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 While the society is no longer active on William and Mary’s campus, it was recently rechartered in Scotland at St. Andrews.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.”