History of the fraternity system
The college fraternity as an institution is precisely as old as our nation. It was in 1776, at the College of William and Mary, that Phi Beta Kappa, the first fraternity, was organized. Today, in the restored beauty of Colonial Williamsburg, you can stand in the Apollo Room of the historic Raleigh Tavern where the Phi Beta Kappa charter was drafted. Although established as a general fraternity, and as such expanded to Yale, Harvard and Dartmouth, Phi Beta Kappa soon became an honorary scholarship society, and has maintained this position for a century and a half.
The next fraternity, Kappa Alpha Society, was founded at Union College in 1825, and is the oldest surviving secret general fraternity. Two years later, Sigma Phi and Delta Phi were founded at Union, and with Kappa Alpha constitute the Union Triad.
Alpha Delta Phi, founded at Hamilton in 1832, placed the first chapter beyond the Alleghenies in 1833 at Miami University in Ohio. Three great national fraternities, now known as the Miami Triad, were founded at Miami beginning in 1839-—Beta Theta Pi, Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Chi.
“I shall never be able to compensate my fraternity for all that it has done for me, no matter what service I may be allowed to give. In it I have found my most intimate friends. As undergraduate chapter president, I gained broad administrative experience, and from my fraternity I have derived my most cherished ideals of conduct.”
Dr. Herman B. Wells, Sigma Nu
Former Indiana University President
By 1860 the fraternity system was firmly established. Twenty-two of the present-day orders had been founded, and had 237 surviving chapters. The Civil War closed many colleges and interrupted the development of fraternities. Following the war, however, men of both South and North, struggling for order in an unprecedented social vacuum, felt the need for fraternal organizations, and their influence spread rapidly.
For many years, particularly prior to 1900, fraternities were vigorously opposed (likely with good reason in some instances) by college faculties and by the public. They were everywhere confronted with problems of internal administration, of adequate financing and of alumni support. All of these demanded able leadership, which, in most cases, was forthcoming.
“Maturity crowds upon youth of college age. Among the firsts in college is the adjustment of living in close companionship and harmony with fellow students of varying interests, talents and characteristics. Fraternity life presents this opportunity under leadership, along with the valued experience of financial responsibility of successfully operating a home-like environment.”
George Murray Campbell, Phi Sigma Kappa
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad