The Lost 1872 Convention
By Towner Blackstock (Davidson 1994), Curator of Archives
In The History of Phi Gamma Delta, Tomos Beta, William Chamberlin (Denison 1893) wrote that he doubted the 1872 convention was ever held. He could find scant documentation about the meeting. The minutes did not exist anywhere.
However, he admitted that no less a brother than Charles Fairbanks (Ohio Wesleyan 1872) recalled the event, where he met Thomas R. Marshall (Wabash 1872). Fairbanks later served as Archon President; both men became United States Vice Presidents.
Indeed, a convention convened in Indianapolis on May 1, 1872. What happened at that meeting, and why do we lack a copy of the minutes?
The Fraternity Archives has a dearth of records from the 1860s and 1870s, and for many reasons. Those decades saw radical change in America: the Civil War, Reconstruction, economic upheaval, political scandal. Many chapters (and colleges!) came and went, leaving scant records for today's researcher.
The Fraternity's leadership weakened. The ruling body of the Fraternity was the Grand Chapter, consisting of the undergraduates of Alpha Chapter at Jefferson College, Pennsylvania. In 1865, Jefferson College and Washington College merged, with the two separate campuses maintained for the lower and upper classes. Surely it was impractical to maintain a membership between both campuses. Brothers, if thus drawn from only one campus, would be active in the chapter for a shorter time. This eroded the institutional memory and practical effectiveness of the Grand Chapter.
Then Washington and Jefferson gave a death-blow to fraternities: every new student had to give an oath that he would not join a secret fraternity. Unable to recruit, Alpha Chapter dwindled. In 1868, they asked the chapters to vote by mail for the location of a new Grand Chapter. It seemed to take months - during which the Fraternity had no leadership of which to speak.
Finally, in June 1869, Upsilon Chapter at the College of the City of New York (CCNY) became Grand Chapter. Then the 1870 convention provided that members of the Grand Chapter would come from all the chapters of New York City, and also area graduates. Those first members remained young: undergraduates or those freshly graduated. The relative inexperience of these leaders would result in the loss of some records, as we shall see later.
TAU CHAPTER RECORDS REVEALING
In 2001, the Archives admitted the records of Tau Chapter at Hanover College, a valuable trove of correspondence and other documents from the period in question. These records allow us to identify the date, location, and some topics of the convention.
The convention's proposed topics of discussion - and the associated attitudes - seem bizarre today. R. Drake Haislip at Washington and Lee wrote to Tau Chapter on February 4, 1872, ". . . the matters to be discussed there, so far as I have been able to learn are: increase of maximum [chapter size] -- resolutions concerning expulsion -- non-admittance of negroes -- non-admittance of women."
As to the first, it is plainly seen that the way the matter stands now there is great inconsistency, and that it ought to be changed. It seems very proper too that there should be one provision with reference to expulsions. As to the two last, I think they are foolish and useless discussions; for I am of the opinion that nearly every man would quit the fraternity if either a negro or a woman were admitted to membership.
These matters, then, seem to me to be of little moment and not likely to elicit much discussion at the convention.
Brother Haislip proposed to discuss expansion instead, suggesting a colonization method by which "we send some man to a college to establish a chapter . . . ." This is the method adopted many years later. We do not know if any of these topics were addressed.
Later in February, J. E. Cooper at Roanoke College wrote that his chapter was "hoping that while the woman-admission question will be voted down, yet the right of individual fraters to have *little* chapters of their own will not be infringed upon." Of course, Cooper refers tounge-in-cheek to marriage.
NEWBERRY COLLEGE PETITIONS
It seems that at least one petition came to the convention. Cooper wrote again on April 20, just a couple of weeks before the convention:
Some leading students of Walhalla, S.C. wrote to a barbarian here as to the merits of the different fraternities. He unhesitatingly (as we have since learned) recommended P.G.D. They thereupon began a correspondence asking for information necessary to obtaining a charter. The petition will be laid before the Convention of May prox; and I have no doubt will be granted. If so, Prof. & Frater Dreher, of our last graduating class will duly initiate them in June. We know these applicants to be the 'cream' of the institution."
