Jefferson Literary and Debating Society

Jefferson Literary and Debating Society

The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society is a debating and literary society at the University of Virginia. It was founded in 1825 and is the oldest organization at The University.

The Society meets at 7:29 on all Friday evenings when classes at the University of Virginia are in session, principally in Hotel C of the University's West Range, known colloquially as "Jefferson Hall", "Jeff Hall", or simply "The Hall".

The Greek letters of the Hall are Φ Π Θ - Phi Pi Theta - which are the initials of the Society's Greek motto: φίλοι, πατρίς, θεός ("philoi, patris, theos," or "friendship, fatherland, divinity"). After Phi Beta Kappa the Jefferson Society is the second oldest continually existing Greek-lettered organization in the country. The Hall's Latin motto, taken from Book 1, line 203 of Virgil's "Aeneid", is "Haec olim meminisse iuvabit" - roughly translated, "In the future it will be pleasing to remember these things." Well-known members of the Hall include Edgar Allan Poe, Woodrow Wilson, former Virginia governor and Republican National Committee chair Jim Gilmore, University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III, and 2005 Miss America Deidre Downs. Several former and current members of the University's Board of Visitors also are members. Honorary members include James Madison, James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette, Margaret Thatcher, and Lord Slynn of Hadley (who frequently visits the Society during his semi-regular trips to speak at the law school). Thomas Jefferson turned down an invitation for honorary membership in an August 12, 1825 letter, citing his need to avoid altering his relationship with the University and its students:


The hallmark of the Society's public visage is its Speaker Series, which draws distinguished individuals from myriad disciplines to address the Society and its guests each Friday evening during the fall and spring academic sessions. Noteworthy speakers over the years include Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, US Senator John Warner, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, Vermont Governor and Presidential Candidate Howard Dean, Tom Clancy, William Faulkner, George Will, Ruth Westheimer, South Pole Pioneer Roald Amundsen, Congressman Bob Barr, Colombian President Victor Mosquera Chaux, John Dos Passos, Avery Cardinal Dulles, US Senator and Presidential Candidate Gary Hart, Christina Hoff Sommers, Congressman Asa Hutchinson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson, Playwright and Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek Soong May-ling, Kenny Mayne, Sharon Olds, César Pelli, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and Edward Teller, inventor of the Hydrogen Bomb.

Each week, members of the Society engage in spirited debate on matters ranging from current events to philosophy and law to humorous topics. Members frequently present original works of Literature and Poetry or give readings of the works of other authors. Each semester, the Society holds a number of competitive Debate, Oratorical, and Literature events, and engages other organizations in friendly contests of debate or athletic skill. The Society hosts several formal events annually, including Wilson's Day, the Restoration Ball, and Founder's Day - first held in 1832.


A student at the University who wishes to join the Jefferson Society must sit for a competitive interview process and complete a semester as a Probationary Member. Upon successful fulfillment of all requirements, he or she crosses into the Regular Membership of the society, which includes current undergraduate and graduate students of the University. When Regular Members end their enrollment at the University, they become Associate Members of the Society, and may elect to become a Lifetime Member. The Jefferson Society grants Honorary Membership to distinguished individuals who have rendered exceptional service.


The Jefferson Society was founded on July 14, 1825, by sixteen disgruntled members of the now-defunct Patrick Henry Society in Room Seven, West Lawn,Patton, 235.] where a member of the society continues to live to this day. In the 182 years since then, the history of the Society has been the history of the University itself: no other organization has been active for as many years in the life of the school and her students.

Membership in the Society grew rapidly in the early years after its founding, and it finally secured a permanent meeting place in Hotel C on the West range. "The relationship between the Society and this hall has always been very close; to this day, both are referred to simply as “The Hall.” The new accommodations allowed the Society to take a prominent role in the Social life in the mid 19th century. Before fraternities and athletics were en vogue, the several literary and debating organizations on grounds were at the epicenter of the social scene: The Jefferson Society held numerous cotillions and dances in the hall and in the Dome Room of the Rotunda.

