At nine o’clock on the evening of the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 1839, eight earnest young men, all students at Miami University, held the first meeting of Beta Theta Pi in the Hall of the Union Literary Society, an upper room in the old college building (known as “Old Main”). The eight founders in the order in which their names appear in the minutes were:
John Reily Knox, 1839
Samuel Taylor Marshall, 1840
David Linton, 1839
James George Smith, 1840
Charles Henry Hardin, 1841
John Holt Duncan, 1840
Michael Clarkson Ryan, 1839
Thomas Boston Gordon, 1840
“of ever honored memory”
In mentioning the Founders, full names are always used, and they are referred to as “of ever honored memory.”
The Founders’ Paragraph (above) is a summary of the first meeting, which Betas refer to as the Founding of Beta Theta Pi.
To understand this more fully, some background on Miami University in 1839 is helpful. Not surprisingly, college life differed greatly from today. There were only 135 students, all men, and six professors. Tuition was $24.00 per year, rooms cost $3.00- $5.00 annually, and meals ran $1.50 to $2.00 per week.
Latin and Greek Required
After pre-dawn worship services, students attended lectures and recitations in a classical curriculum which included Latin, Greek, logic, mathematics, political economy and chemistry.
Afternoons were spent chopping wood, wrestling, foot racing or kicking a hair-stuffed sphere, which was called football, followed by study. Many prepared their own meals in their rooms.
The college year lasted from early October until early August with breaks for Christmas and Easter. Elliott and Stoddard Halls (dormitories) and Old Main (now Harrison Hall) were the principal buildings.
The most important extracurricular activities were conducted by the Erodelphian and Union Literary Societies, formed in 1825. By 1839 each of these societies had accumulated substantial libraries and collections of geologic artifacts. On Friday afternoon members of each society assembled in the society halls on the third floor of Old Main where they read, debated, delivered and criticized essays and sermons and developed skills in extemporaneous speaking. These meetings often continued well into the night.
Literary Societies Were Quasi-Fraternities
The societies developed intense rivalries in recruiting and in the conduct of their affairs. While the societies supplemented the curriculum, even acting as quasi-fraternities, each sought to provide its members mutual improvement, the cultivation of fellowship and the promotion of standards of conduct. Most students were members of one of these societies.
Of the Founders, Knox, Marshall, Smith and Hardin wore the white rose of Union Literary Society, while Linton, Duncan, Ryan and Gordon wore the red rose of the Erodelphians. Several served in important positions; Knox was president of Union Literary Society in June 1839, while Linton served as treasurer of the Erodelphians for a year.
Something Was Missing
These societies did not fulfill all of a student’s needs, however, so during the winter and spring of 1839 several of Beta’s future Founders began planning something different. Knox, Marshall, Smith and Hardin lived in the west wing of Old Main. Marshall and Smith were roommates; Hardin lived next door.
Before Beta’s founding, there were 19 chapters of five fraternities — all located in New England and New York.
Alpha Delta Phi, begun in 1832, had unsuccessfully offered membership to Marshall and perhaps others of the Founders; and Duncan’s older brother was an Alpha Delta Phi, which was an influential and somewhat controversial group.
In an 1843 letter to E. Bruce Stevens, Miami 1843, Pater Knox described the origin of Beta Theta Pi:
“It was during the winter season, 1838-39, that the idea of forming a secret association first suggested itself. I saw that there were many advantages in such an association, which could not otherwise be enjoyed. Such combinations of individuals are as old as the wants of man and coeval (coincided) with the growth of literature. The motto of your own Union Literary Society, firman consensus facit, ‘cooperation makes strength,’ is an embodiment of the experience of man in all ages and nations.”
Vows Never Broken
“The history of many of these secret associations had always possessed a charm for me,” Knox continued. “There was an interest about the actions of men who bound themselves together by vows which were never broken, and who pursued the great objects of their association with an energy that never tired, with a zeal which knew not self, and with a devotedness that never counted gold.
“Men have been found among them who labored from morn to night, from youth to hoary age, in one cause and for one object. Revolutions have been accomplished and despots dethroned by the united action of small but daring associations. The great secret of their success consisted not in numbers but in union; not in great strength, but in well-directed and simultaneous exertions.
