters to name it: Phi Beta Kappa.
The first meeting of Phi Beta Kappa took place on December 5, 1776. It was a secret meeting, for the faculty of William and Mary at the time did not approve of its students discussing the pressing issues of the day and possibly straying too far from accepted beliefs. So Phi Beta Kappa developed appropriate signals of challenge and recognition, and they met weekly at the site of American patriot Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech in the Apollo room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg.
They discussed “whether anything is more dangerous to civil liberty in a free state than a standing army in time of peace” (the Americans having declared their independence from Britain in July 1776) and dozens of other controversial topics. Each topic was argued according to Phi Beta Kappa rules so that each man contributed his full share of the discussion.
After two years, Phi Beta Kappa felt that other campuses should share its good idea that the higher education experience give proper consideration to prepare the student for his future responsibilities…by preparing him socially. Chapters were founded at several American colleges. As time went on, Phi Beta Kappa became purely intellectual in its aims, though the original cardinal principles were “literature, morality, and friendship”. During anti-secret movements of the 1830s, Phi Beta Kappa, the society voluntarily revealed its once secret Greek name, “Filosofia Bion Kuberneqes” (Philosophia Bios Kybernethes), or “Philosophy (is the) guide to life”. Since that time, Phi Beta Kappa has become a scholastic honorary society and today recognizes men and women, who, as undergraduates, show superior achievement in academics in more than 184 college campuses in America.
The secret grip and ritual, the distinctive badge, the use of Greek letters — all were used by Phi Beta Kappa and were adopted by subsequent Greek letter fraternities and sororities. But the important legacies of Phi Beta Kappa are these: high moral ideals, scholastic advancement, and the friendship of one Brother with another.
Adapted from “To Better The Man”, the membership manual of Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity, 1994 and research of publicly-available official fraternity and sorority information on the World Wide Web.