The Archives of Phi Gamma Delta

Archives Home  Founders  Traditions  Today in History  Historic Sites  Leaders  Exhibits/References  Contact



Phi Gamma Delta: The First Seventy-Five Years

By Towner Blackstock (Davidson 1994), Curator of Archives

(c) Copyright 2003 The Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta, Inc. All Right Reserved. Reproduction by any means electronic or print is prohibited without express written permission from the author.

Back to History Articles page


A chapter chronicler once wrote that "the beginnings of any movement are frequently rather shadowy."1 The founding of Phi Gamma Delta is no exception. Yet much is known about the first half of the Fraternity’s history, even some things left undiscovered by William F. Chamberlin (Denison 1893), author of the landmark The History of Phi Gamma Delta. With the recent publishing of The History’s third volume, the history from 1926 to 1996, let us remember what came before. The first seventy-five years of Phi Gamma Delta offer a remarkable story of idealism, dedication, perseverance, and success that begins with the leadership of six men, a leadership that grows exponentially with each succeeding generation.

The Founding

John T. McCarty transferred to Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania in 1846. He left behind the deteriorating situation at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a campus shaken by smallpox and cholera outbreaks, and by ongoing student dissent against the faculty. Jefferson was in far better order despite its larger size.2 However, McCarty soon missed the exciting rivalries of Miami’s two fraternities, who vied to control the offices and honors of the two literary societies. Jefferson had the literary societies, but only one fraternity, Beta Theta Pi.3

McCarty’s entrepreneurial spirit, along with several close friendships, inspired him to take advantage of this opportunity. In his room at a boarding house close to the College, McCarty and five friends met on April 22, 1848 to flesh out the secret "association" they had informally discussed.4

first minutesSam B. Wilson had the chair, and to him and James Elliott went the task of creating a constitution to codify their idea. Daniel Crofts,Naaman Fletcher, and Ellis Gregg rounded out the group. When they met again on May 1, 1848, the "Immortal Six" signed the document, elected officers, and appointed Wilson "to draw up a report in relation to the establishment of foreign chapters." The Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta was born.

Wilson presided during the month and a half remaining in the academic year, with McCarty as treasurer and Fletcher as secretary. The first initiation on May 8 added James B. Pennington and Albert Gallatin Jenkins, both Jefferson class of 1848. A month later the "Grand Chapter" approved a petition for a charter from five students at nearby Washington College.

By Jefferson College’s commencement on June 14, 1848, the Grand Chapter of "The Delta Association" had initiated nineteen members plus the original six. Fletcher, the one Founder not yet graduating, would lead the chapter and Fraternity in the coming year.5

Early Growth

hallIn the first years the Association shook its legs and sought to perfect its inner workings. The third president, David Hall (Jefferson 1850), wrote an initiatory speech to complement the constitution and oaths written by Wilson and the other Founders; this charge remains in many ways unchanged and still thrills brothers today.

Expansion took a back seat until December 1849. A graduate brother convinced a group at the University of Nashville to petition for a charter.6 The first request came from the South because that region sent many students to Jefferson, and the South had few fraternity chapters anywhere. Nashville received a charter in January 1850. "Thus it stands the third of that mystic brotherhood which shall embrace and own the talent of the nation," said the minutes of the Grand Chapter. Unfortunately, five months later the University of Nashville trustees closed the school, and the chapter expired.

This did not set a good trend. However, in 1851 at Union University in nearby Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the Fraternity found a chapter it could keep. That same year a transfer student, Felix McGavock (Nashville 1850), established a chapter at the University of North Carolina, and a petition was approved from the University of Virginia, although a chapter was not installed. The efforts of brothers like McGavock would time and again save and grow the fraternity.

In 1852 a chapter at Maryville College, Tennessee opened for a few of months, before closing in the face of faculty opposition to secret societies.7 The Fraternity’s first convention, held that year, authorized graduate chapters; it is not known that any were created. The fraternity lacked any significant number or concentration of graduates. Nevertheless graduates already played an important role in fraternity affairs. William E. McLaren (Jefferson 1851), for example, presided at the 1852, 1856, and 1863 conventions. He would later help revise the Ritual and serve as the third archon president from 1901 to 1903.

