SHARE
Senior Kelly Sul­livan cur­rently dis­plays her research project about Hillsdale’s lit­erary soci­eties in the library. Cal Abbo | Col­legian

When she ini­tially heard about the oppor­tunity of cre­ating a senior display case, senior Kelly Sul­livan didn’t think there was enough time left in the semester to com­plete a display.

After speaking with public ser­vices librarian Linda Moore, Sul­livan decided to research and produce a display regarding lit­erary soci­eties on Hillsdale’s campus during the 19th century.

“Linda Moore ini­tially sug­gested the idea, and she was very helpful by pro­viding dif­ferent resources like the primary doc­u­ments,” Sul­livan said.

Each student in the inter­dis­ci­plinary Public History and Museum Studies class, taught by pro­fessor of history Dave Stewart, has the oppor­tunity to produce a senior display case as an inde­pendent study project.   

Stewart said stu­dents com­pleting a display case must meet pro­fes­sional stan­dards in the field.

“The process is very similar to writing a senior thesis,” Stewart said. “They have to pick a topic, do some research, decide what argument they’re going to make, how they’re going to make that argument, and then they have the addition of the design element.”

As a member of the Greek system, Sul­livan said the lit­erary soci­eties inter­ested her because both the Greek system and lit­erary soci­eties share similar aca­demic and social focuses.

“I’m a history major and a huge English nerd,” Sul­livan said. “And I thought it was the perfect com­bi­nation to focus on the history of lit­erary soci­eties and how they shaped 19th-century thought.”

Through her research, Sul­livan dis­covered that lit­erary soci­eties were orig­i­nally started during the 18th century, before the founding of the United States. Some of the ear­liest pres­i­dents, including Thomas Jef­ferson, were members of early lit­erary soci­eties.

“The influence that these soci­eties had on our early leaders showed how valuable these soci­eties could be,” Sul­livan said. “By the 19th century, the lit­erary soci­eties were sought after and very prominent because they had already proven their worth.”

The first lit­erary society in America, the Flat Hat Club, was founded at William and Mary College in 1750. Jef­ferson belonged to this society. While the society is no longer active on William and Mary’s campus, it was recently rechar­tered in Scotland at St. Andrews.

Sul­livan said lit­erary soci­eties were estab­lished for college stu­dents to take the founding prin­ciples from their clas­sical edu­cation and discuss those ideas and how they apply to con­tem­porary issues.

“These soci­eties were inter­dis­ci­plinary and autonomous asso­ci­a­tions of stu­dents that developed in response to a lack of lit­erary oppor­tu­nities for stu­dents,” Sul­livan said. “In the early days of college life in America, there were not many extracur­ricular oppor­tu­nities for stu­dents.”

Lec­turer of History Dedra Birzer said Alexander de Toc­queville acknowl­edged how important vol­untary asso­ci­a­tions like lit­erary soci­eties were in America for demo­c­ratic pur­poses.

“Toc­queville saw these vol­untary asso­ci­a­tions as being fun­da­mental to the exercise of liberty,” Birzer said.

Hillsdale’s lit­erary soci­eties began when the college was founded. The original soci­eties, the Eunomian and Philo­gram­mation, were coed. But the admin­is­tration forced the soci­eties to break up into sep­arate male and female soci­eties.

“Appar­ently, there was too much frat­er­nization,” Sul­livan said.

During the 19th century, Hillsdale had four major lit­erary soci­eties. Alpha Kappa Phi and Amph­ictyon were both all male soci­eties. While the Ladies Lit­erary Union and Ger­manae Sodales were all female soci­eties.

Even though the lit­erary soci­eties were not coed, Sul­livan said they often dis­cussed the rela­tionship between males and females and if there were any inherent inequal­ities.

“They had this idea in their minds that they weren’t going to let the admin­is­tration define the con­ver­sa­tions they had,” Sul­livan said. “I think that’s where a lot of the inde­pendent spirit of the Hillsdale stu­dents comes from.”

In one meeting, Alpha Kappa Phi dis­cussed whether men were inher­ently better teachers than women and con­cluded that men were superior teachers.

