|The Founding of Chi Psi|
Chi Psi Fraternity was founded at Union College, Schenectady, New York, on 20 May 1841. While it was the eighth Greek-letter society in the country and the fifth to originate at Union, it was the first to be founded upon the fraternal and social principles of a brotherhood, rather than upon the literary interests which existing societies emphasized. The ten founders were Philip Spencer, Robert Heyward McFaddin, Jacob Henry Farrell, John Brush Jr., Samuel Titus Taber, James Lafayette Witherspoon, William Force Terhune, Alexander Peter Berthoud, James Chatham Duane, and Patrick Upshaw Major.
The time of Chi Psi’s founding, the early 1840s, was a golden period of American history, falling two decades after the United States had validated its independence in the War of 1812 and two decades before Civil War split the nation. It was an age of renaissance for this young republic, and Greek influence was pervasive, even with Greek Revival architecture emerging as the dominant style in campus buildings. Union College was the place to be then, and it ranked above Harvard in prestige. In such a setting, the problems of American college life, the question of association, and the perpetuation of friendships became important issues.
In the early days at Union, literary societies stood in great favor with the faculty, and nearly all students belonged to one of them. The rivalry between them was great and each vied for pre-eminence in debate and literary attainments. But by 1841, these societies had lost much of their worth and prestige.
As the college trustees began to recognize the importance of literary and oratory studies and began including them in the curricula, the literary societies were deprived of their function and became, as one early editor of The Purple and Gold suggested, "mere cliques in which ambitious students schemed and caucused for honors.” The intense rivalry between the organizations was frequently surpassed by the personal bitterness between their individual members. The college body divided into warring factions, and from these seeds of discord there often sprang up jealousy, suspicion, and hatred.
Banding Together as Brothers
And so it was that in the spring of 1841, ten young men at Union conceived a higher ideal than any previous society had announced, and banded together, not as associates, but as Brothers, and formed not a society, but a Fraternity, on the 20th of May. One spirit pervaded the new organization, the spirit of brotherhood, while all the qualifications for membership were embodied in one word, "gentleman.”
Philip Spencer and his founding friends were in school during a golden age of American history. In an early article The Purple and Gold suggested that the ten young men who founded the Chi Psi Fraternity were "high-minded, whole-souled, honorable men, kind and sociable.” They were gentlemen in the fullest sense of the word. Products of a nineteenth-century liberal arts education, most could communicate fluently in Greek and Latin, discuss with great passion the philosophies of Plato or John Locke, and expound on what it meant to be a human being. The Chi Psi that they founded was based on their most strongly held principles and ideals.
Almost fifty years after the founding, Patrick Major wrote of recollections about those early days:
"Well, Philip Spencer and I were bosom friends, constantly together, as intimate as it was possible for two brothers to be, and he was the prime conceiver of the project of getting up a new secret society in College.
"We had talked it over, in fact had several talks on the subject, and finally agreed that we would try to get up one to suit our own individual notions – and that it should be a band of brothers, not only in college, but through life, a band into which none should be admitted unless they were manly, truthful, generous gentlemen – these were about Phil’s own words. Our boyish idea of the word ‘gentleman’ was that one must have blood, brains, culture, social and intellectual, well mixed with undaunted courage both moral and physical, to be a gentleman; such were the sort of character of boys that we sought as friends for life. This fully agreed between us two, we set about to look up recruits. Phil gathered in some two or three, and I one or two, viz., Witherspoon and Bob McFaddin, and after we had received some half dozen for a start, we all met in my room (as I then had no roommate), No. 43 South College, and then we all talked over the object of the meeting, and without a dissenting voice agreed to form a fraternity.
"Thereupon we formulated an oath, which was first administered to me by Phil, and then I administered the same oath to Phil and the others present. That same night we then proceeded to organize by choosing me as chairman; committees were appointed to draft constitution and by-laws, to select Greek mottoes, style of badges, emblems, etc., and upon initiation ceremonies, etc., etc. We then adjourned to meet in a week or so for better organization, to have reports of the committees. When we met, these committees reported as to their progress, etc., and we administered the oath to another society man at the house, viz., W. F. Terhune, who was at once placed on the committee of initiations.
"While in college there never lived a trustier, or truer and more manly set of fellows than those old founders. My friends here had a hard time to keep me from going east at the time to avenge Phil’s dastardly murder, and all that prevented me was that Slidell MacKenzie would not accept my challenge to mortal combat as I was assured by those who knew.