Trouble and Resurgence

Sometime in 1854 the University of North Carolina chapter closed, leaving Phi Gamma Delta with just three chapters. The Fraternity needed an expansion windfall. So on February 2, 1855 the Grand Chapter determined "to send four charters to Union Chapter with the privilege of filling in all blanks, etc." As a result of this division of responsibility, Phi Gamma Delta gained eight chapters in two years. Jefferson approved Marietta College, Ohio. Union followed with the universities of Alabama and Mississippi; the latter died after a brief time. Another transfer, John Mason Martin (Alabama ’56), founded the chapter at Centre College, Kentucky in the fall of 1855 but it died out the following spring. Marietta lasted two years, and Alabama four.

A few months into 1856 the chapter at Washington College became the Grand Chapter according to a plan of rotating the responsibility among all chapters. They were apparently less than successful and the 1856 convention returned the Grand Chapter to Jefferson.

Despite this difficulty, 1856 proved the Fraternity’s most successful year yet. Jefferson granted charters to Indiana Asbury and Alabama’s Howard College,8 and Union established a chapter in Texas at Baylor University. Bethel College, Kentucky also received a charter. These four chapters would last until the Civil War. Membership rose to 249, a fact recorded in 1856 in the Fraternity’s first catalogue. A catalogue was an important instrument of pride and prestige, though its publishing costs saddled the Grand Chapter with debt.

alcharterRemember the Grand Chapter minute about owning "the talent of the nation?" At this time two brothers were elected to the House of Representatives. Albert Gallatin Jenkins (Jefferson 1848) entered for Virginia in 1857, and Zebulon B. Vance (North Carolina 1854) followed him the next year for North Carolina. Both would serve until Secession in 1861.

The forward march continued with charterings at Pennsylvania College9 in 1858, Virginia and the revived chapter at North Carolina in 1859, and Allegheny College, Pennsylvania in 1860. With the eighteenth chartering at Kentucky University, Harrodsburg10 in November, Phi Gamma Delta sported twelve living chapters in the South and West, ranging in size from six to thirteen members each. Yet this happy state of affairs could not mask the turbulence ripping across the country. That same month, the Republican Party’s Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency.

Civil War and Revival

By February, seven southern states seceded from the Union. War threatened to wrench apart the nation. Despite the atmosphere, that month the Union University chapter apparently established a chapter at Soule University, Chappell Hill, Texas. But following the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861 many chapters and even colleges closed outright as students flocked to arms. By 1863 all of the eight southern chapters, including those in Kentucky, are believed to have closed.

The five northern chapters remained open. They even added two chapters, at University of Western Pennsylvania11 in 1863 and Hanover College, Indiana in 1864. A wartime attempt to install a chapter at Maryland Agricultural College12 failed, and Washington’s charter was revoked in July 1862 after they refused to pay an assessment for the 1862 catalogue. The chapter was apparently quickly re-established.

After Robert E. Lee’s surrender, the nation and the Grand Chapter turned to "reconstruction as the order of the day." Veterans returned to campuses to finish or begin school. The Grand Chapter smelled opportunity. In November 1865 they celebrated the first eastern chapter, Upsilon at the New York Free Academy, later called the City College of New York, or CCNY. Bethel reopened. Baker University in Kansas received a charter, as did Waco University in Texas.13 Many other campuses came under active investigation for possible expansion.

NorthwesternThese labors brought four new chapters in 1866, and seven more by 1870.14 Most of these were northern, but the three in the South were supplemented by revived chapters at Union, Mississippi, and Virginia. Adding to the rebound, chapters in Indiana initiated prominent political figures like former Senator and Governor Henry S. Lane (Wabash Initiate), and Union General Lew Wallace (DePauw Initiate). General Morton C. Hunter (Indiana Initiate), one of this wave of honorary initiates, would preside at the 1874 Convention. Things looked grand for Phi Gamma Delta!