“What a few men united in object and effort will to do can be done; and more than that, such associations teach us in their records how far human friendships can carry us from the shrine of idol self.
“ . . . In some of these societies, however, were to be found many objectionable features which rendered them liable to be used as engines of evil as well as instruments of good. Some of these were to be found in the Alpha Delta Phi Society, as it was organized at Miami University, and I imagined that an association might be formed which would embrace the good without the ingredient of evil.
“My attention was drawn more forcibly to this by the dissension then existing in the Union Literary Society. In some of our conversations on the subject, Taylor Marshall suggested the idea of building up a Society which might unite the benefits without the disadvantages of the Alpha (Delta Phi)s. I told him I had thought of it, but was afraid that we could not succeed. But if you know Marshall, I need not tell you that he is one of the most sanguine men in existence. The idea once started, he would not give it up until I set to work.”
Bonds Begin with Clasped Hands
“In the first place,” Knox continued, “I got the Greek Lexicon and turned it over several times in search of a name. The present one was finally selected. Then came the badge. This was more difficult. You have seen the first pins that were struck. In place of the crescent we first agreed on, clasped hands — but that Taylor had altered when he went to the city to procure the pins.
“We then went to work on the Constitution. You have seen the draught (draft) as it was originally presented. On that I spent my leisure time for a week or more, and many were the long consultations which Taylor and I had over that. Night after night up in ‘the old wing’ we revised and re-revised until we got it to our satisfaction, though necessarily imperfect; for it was altogether an experiment with me, as I had nothing to go by but imagination, and I believe Taylor was equally inexperienced.
“The next questions was, ‘Whom shall we connect with us in this matter?’ Charles Hardin roomed next door to Marshall, so we called him in, and I initiated him and Taylor Marshall.”
Thus, Knox and Marshall jointly conceived and worked together to create Beta Theta Pi during the winter and spring of 1839. On June 7, 1839, Knox was inaugurated as president of the Union Literary Society. The ending of his inauguration speech gave hints of his Beta activities when he urged that each Society member should:
“ . . . in his intercourse with other members of the Society, be urbane in his manners, mild in his expressions, steadfast in his friendship.”
These were the same aspirations Knox held for members of Beta Theta Pi; he wanted Betas to be polite, courteous and friendly.
Fashioning Badges From Gold Coins
About the same time, Marshall took nine $10 gold pieces to Cincinnati where a jeweler named Samuel S. Carley fashioned them into the first badges.
As soon as Linton, Duncan, Ryan and Gordon had been added, other organizatonal meetings were held. Marshall recalled that, once the original Constitution had been completed, he patriotically dated it July 4, 1839. Perhaps the final plans for the formal founding were made then as July 4th was one of the few school holidays.
According to the minutes of the Founding, the eight who met at these preliminary gatherings subscribed to the Constitution which contained Beta’s obligations and principles — concepts which have never changed and are as fresh today as they were then. Yet five of the young men who conceived these concepts were only 19, four of them barely so.
As Knox, Linton and Ryan were to graduate soon, Duncan was selected to serve as the first president; Smith was chosen to be secretary.
So the stage was set for the regular meeting — the official Founding of Beta Theta Pi. The 1838-39 academic year closed with graduation on Aug. 8, and that evening these eight young men slipped secretly up the steps of Old Main, entering the Hall of the Union Literary Society at the southeast corner of the third floor with keys that Knox possessed because he had been president of that society.
Smith recorded the events of the evening:
John H. Duncan, having been previously elected as first president of this association, delivered his inaugural address as required, and entered upon the discharge of his duties. David Linton, who had been previously appointed to prepare a suitable address for the occasion, discharged the duty devolving upon him in an essay upon the first, and an ex tempore address upon the last, words of the motto.
J.R. Knox was then elected to address the society upon the first anniversary of its foundation. Thomas B. Gordon was appointed to prepare the essay for the first meeting. Mr. Ryan proposed that it should be the duty of the secretary to inform by letter all absent members of the election of any new member, which proposition was agreed to.