Newberry College was located in Walhalla from 1868 to 1877, when it returned to its earlier location of Newberry, South Carolina where it remains today. We do not know if the petition did reach the convention. If it did, the brothers probably took no favorable action, given that we have no record of ever having established a chapter at Newberry.
Whatever happened to the minutes of the meeting? Here, the inexperience (or perhaps the lack of time) the Grand Chapter shows. "GC" member Fred L. Underhill wrote Tau Chapter in September:
In regards to the minutes of Convention I would say that it was directed by that body, in order to save the time and trouble of making a separate copy of its minutes for each individual chapter, that only a limited number should be made and these to be circulated amongst the chapters. That is as soon after the receipt and reading of the minutes by a chapter as practicable it should forward them to the chapter next in point of proximity to itself and so on. Of course numerous delays may arise owing to the tardiness of the GAs [corresponding secretaries] in forwarding and this may explain why T has not yet received a copy.
Apparently Tau never did get its copy of the minutes. On November 25, over six months after the convention, future US Vice President Thomas R. Marshall (Wabash 1872) wrote: "We were the first to receive the minutes of the Grand Convention held in Indianapolis. There were to be sent around and if they have not reached you the negligence is not on our part as we forwarded them to Lambda at Greencastle."
Marshall describes the action of the convention, but without mentioning any results:
There were no amendments to the Constitution but everything was introduced in the form of Resolutions in order to keep the Constitution from those attachments to its tail . . . . I was present and can say with candor that the poem and oration were very fine.
The last sentence lends credence to Charles W. Fairbanks's recollection of his first meeting Marshall at the 1872 Convention.
NEWSPAPERS FILL GAPS
Both city newspapers, the Journal and the Sentinel, gave considerable space to the convention. The business sessions convened in the State Senate chamber. The convention elected as officers for the meeting Captain Eli Ritter (DePauw 1863) president, William H. Clark (CCNY 1869, Columbia 1871) vice president, and Ira H. Lafetra (Ohio Wesleyan 1872) secretary. Unlike the Archons of today, these officers supervised the meeting only and had no further responsibility. Clark, though, was Grand Chapter president in 1872 and 1873. Ritter would also preside over the 1883 convention in Indianapolis.
Public exercises - a tradition since the first 1852 convention - occurred on the final day at the Masonic hall. The city band played, and the noted author, lecturer, and one-time Indiana Asbury (later DePauw University) professor Dr. Edward Eggleston (DePauw 1867) spoke. Said the Journal,
The doctor announced his subject to be 'A Talk About Talk,' and he read on in the hurried manner peculiar to the author of The Hoosier Schoolmaster. The oration abounded generously with scintillations of wit and unexpected overflows of rich and sparkling sayings, original and refreshing . . . . The oration which occupied three quarters of an hour was listened to throughout with the closest attention evidencing the relish with which it was received.
In addition to a keynote speaker, these occasions always had a poet, in this case Dr. John Clark Ridpath (DePauw 1863), historian, author, and professor at Indiana Asbury. The poem was "The New Pantheon". Ridpath had also been poet at Pittsburgh in 1864.
The public meeting adjourned to the closing banquet at the Bates House hotel. Said the Sentinel,
About seventy of the brotherhood and a number of distinguished guests and members sat down to a well-spread board and did ample justice to a tempting array of eatables. The bill of fare was choice, varied and sufficient for all. After eating until the appetite failed and even the sweets cloyed, then came the great American evil, responses to regular and voluntary toasts which were first read by the president of the meeting.
James Ruddell (DePauw 1863) presided; he was a Civil War veteran, lawyer, and at one point an Indiana legislator. Speakers included Captain Ritter, Dr. Eggleston, W. D. Frazier (Wabash 1873), Reverend Dr. Reuben Andrus (DePauw initiate) [DePauw University's fifth president], Colonel James Black (Washington 1848) [past president of University of Iowa, and president of Pittsburgh Female College], and Bob Smith (Mississippi 1874).
So indeed, the "lost" convention of 1872 did occur. Will we ever know more details? As we unearth more records from the Archives and from chapter house basements, perhaps so!