However, the post-war boom soon met disappointment. It was discovered that Chi Chapter at Waco was never installed.13 Chapters were declared extinct at Northwestern (Picture of Charter on left) in 1869 and Western Pennsylvania in 1870. In April 1870, the brothers of Phi Chapter at Baker transferred their chapter to Northwestern, only to have it close shortly thereafter. Many such closings resulted from post-war financial and enrollment crises at campuses nationwide.

Internal and External Growth

Mixed success continued as twelve new and two revived chapters arose between 1870 and 1879. Six of these died within five years of their chartering.15 Chapters at Hampden-Sydney, Indiana, Marietta, and Ohio State held on. So did Yale, which remained operational despite losing its charter from 1876 to 1879 for wanting to become a "junior class society." Washington and Jefferson was resuscitated. Sadly, the Union University chapter died in 1873, when the school itself folded. All said fifteen chapters closed.16 Phi Gamma Delta ended the decade with eighteen chapters, one less than at the decade’s onset.

Then the long trend of chapter closures began to break. State universities emerged across America in the wake of large Federal land grants. Enrollments increased, and both student life and academic curriculums grew more rounded. College fraternities were increasingly accepted as campus features, partly because fraternal organizations in the larger society experienced a tremendous surge in popularity. They also benefited from an increasing number of directly involved local graduates, including many professors. The 1880 Convention spurred this involvement by creating the position of section chief. As a result of all this, 1880 to 1889 saw eighteen new chapters, including the first in California.17 Ten chapters fell inactive, but ten chapters were resuscitated.

keckThe growth did not just mean expansion. During the Seventies the Fraternity established annual dues, created a coat of arms, developed a membership certificate, printed the third and fourth catalogues (1870 and 1878, incurring great debt), enhanced the Ritual, and started the quarterly magazine. The hands of many active graduates are evident in all of these advancements. These brothers included William McLaren (Jefferson 1851), Frank Keck (CCNY 1872, Columbia 1875)(Picture on left), and William Clarke (CCNY 1869, Columbia 1871) to name only a few. Members continued to achieve prominence outside the Fraternity; in 1879 Phi Gamma Delta boasted one U.S. senator and nine representatives.

On the negative side evidence shows that hazing arose in a few chapters in this decade. This paralleled the rise of freshman class hazing that reached a pitch at the turn of the century. Pledge education did not exist anywhere in the Fraternity; men were initiated right after they accepted the offer of membership. Therefore, any "horseplay" would occur just before or possibly during the initiation ceremony.

first houseA housing movement also emerged this decade. Most chapters had long rented a hall or room as a gathering place. Students lived in dorms or in local boarding houses. But by 1889 nine chapters had rented whole homes, and Gamma Phi at Pennsylvania State had broken ground for the first house owned by Phi Gamma Delta (Picture on left).18  After that the pressure to build increased, with the second house built at Pennsylvania College, now Gettysburg, in 1891.

The Grand Chapter actively encouraged the formation of graduate groups like the Delta Club in New York City.19 This reflected a noticeable maturing of the Fraternity. While graduates had long provided convention leadership, after 1887 the magazine editor was a graduate, and graduates in the Grand Chapter were increasingly older. More and more Phi Gamma Delta was becoming "not for college days alone."

Dissent and the Grand Chapter

A mild dissent against the Grand Chapter emerged in the 1880s. Some brothers felt the "GC" was unrepresentative. The convention did not elect the Grand Chapter, or the officers of the Fraternity! One or two dozen brothers in New York elected new members to the GC at a general meeting each fall. While this worked well in 1870, the nation had become smaller with locomotives, steamships and telegraphs. Why not allow a more national and democratic government? Agitation for change started in the late 1880s and continued at every convention afterwards. One of the most vocal dissidents wasEdwin Mattern (Allegheny 1890, NYU 1894), later the first Ritualist (Picture on left).