“As someone who is going to be teaching in the fall,” Sul­livan said. “I thought it was an inter­esting question.”

Sul­livan said Alpha Kappa Phi had the largest presence on campus, fol­lowed by the Amphy­ictyon.

“The Civil War statue was not orig­i­nally intended to com­mem­orate all of the fallen sol­diers,” Sul­livan said. “It was put up by Alpha Kappa Phi society to honor fallen sol­diers from their society. I think people were annoyed ini­tially that it didn’t rep­resent all of campus, but the fact that it’s come to rep­resent all of campus shows how the soci­eties work.”

Alpha Kappa Phi also created the first campus news­paper, the “Alpha Kappa Phi,” released on June 16, 1858. Even­tually, the Amphy­ictyon and the Ladies Lit­erary Union also had their own pub­li­ca­tions.

“I think that helped con­tribute to The Col­legian and the Forum,” Sul­livan said. “It got that pub­li­cation ball rolling.”

The lit­erary soci­eties often dis­cussed tem­perance, women’s suf­frage, and the abo­lition movement.

In 1863, the lit­erary soci­eties invited Fred­erick Dou­glass to speak at Hillsdale’s campus.

Abo­li­tionists asked speakers like Dou­glass to speak for dif­ferent groups across the country, Birzer said.

“The lit­erary soci­eties were the groups these speakers were going to,” he said.

After Hillsdale College Pres­ident Edmund Burke Fair­field put out a mandate lim­iting the amount of people who could attend society func­tions, stu­dents started the Great Rebellion of 1866.

“This mandate was very upsetting to the college stu­dents, so they shut down the lit­erary soci­eties for about a year,” Sul­livan said. “This became a problem for the college because it realized that these soci­eties were very ben­e­ficial for stu­dents.”

Moore said the college did not have a central library prior to the Fire of 1874. For that reason, each of the lit­erary society had their own col­lection of books for stu­dents to use.

“Their members would give money or dona­tions of books, and stu­dents had to have per­mission from the soci­eties to go into their rooms and look at their books,” Moore said. “People ran from lit­erary society to lit­erary society looking for what they might find useful.”

After the Fire of 1874, the college com­bined the lit­erary soci­eties’ col­lec­tions into one central library in Central Hall, which became the basis for the college’s col­lection.

Moore added that the lit­erary soci­eties on Hillsdale’s campus served two func­tions.

“It was a social orga­ni­zation, but it really pre­pared stu­dents for the kinds of occu­pa­tions many of them were going in to,” Moore said. “They did oratory and debate, and those skills are useful in law, pol­itics, religion, teaching, and min­istry. Even in their enter­tainment, the stu­dents were preparing them­selves for the world after Hillsdale.”

On most cam­puses, Sul­livan said lit­erary soci­eties were the ancestor of both the fra­ternity system and hon­orary soci­eties. Lit­erary soci­eties com­bined both social and aca­demic aspects of student life.

“Lit­erary soci­eties were perfect for the time they occupied,” Sul­livan said. “I think they could do a lot of good today, but I think they gave a lot to the current insti­tu­tions that we have, both Greek and hon­orary.”

During her research, Sul­livan said she worried the Greek system brought about the downfall of lit­erary soci­eties.

“I’m very proud of my sorority and it’s history,” Sul­livan said. “But I was con­cerned ini­tially because I asked, ‘Did we kill off the best thing about Hillsdale College?’”

Sul­livan said she was com­forted by the real­ization that times change and cam­puses evolve.

Moore said lit­erary soci­eties on Hillsdale’s campus were on coming to an end by 1920.

“The college made an effort to keep them going by trying to combine the lit­erary soci­eties together, but times had changed,” Moore said. “And by the time the 20th century came around, the stu­dents had radio, and they had a lot of other things they could do, including the rise of the fra­ter­nities and the soror­ities.”

While the lit­erary soci­eties are no longer active, Sul­livan said she realized Hillsdale’s current campus has absorbed many of the lit­erary soci­eties’ tra­di­tions.

“A culture that strong doesn’t just fade away,” Sul­livan said. “I see it infused into every­thing we do.”