By 1855, the University of Virginia was the second largest University in the nation after Harvard University, enrolling 645 students. That school year, the Society admitted 155 new members: nearly a quarter of the student body of the University. The Hall thrived in its prosperity, forming literary publications, giving scholarships, donating books to the University's libraries, and endowing a stone for the building of the Washington Monument, where the name of the Society may still be seen inscribed in the stone at the 270th-foot landing.

The United States Civil War threatened the existence of the Society, who donated most of its funds to the cause of the Confederacy. During the war The Hall was used as a hospital for Confederate troops, and the Society met elsewhere. The Society regained its vigor after the War and by the turn of the century, it began to focus on the more formal aspects of forensics, collaborating with the Washington Literary Society and Debating Union in 1913 to form the Virginia High School Debate League, an organization that hosts thousands of secondary school students in debate to this day.

Both of the World Wars threatened the health of the Society, which now had to compete with a robust Greek Life and a thriving athletics scene. In a now familiar pattern, however, the Society revitalized at the end of the Wars. William Faulkner visited the Society, the Moomaw Oratorical Contest began, and membership numbers leapt. In 1965, the Society became the first organization at the University to allow African-Americans; women graced the membership of the Hall two years later.

The Jefferson Society went through a tumultuous time in the early 1990s. The Cavalier Daily student newspaper and The Washington Post printed accusations that members of the Society made unwanted sexual advances toward "probationary" members. Additionally, the Society was accused of violating the University's alcohol policy by allowing alcohol into Jefferson Hall. The Board of Visitors conducted an investigation and concluded that the accusation of systemic sexual impropriety was unfounded – rather, that one individual had acted inappropriately and that the organization's leadership acted quickly and appropriately to punish that member. However, the Society was found to be in violation of alcohol policy and, as such, lost control of Jefferson Hall for the Fall 1993 semester. Since then, alcohol has not been permitted inside Jefferson Hall during its meetings.

Historical possessions

*The Society owns the original of one of Thomas Sully's two paintings of Thomas Jefferson, one of the only surviving portraits of Jefferson drawn from life and valued at several million dollars. It is on loan to the University and hangs in the Rotunda.
*A second significant artifact is the Society's Edgar Allan Poe signature. Poe signed the minutes book one evening during which he served as secretary pro tem: a signature that was later clipped out by Lancelot Blackford, a UVa student in the 1850s, saving it from the Great Rotunda Fire of 1895. Society alumni in the early 1980s raised the money to buy the signature from a collector, in honor of their friend and fellow alumnus, James F. Perz. The signature is kept in secure storage as part of the University library's special collections.
*One of the Society's roll books contains the signature of Woodrow Wilson during his tenure as the Society's President. The Society's minute books contain many sets of minutes written and signed by Wilson when he was the Society's Secretary.

Famous members

*Colgate Darden, president of The University of Virginia and Governor of Virginia.
*Deidre Downs, Ms. Americacite news |url= |title=Cavalier Royalty |accessdate=2006-11-09 |last=Gunay |first=Dafne |date=2004-10-20 |work=The Cavalier Daily |quote=I played varsity volleyball, I was in the Jefferson Society, A Chi O sorority, U.Dems and I was also an honor advisor.]
*Edgar Allan Poe
*James Madison (accepted honorary membership)
*James Monroe (accepted honorary membership)
*Jim Gilmore, Virginia Governor
*John Casteen, President of the University of Virginia
*Margaret Thatcher, (accepted honorary membership)
*Woodrow Wilson

Notes and references

*Carrier, Jerry and Michael Stewart. "Hotel C, West Range, University of Virginia". University of Virginia Press.
*cite book |last=Dabney |first=Virginius |authorlink=Virginius Dabney |url= |title=Mr. Jefferson's University: A History |location=Charlottesville |publisher=University of Virginia Press |year=1981 |isbn=081390904X
*cite web|url= |title=Saur's History of the Hall |accessdate=2006-11-09 |last=Saur |first=Karl W. |date=1982-02-05

External links

* [ Jefferson Literary and Debating Society]
* [ University of Virginia]

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