Despite this dissent the Fraternity made many advancements. It established a flag, printed a songbook, and became debt-free for the first time. An enduring nickname that started at New York University— "Fiji"— was adopted by the 1886 convention and confirmed in 1894. Graduate activity practically exploded; by 1898 there were thirty-nine graduate chapters and over twenty-three graduate associations. Furthermore, the Fraternity founded thirteen chapters and revived two from 1890 to 1898, while losing only five.20

But aggravation with the Grand Chapter increased as the unfinished catalogue was delayed again and again. By then "each recurring convention was a scene of struggle for control of the organization committees and on the floor of the convention. And the magazine . . . was freely used for the forwarding of these revolutionary proposals . . ." to modify or even abolish the "GC."21

By 1896 several vocal proponents of abolishing the Grand Chapter, including Edwin Mattern, had managed to win seats in the "GC" itself. This created a tense situation, especially when the abolitionists won the majority and elected one of their number as Grand Chapter president. The old guard was reeling. They decried the political machinations of the abolitionists. The final blows came in early 1898 when a special issue of Yale’s "Nu Deuteron Bulletin" was mailed to the entire Fraternity. It featured chapter presidents and prominent graduates all expressing support for a unified proposal to change Fraternity government. T. Alfred Vernon (Yale 1875) had personally financed the "Bulletin" along with the monumental 1,440 page catalogue,Chapter Rolls and Directory.

At the 1898 Convention in Pittsburgh the agitation came to a head. After fifty years the Fraternity voted to abandon the Grand Chapter system and adopt the proposed national board, with General Lew Wallace (DePauw Initiate, pictured left) as the first president.22 This board they called an "Archonate," and the convention became an "ekklesia. An enhanced ritual was also proposed to meet the long-time call for greater embellishment and standardization, although just a few chapters accepted it.

A New Century 

Phi Gamma Delta began the new century with forty-nine chapters and over 7,000 members. The expansion boom extended from the Ekklesia in 1898 through 1902, with thirteen new or re-established chapters.23 The next thirty years saw a marked slowdown in the establishment of new chapters. Anti-expansion sentiment emerged, favoring cautious growth or even no growth at all! 

Therefore, expansion was largely restricted to reestablishing closed chapters and opening new ones in the western and southern states, since the Midwest and Northeast had a disproportionate number of chapters. Only seven new chapters were founded from 1903 to World War One, while Hampden-Sydney, Roanoke, Bethel, and Stanford closed.24 One chapter was revived: Stanford in 1903. The anti-expansionist sentiment is evidenced by the University of Pittsburgh experience. They petitioned every ekklesia from 1907 until 1916 before receiving a charter. 

The housing passion now sought to put every chapter in a house. Larger chapters— some now over thirty members— wanted nicer buildings with more living space. The sentiment even infected the graduates in New York City, who built a four-story clubhouse for Phi Gamma Delta in 1909. These structures stood as symbols of the Fraternity’s pride and prestige. 

By this time hazing before and during initiations had become rampant at many, though not all chapters. To control such "horseplay" the Fraternity adopted a pre-initiation rite called "King Bohunkus." While well-intentioned the concept degraded over time. Subsequent Ekklesiai would repeatedly discuss how to resolve the problem of hazing, including paddling. The real Ritual ceremonies were expanded and refined in 1915; that year Edwin Mattern (Allegheny 1890, NYU 1894) was appointed as the first Ritualist. He served until his death in 1936. [See General Appointed Officers list] 

After the fall of the Grand Chapter, the archon secretary received funds to maintain an administrative office, usually in a corner or room of his own workplace. The office moved with the election of each new secretary. Likewise, the magazine moved whenever a new editor was chosen. Both the secretary and editor were just subsidized volunteers. The first brother employed full-time was Cal Chambers (Wisconsin 1912), who served as a traveling field secretary from 1913 until 1915.25 [See Field Secretaries list]

Prominence in National Politics

The Fraternity bragged of two national figures in Charles W. Fairbanks (Ohio Wesleyan 1872), U.S. vice-president from 1905 to 1909, and Thomas R. Marshall (Wabash 1873), who followed him during President Woodrow Wilson’s administration from 1913 to 1921. Marshall was joined by the first Phi Gam cabinet member, Albert S. Burleson (Texas 1886), Wilson’s postmaster general. Then in 1916 Wilson appointed Newton D. Baker (Johns Hopkins 1892, Washington and Lee 1894) as secretary of war. [See list of brothers in national politics] Both Fairbanks and Baker had served as Fraternity President.

