The Founding of Chi Psi

Chi Psi Fraternity was founded at Union College in Schenectady, NY, on May, 20 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.

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 have been described as "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.    

Chi Psi founder, 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.