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Phi Gamma Delta at Jefferson College, 1848-1857

By James T. Herron, Jr.

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Originally published in The Jefferson College Times, Vol. 9, No. 3, May 1976. Reprinted with the author's permission. The Jefferson College Times is a publication of the Jefferson College Historical Society. Society membership is open to all: Individual $10; student $5; contributing $15; business or institutional $25; sustaining $50; life $150. Send membership requests and fees to Joseph A. Solobay, 514 Craighead Street, Canonsburg, PA 15317.

The most significant student organizations throughout the history of Jefferson College were the literary societies, Philo and Franklin, both organized in 1797 at Canonsburg Academy.

Throughout the years, the rivalry between these societies was intense and often bitter. One of the highlights of the school year was the annual Contest between the Franklin and Philo Literary Societies. Some years the Contest was not held; other years it was held after a reconciliation between the societies, often with faculty intervention.

In the 1840's a new kind of organization came upon the scene - the secret fraternity. Although now these brotherhoods are known as social fraternities, in that era the adjective "secret" was appropriate. A member of one of these exclusive groups did not wear his fraternity pin or allude to the fact that he was a member until the day of his graduation from the college.

The first fraternity at Jefferson College, Beta Theta Pi, was chartered in 1842. The majority of its members were also members of the Philo Literary Society.

In 1848, a new fraternity was founded by students of Jefferson College. In the early part of that year, John T. McCarty, James Elliott, D. Webster Crofts, Samuel B. Wilson, and Ellis B. Gregg of the senior class and Naaman Fletcher, a junior, founded Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity.

Beta Theta Pi had been founded at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio in 1839. The chapter at Jefferson College was a satellite of the Miami Chapter. Phi Gamma Delta originated at Jefferson College and was the Alpha Chapter of the fraternity.

On May 8, 1848, John B. Pennington and Albert Gallatin Jenkins, both members of the senior class, were initiated as members of the new brotherhood.

At Commencement that year, held on June 14 in Providence Hall, there were 21 addresses given by honor students of the 54 member graduating class. Five of those so honored wore the diamond shaped pin of Phi Gamma Delta. This was the first public knowledge of the existence of the fraternity.

The fraternity's secrecy was not only because of the nature of the organization, but also because its formation was contrary to the By-Laws of Jefferson College adopted in 1846. Article III, Section 13 states, "The formation of clubs, societies and associations, amongst the students, without the previous permission of the Faculty, is not allowed."

The bulk of the membership of the older fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, was made up of Philos. Most of the Phi Gamma Delta brothers at Jefferson College were tapped from the ranks of the Franklin Literary Society. Fraternity members retained their memberships in the Literary Societies, and were often officers and contesters. The fraternities and the literary societies were not in competition; they existed in different spheres.

All six of the founders of Phi Gamma Delta were Franklin Literary Society members. However, membership in the fraternity was also extended to Philos. Albert Gallatin Jenkins, one of the first initiates, later a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, was a Philo. However, of the 69 members of the fraternity in its first ten years, 51 were also members of the Franklin Literary Society.

Of these 69 members of Phi Gamma Delta, 7 did not graduate from the college. College drop-outs are not a recent phenomenon; a ten percent attrition rate was not high for the times. (See Note 1.)

Another characteristic that the founders had in common was the pursuit of a legal career after graduation. The seven fraternity brothers who graduated in the class of 1848 all went on to study law. In their class as a whole, 19 read law while 22 studied for the ministry.

Jefferson College was not a church-related school. However, in the ten years, 1848 through 1857, of 517 graduates, 227 (44%) went on to study for the ministry. In that decade, 111 (21%) of the graduates studied law. During this ten year period, the legal profession claimed 28 (41%) of the Phi Gamma Deltas; theology, 25 (36%).

There were relatively few of the Phi Gamma Delta brothers who became physicians, only 3 of 69. In contrast to this, 10% of the college population (51) later studied medicine.

There is nothing exceptional about the birthplaces of the fraternity members as compared with the general college population. Most Phi Gamma Deltas were from Pennsylvania (58%); the same is true for the college as a whole (62%). Ohio was the birthplace of 12% of the fraternity men, 13% of the stu­dents as a whole. The other states and foreign countries each comprised less than 10% of both populations.

Eight members of Phi Gamma Delta who graduated in its first ten years are listed in the Biographical and Historical Catalogue of Washington and Jefferson College (1902) as serving in the Civil War. Three fought for the Confederacy; four served in the Union Army and one was a surgeon with the Union Army. Jefferson College graduates during that ten year period numbered 51 in the Union Army, 12 chaplains and 15 surgeons. In the Confederate ranks were 23 men from these classes. (See Note 2.)

Phi Gamma Delta's Alpha Chapter cannot be said to have been the province of any one group. The percentage of Franklin Literary Society members, and those who went on to study law was disproportionate with respect to the col­lege's graduates in toto, but the fraternity was not ex­clusively made up of those groups. The Phi Gamma Delta brothers were Franks, Philos, and also those who were not members of a literary society. They came from Pennsylvania and Ohio, but also from Virginia, Missouri, Ireland, England and New York.