One of Major’s co-founders, Alexander P. Berthoud, wrote the following about Chi Psi’s origins:
"The birth of Chi Psi, though not exactly enshrouded with mystery, is enveloped in a halo of glory that, like the distance, "lends enchantment to the view,” but somehow serves to render the minuter incidents obscure. Friendship’s ties bound us together, and to promote that intimacy we started our fraternity, from the beginning choosing none but gentlemen. Though we differed much in our appearances, traits, and tastes, still all were generous, noble-hearted youths, full of life and mirth and gayity.
"We used to meet downtown, my recollection being that there was little of the literary about our meetings, but that the program consisted of laughter, song, and story. As to the ritual, it was brought to light by Terhune, who had a decided literary bent, communed somewhat with the muses and was, withal, a man of high ideals. Many a solemn seance was held before the adoption of the Badge…. I am glad to see that generation after generation of Chi Psi has worn the same style of a Badge. May its gems gleam on the bosom of none but the worthy! May it ever be, as it always has been, the Badge of honor!
"The founders of Chi Psi were not a solemn crowd. In scholarship we prided ourselves on two things: first, that we always kept someone at the head of the merit roll; unfortunately, I was the one upon whom the fates imposed that laborious task; secondly, we also had a laudable ambition to keep up the other end and in this we had equal success for some of our number went to the rear with the same precision and possibly with as much ease as others of us forged to the head. Gen. Duane was one of the studious class. It was his habit to study an average of twelve hours a day. Judge Witherspoon and his cousin from Alabama [McFaddin] kept up with the procession.
"I never dreamed when in college that either Witherspoon or Major would eventually become judges and attorneys-general, or that Duane would be steadily promoted through all the grades of service till he should become the head of the engineer corps of the United States Army.
"Philip Spencer was another of my associates. Tall, dark, straight as an arrow, his figure and bearing were those of a man of courage and determination. Yet he was kind and dreamy. We missed him much when he left us to go to the Navy. His is an oft-told tale. His only fault was that he had an influential father. This brought upon him the cruel jealousy of rivals. A few years after graduation, I was chosen by the Fraternity to deliver a defense of Spencer as an oration at a gathering of the Fraternity in Schenectady. Spencer’s cruel death did much to knit together the Bonds of the Fraternity and to animate our principles of sympathy, friendship, and love.”
A Brother of the late 1840s at Union wrote of the Founding Fathers:
"These persons were all gentlemen, scholars, and friends – men of talent and influence. Moreover, they had other advantages in founding a new institution. The other societies stood low at the time, their secrets were divulged, and their principles exposed by seceders from them, so that our founders having a knowledge of other secret societies, without borrowing or imitating yet received some useful hints and at least assured themselves that they had founded an institution superior to any extent here. Our founders left college with credit. Most of them are studying professions and bid fair to do honor to themselves and us.
"Our society has advanced successfully and rapidly. We flourish in Union. As to talent, the faculty have admitted us to number one. Said a Kappa Alpha a short time since, speaking of one of their intended, ‘The Chi Psis are after ___. We will withdraw.’”
Almost at the outset of the Fraternity’s career, the reputation of Chi Psi was dealt a severe blow. Philip Spencer, one of her charter members, was hanged from the yardarm of the United States brig Somers on the charge of mutiny, on 1 December 1842. The circumstances surrounding his death and the character of the charges brought against him have always been shrouded in mystery. Putting the event into the perspective of time, another early Chi Psi wrote:
"The death of Spencer was the crucial test of the coherence of the Chi Psi Fraternity. Here was a young man put to death for piracy. The press of the day was outspoken in upholding the justice of the sentence and popular prejudice sided with the press. But two ways were open for his brethren of the Fraternity: either to repudiate their lost associate or defend his memory. What a trial they were subjected to! To express sympathy for him was to bring upon them public censure and derision.
"But Spencer was their Brother. Silent, mute appeal demanded a response and they responded as none other could or did respond. Boldly and manly they stood side by side to defend his memory. They denounced his murder as barbarous, his taking off as damnable. They showed to the world that the cohesion of Chi Psi embraced both the quick and the dead and that the voice of the living protected the memory of the immortal. They had everything to lose and no personal advantage to gain by the position they took, but they stood on a foundation of adamant, built in the secret shrine of their good Fraternity. In the battle that ensued their armor proved itself without a flaw and they conquered.”