During World War One chapter houses were kept open by the first "purple legionnaires," recruited to watch over them. Not as many undergraduates entered the military as did in 1941. However, a few chapters— NYU and Columbia for instance— closed for the war when every member volunteered.

After the war, continued slow expansion brought chapters at the University of the South, also known as Sewanee, in 1919 and the University of Idaho in 1920. That year the Delta Mu Graduate Chapter opened the Detroit Club in a residential mansion. Like its counterpart in New York, it provided accommodations, dining, and social functions for local and visiting brothers.

The Fraternity created its second full-time professional position in 1920. James Farrell (CCNY 1907), a former field secretary, served as "Executive Secretary" for a year until retiring at the Birmingham Ekklesia in December 1921. Later that year, the editor of The Phi Gamma Delta, Cecil J. "Scoop" Wilkinson (Ohio Wesleyan 1917,pictured right), was brought in as "office manager" for the Archon Secretary’s office, now in Washington D.C. Merging this position and the Editor worked superbly. "Scoop" officially received the Executive Secretary title in 1926; in all he led the Headquarters through four decades. [See Executives List]

In 1921 Phi Gamma Delta swelled with pride as Calvin Coolidge(Amherst 1895) followed Thomas Marshall to become the third brother to serve as vice-president. Then, just a month before the 1923 Ekklesia, President Warren Harding passed away. Coolidge became the first Phi Gam to enter the White House. His political ascendancy highlighted a "golden age" for the Fraternity, as one brother called it.

The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Ekklesia

The 1923 Ekklesia in Pittsburgh proved a watershed event. William Chamberlin had just authored The History of Phi Gamma Delta two years before, heightening the sense of nostalgia felt during the diamond anniversary. The Ekklesia eliminated the jeweled badges of previous decades by voting to revert to the original badge as worn by the Founders. Important revisions of the Ritual and Constitution were made, with care taken to preserve the brilliance of the originals. The brothers also made a pilgrimage to old Jefferson College, the main hall of which was then still standing.

But in its arguably most significant act the 1923 Ekklesia made Phi Gamma Delta an international fraternity by granting a charter to the University of Toronto in Canada. It also chartered local groups at Davidson College and Oregon State, continuing the push to the west and south that characterized expansion since 1900. The Fraternity amounted to sixty-six active chapters and almost twenty thousand living brothers.

Top of the World

That seventy-fifth year found Phi Gamma Delta at the top of the world. Between the achievement of graduates and a growing number of Fraternity accomplishments, brothers had every reason to feel exuberant. Perhaps it was a "golden age."

<Yet seeds of difficulty had been planted. A "liquor problem" arose at some chapters, hazing had spread with the rise of delayed initiation, and membership laws would soon restrict the color and religion of new members. Bill Parrish (Westminster Faculty) in The History of Phi Gamma Delta,Tomos Gamma ably shows how the Fraternity grappled with such issues over future decades. But one may attribute much of Phi Gamma Delta’s perseverance and success in the face of such challenges to the tradition of leadership built in the Fraternity’s first seventy-five years.

How far the Fraternity had come! How many luminaries grace its early rolls! The bright examples of these sons of McCarty inspired thousands to live and grow "Deltaism" from a small Midwestern beginning to a place of prominence. You, the brothers of today and tomorrow, have inherited that tradition. Let that heritage serve as a reminder to always live the Fraternity’s sacred values, to fill the mantle of leadership passed to you, and to, in a word:


Endnotes for Phi Gamma Delta, The First Seventy-Five Years


  1. Edwin L. Mattern, Pi Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta: Seventy Years of Friendships, 1860-1930(Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1930), p. 25.
  2. According to the American Almanac for 1847 and studies by James T. Herron, Jr. of the Jefferson College Historical Society, Jefferson College had the nation’s seventh largest enrollment of college-level students with a total of 170. By comparison Miami had 137 the same year.
  3. Alpha Delta Phi spread to Miami in 1835 and Beta Theta Pi was founded at Miami in 1839. Beta chartered at Jefferson in 1842.
  4. This boarding house, called "Fort" Armstrong, was razed in 1918. McCarty’s room was located on the northwest corner upstairs, overlooking the two College buildings across the street at the other end of the block.
  5. Contrary to popular belief, none of the Founders entered Freemasonry before graduating from Jefferson, according to research by Glenn Barr (Allegheny ’19). He also found no evidence to show that Fletcher or Crofts ever became Masons. In fact, the Grand Lodge of Ohio has expressly denied that Crofts was ever initiated into Freemasonry.
  6. The University of Nashville was the precursor to Peabody College, a noted teachers school and since 1979 a part of Vanderbilt University.
  7. Since at least 1856 the roll has read "Washington College, Maryville, Tenn." However, recent research shows the chapter was actually at Maryville. This error probably developed from the southern chapters’ practice of naming themselves, like "Tryon Chapter" at Baylor. At Maryville the name "Washington" may have been mistaken by later officials of the Grand Chapter as the name of the institution.
  8. Asbury became DePauw University in the 1880s. Howard became Samford University in 1965.
  9. Pennsylvania College changed its name to Gettysburg College in 1921.
  10. Kentucky University (formerly Bacon College) merged in 1865 with Transylvania College and the state Agricultural and Mechanical College and moved to Lexington. Secret societies were banned at the new campus until 1896. The A&M College (later named the University of Kentucky) detached in 1880. Kentucky University changed its name to Transylvania University in 1908.
  11. Western University of Pennsylvania became the University of Pittsburgh in 1908.
  12. Maryland Agricultural College merged with the University of Maryland in 1920.
  13. Most of the faculty of Baylor University in Independence, Texas transferred to Waco University in 1861. In 1866, Waco professor OH Leland (Baylor 1856) requested a charter to create a new chapter there. After the charter was sent the Grand Chapter did not hear back from him. They reported to the 1870 convention that after much correspondence, they had finally contacted Leland, who left the faculty shortly after requesting a charter. The faculty had banned fraternities and thus, Chi Chapter at Waco was never installed.
  14. 1866: Wabash (Indiana), Columbia (New York), Illinois Wesleyan, Roanoke (Virginia); 1867: Knox (Illinois), Northwestern (Illinois), Muhlenberg (Pennsylvania); 1868: Mississippi, Washington (now Washington & Lee, Virginia). 1869: Cumberland, Monmouth, Ohio Wesleyan. Washington [and Lee] was reportedly founded by transfers initiated at Soule University.
  15. a name="15">These short-lived chapters included Thiel in Pennsylvania and the universities of Georgia, Iowa, Alabama, and Maryland. Also short lived was Western Reserve in Hudson, Ohio. In 1882 it moved to Cleveland, and is now Case Western Reserve University.
  16. Besides the chapters above, Phi at Northwestern, Knox, Monmouth, Western, Cumberland, Bethel, Columbia, Mississippi, and Washington & Lee fell inactive during the 1870s.
  17. Western Reserve, Racine, Baylor, Texas, Virginia, Columbia, California (Berkeley), and Washington & Jefferson fell inactive. The latter four opened again by 1890. Bethel, Knox, and Georgia were also revived.
  18. The brothers at Maine would point out that the Q.T.V. Society built a house in 1876, and accepted a Phi Gamma Delta charter in 1899.
  19. Strangely, the 1886 Convention again abolished graduate chapters, but this was overturned the following year.
  20. Georgia, Muhlenberg, Michigan, and Marietta closed. Tennessee closed for one year and was reestablished.
  21. Recollections of Fred Howe (Allegheny 1889, Johns Hopkins 1892) from The Phi Gamma Delta, Vol. 54, No. 4, p. 308.
  22. Wallace, the celebrated Union general, served as US ambassador to Turkey and wrote the popular Ben Hur.
  23. These chapters included Alabama, Western Reserve, Nebraska, Maine, Missouri, Michigan, Texas, University of Washington, Dartmouth, Syracuse, Brown, Chicago, and Purdue.
  24. The new chapters were Iowa State 1907, Colorado College 1908, Oregon 1911, Colorado 1912, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma 1916, and Rutgers 1917.
  25. Despite rumors to the contrary, Phi Gamma Delta was not the first to employ a traveling officer. Chi Psi hired one in 1905.