As a portion of the members would be absent during the approaching recess of the university, it was deemed advisable to adjourn to meet on the second Thursday of October, and the society adjourned accordingly.
Linton’s address on the Founding was noteworthy. He closed with this challenge for all those who in the future would wear the Fraternity badge and bear its name:
“Therefore, let me exhort you to cultivate friendship for its own sake, for it has an intrinsic value uncomputed, incomputable . . . Let us ask ourselves those questions of wisdom and honor: What shall I do to render myself worthy of a brother’s esteem? How shall I promote his interests or win his confidence? And what exertions shall I make to prove to all that I am not a mere cipher in the association to which I belong? Let each one of us ask ourselves these questions and answer them by our actions.”
Thus Beta Theta Pi became the first fraternity to be founded west of the Allegheny Mountains and was the basis for the “Miami Triad” — Beta Theta Pi (1839), Phi Delta Theta (1848) and Sigma Chi (1855.)
The Founders also expressed their aspirations for Beta Theta Pi in these ways:
“The beauty, elegance and permanency of all civil society depend wholly upon the integrity of its social union and mental cultivation. Here then we assume for the basis of our own secret association the vital principle upon which hangs the progress and intellectual greatness of the human race, the mutual fidelity of hearts, the mutual assistance of mind.” — Charles Henry Hardin, president’s initiation speech, Jan. 31, 1841, at age 20
“Remember ‘tis virtue and wisdom that gave vitality to friendship, and that without them there can be no lasting bond of union. Then study that you may be wise and cherish every virtue of the soul that you may be worthy of a brother’s confidence.” — David Linton, Founding speech, Aug. 8, 1839, at age 24
“The cultivation of friendship is a most important object in the organization of this association. We may indeed meet the other ends, which our motto contemplates, but that friendship may become as common among us as it is rare among other men, we should be careful whom we call brother and whom we elect to the friendship of the Beta Theta Pi . . . Friendship and fidelity cannot be cultivated like the barren field by toil and labor; nor like the other qualities of the mind with severe and unwearied application but by a ready and willing comingling of hearts with hearts — of feelings with feelings. Such is friendship in its purity — constant as time in prosperity and unchangeable as the decrees of fate in adversity.” — Charles Henry Hardin, essay, Nov. 14, 1839, at age 19
Johnson and Three Others
When the five remaining Founders returned to Miami University in October, they began to recruit new brothers. At their first meeting they initiated Smith’s cousin, Henry Hunter Johnson, and in February added John Whitney, Alexander Paddack and A.W. Hamilton.
The Constitution provided that “other branches of the association may be established at such places as may be thought suitable and prudent.” At the March 13, 1840, meeting, Paddack, Gordon and Hamilton were designated as a committee to establish a chapter at Cincinnati. This was accomplished on April 8, 1840, with the initiation of four men.
A month later the Miami and Cincinnati Betas began a joint study of the original Constitution to determine what amendments and changes were deemed necessary. This work culminated in April 1841 with the approval of the provision which changed the badge, replacing the crescent with a laurel wreath and the diamond, giving the badge its current appearance.
Important additions to the new Constitution were provisions giving three-fourths of the chapters the power to establish new chapters and the creation of a triennial convention of all chapters at which each chapter had one vote. The convention was vested with the sole authority to change the Constitution and make other decisions for the promotion of the interests of the association.
On to Western Reserve and Ohio University
The new chapter promptly took up the expansion work of the Fraternity and, largely through the efforts of the Cincinnati Betas, the new Fraternity expanded in 1841 to Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio, and Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
Due to the efforts of the Miami Betas, chapters were established at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., and Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pa., in 1842. The latter chapter, which became the Washington & Jefferson chapter due to the union of Washington College and Jefferson College in 1865, is the Greek community’s oldest chapter having a continuous existence without interruption to the present day.
The Transylvania chapter existed but a short time and initiated only 21 men and several men with dual chapter membership. These two chapters were the first of any fraternity to be founded in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Six chapters formed Beta Theta Pi at the time of the first General Convention in Cincinnati in 1842, with delegates present from Miami, Cincinnati, Western Reserve and Ohio University. A letter was received from Jefferson, but there was no representation of any kind from Transylvania.