A high percentage of the brothers went on to study law, but almost as many studied for the ministry. Business, medicine and education were also fields of endeavor for the fraternity's graduates.

The major factors that distinguish those who were selected to become members of Phi Gamma Delta can be found stated in the History of the Class of 1850. Jefferson College, Pa., by Rev. Joseph H. Mathers. Of his classmate, John Spence, he writes,

. . . . He was a youth of more than ordinary ability. He was a member of one of the secret fraternities, and this at least shows that he was held in the highest esteem by those who chose him to that position. Merit was the password in these exclusive circles.

John Spence was a member of Phi Gamma Delta.

The other parameters have not shown the basis on which men were chosen for the brotherhood of Phi Gamma Delta. The selection was based on intangibles: ability, esteem, merit.

Phi Gamma Delta spread rapidly from the campus of Jefferson College. Within three years there were five chapters: Jefferson, Washington, Nashville, Union and North Carolina. In ten years, there were ten living chapters. The fraternity now has chapters throughout the nation.

McCarty, Elliott, Crofts, Wilson, Gregg and Fletcher would be proud of what they founded while they were students at Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.

 

NOTE 1

The attrition rate of Jefferson College classes can be demonstrated by an examination of the Class of 1855. The yearly catalogs which contain the names of the members of each class were compared to determine the students who left the class as well as those who entered it during the four year course of study. The Commencement Program for the Class of 1855 was used to determine the names of those who graduated with the class.

  Freshmen  Soph.   Juniors Seniors Grad.
Class size

21 

48 

60

52

49

Left Class  

-9

-12

-10

-3

Entered Class   

+36

+24

+2

 
Attrition  

43%

25%

17%

6%

It can be noted that more students joined the class than left it. This was usual for the times. High schools as we know them did not exist. A student prepared for college at a preparatory school or academy, in a preparatory program of a college, or by studying with a tutor. Jefferson College catalogs for the years 185O and 1851 list eleven men who matriculated with the Class of 1855. Only five of them graduated with the class.

The amount of preparation a student had undergone determined his placement in the college. Most students entered as advanced freshmen or as sophomores, hut some had acquired sufficient education to be placed in the Junior Class. Some of the new students, particularly those who entered as upperclassmen, were transfers from other colleges.

The Freshman Class of 1851-52 numbered 21 students. Twelve of these men, plus 36 new classmates advanced to the Sophomore Class. Almost one-half of the class lasted one year or less.

The 48 member Sophomore Class lost 12 students, but gained 24 new men to form a Junior Class of 60. Ten men left the class, including a student who died during his junior year, and 2 new members were added to the rolls to form a 52-member senior class. Three of these seniors did not graduate until the following year.

During the four years at Jefferson College, 83 men matriculated with the class. Of this number, 49 graduated in 1855. Over 40% had been lost along the way. Only nine men completed the full four years with the Class of 1855.

Some who left the class graduated with later classes either because they had failed to meet the requirements for graduation or because the individual left the school for a period of time to work, usually as a teacher. However, many of those who left the class did not return to the college. They simply did not need a degree.

A college diploma was not necessary to teach. Many Jefferson College students taught in schools or tutored during their summer vacations and simply quit school to teach full time.

An explanation proposed for the number of students from the southern states who attended Jefferson College is that their teachers had been students at the college.

There was at least one Jefferson College student who did not graduate with his class because he had found employment as the member of the Faculty at another college.

Teaching was not the only profession that did not require a college degree. Many men left college before graduation to "read" law or medicine. Law schools and medical schools were largely confined to the eastern seaboard, so "reading" law or medicine under a preceptor was a common practice west of the mountains.

A high proportion of the graduates of Jefferson College entered the ministry. Most of these became Presbyterian clergymen. It is noteworthy that the Presbyterian denominations required a baccalaureate degree as a prerequisite for entrance into a theological seminary. Therefore, the attrition rate of students who later became Presbyterian ministers was negligible. A man who came to Jefferson College to prepare for the ministry was much more likely to graduate than those who were inclined toward other careers.

Only the names of graduates are listed in biographical catalogs and histories of the school. A complete list of the non-graduates and the careers they followed does not exist. Since the attrition rate was so high, these non-graduates comprise a sizeable portion of the Jefferson College population.

The impression that the dominant function of Jefferson College was to prepare men for the ministry is false. If all the men who matriculated at Jefferson College were to be considered, we might find that the most significant contribution of the college would be her sons who spread learning throughout the South and West.

NOTE 2

The Jefferson College graduates of this decade who gave their allegiance to the Confederate States of America included six who were born in Pennsylvania and moved to southern states after graduation.

One of these, William Letterman, Class of 1853, was one of the founders of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity, and was a Confederate Agent in the North during the War. Another, John Calahan, Class of 185O, died at Gettysburg.

The former was the son of Doctor Jonathan Leatherman; the latter, the son of General William Calahan. Both men were born and raised in Canonsburg.


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