Thereafter, conventions were held in 1845, 1848, 1851 and 1854, with a special convention being called in 1847, probably because the 1845 convention was poorly attended and transacted no business. In 1854, it was decided that the convention should be held biennially, which was the practice until 1864 when the convention voted to have annual gatherings.
Since that year, the convention has been canceled on only two occasions: in 1874, due to an epidemic, and during the World War II years of 1943 to 1945.
Beta: Truly the Undergraduates’ Fraternity
Since 1842, the delegates from the chapters of the Fraternity have constituted the conventions, although in recent years a handful of alumni associations usually attend, too.
The undergraduate delegates make up the overwhelming majority of the voting delegates, and only these delegates can vote on the election of the Board of Trustees and granting and revocation of charters.
In effect, the undergraduate delegates possess the ultimate decision-making power and set the course for the Fraternity’s future. Historic actions taken by many of Beta’s conventions are, in fact, the actions of the undergraduates. Among all college fraternities, Beta Theta Pi continues to be one of the few to vest its ultimate decision-making power in its undergraduates.
Participation of Betas in armed conflicts began with the Mexican War. Lt. Daniel McCleary, Miami 1844, was killed in action June 23, 1847, at Vera Cruz, Mexico, becoming the first Beta to give his life in the service of his country.
The early years of the Fraternity were marked by loose expansion and growing opposition to fraternities by faculties.
Conclusion of the Fraternity Wars
The first major victory was won by Lambda chapter by securing official recognition from the University of Michigan in 1850. This victory was the zenith of the Fraternity Wars which had been in progress in Ann Arbor for several years.
Beta’s Lambda chapter, the first in the state, was founded in 1845 soon followed by chapters of Chi Psi and Alpha Delta Phi. A University rule prohibited students from joining an organization which had not submitted its constitution to the faculty and received its approval, a rule that the fraternities refused to obey.
After repeated suspensions of fraternity men over a period of several years, in late 1849 the University expelled known members of Chi Psi and Alpha Delta Phi while the Betas, who were held in higher esteem by the faculty, avoided the same fate until the following fall. All known members of Beta Theta Pi were faced with the choice of giving up their membership or being expelled.
Led by the chapter president, Andrew Poppleton, the Betas demonstrated their character and commitment to the Fraternity’s principles by refusing to give up their Beta membership and were expelled, most going to other colleges to complete their education.
The expulsions stirred the populace because the expelled students were young men known to be of high character. At a public meeting, the townspeople adopted resolutions supporting the students and the value of secret societies, and soon thereafter the University’s Board of Visitors agreed.
The People Will Be Heard
Next, the people took their concerns to the legislature which called a State Constitutional Convention to consider an amendment providing for the popular election of the Regents governing the University. This was ultimately approved. As a result, all of the Regents were replaced, and the professors who had caused the problem were dismissed.
Looking Ahead to Public Recognition
Unlike today, when Beta only colonizes on campuses at the invitation of the school, in the middle of the 19th century, many chapters — Miami University included — existed sub rosa (secretly) for long periods of time because acknowledgement of fraternity membership would be grounds for automatic expulsion from college.
In January of 1848, for example, the Alpha chapter became inactive as a result of the famous “Snowball Rebellion.” After a heavy snowfall, several students rolled a dozen or more huge snowballs and filled in the first floor of Old Main. The college president was not amused. He determined to find the guilty and expel them, determined to make Miami “a decent college.”
The next night, an even larger crowd of students mounted a more formidable barrier, nailing the doors shut, filling the hall with snow. Classes were suspended for a week, and trials of the suspects resulted in the dismissal of all but nine seniors and five juniors, diminishing the Fraternity severely. Three Betas were admitted to Centre College where they set up a Beta chapter. The two remaining Betas left Miami that spring, leaving Alpha abandoned. It was not until 1855 that the chapter was revived.
Another chapter having to operate sub rosa was Iota at Hanover College in Southeast Indiana. That story, described in chapter 4, portrays a group of remarkable young Betas who literally stood their ground against the prejudices of the time, from administrators as well as from their fellow students.