Today in History

Today in History: December 5

Love of Learning is the Guide of Life

Phi Beta Kappa motto

William and Mary College  [Williamsburg]  Virginia
William and Mary College [Williamsburg] Virginia,
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

On December 5, 1776, Phi Beta Kappa (external link), America's most prestigious undergraduate honor society, was founded. Organized by five students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Phi Beta Kappa was the nation's first Greek letter society. From 1776 to 1780, members met regularly at William and Mary to write, debate, and socialize. They planned the organization's expansion and established the characteristics typical of American fraternities and sororities: an oath of secrecy, a code of laws, mottoes in Greek and Latin, a badge and a seal, a special handclasp, and an elaborate initiation ritual.

When the Revolutionary War forced William and Mary to close in 1780, newly formed chapters at Harvard and Yale directed Phi Beta Kappa's growth and development. By the time that the William and Mary chapter was revived in 1851, Phi Beta Kappa was represented at colleges throughout New England. By the end of the nineteenth century, the once secretive, exclusively male social group had dropped its oath of secrecy, opened its doors to women, and transformed itself into a national honor society dedicated to fostering and recognizing excellence in the liberal arts and sciences.

Williamsburg, Virginia
Williamsburg, Virginia…. Here the Burgesses Met; Royal Governors Dined; and the Phi Beta Kappa Society is said to have been Founded,
April 1943.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Chicago, Illinois. Provident Hospital
Chicago, Illinois. Provident Hospital… Dr. E. V. Williams [left] was a Phi Beta Kappa at Kansas University,
March 1942.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

In 1988 the organization changed its name to The Phi Beta Kappa Society, which today has over 270 chapters. Membership in the national organization is based on outstanding achievement in the liberal arts and sciences. Approximately ten percent of the nation’s institutions of high learning have Phi Beta Kappa chapters--typically limited to students in the upper tenth of their graduating class. In 2008, the society counts seven of the nine U.S.  Supreme Court justices and former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton as members.

Phi Beta Kappa sponsors campus and community activities, fellowships, and service and literary awards. Since 1932, the society has published The American Scholar, a quarterly journal inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1837 Harvard lecture. The journal aspires to Emerson’s ideals of independent thinking, self-knowledge, and a commitment to world affairs as well as to books, history, and science.

The Little Magician

Martin Van Buren, half-length portrait, facing right
Martin Van Buren, circa 1840-1862.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

Martin Van Buren, eighth president of the United States and a founder of the Democratic Party, was born on December 5, 1782, in Kinderhook (external link), New York. Just five feet six inches tall, with reddish-blond hair, Van Buren earned the nicknames "The Little Magician" and the "Red Fox of Kinderhook" for his legendary skill in political manipulation. Alongside his gift for politics, however, Van Buren harbored a sense of idealism that helped lead him, late in his career, to oppose the westward expansion of slavery.

Van Buren rose to national fame under the wing of Andrew Jackson, who defeated President John Quincy Adams in Adams’ 1828 bid for a second term. Before coming to Washington as a senator in 1821, Van Buren crafted the powerful New York political machine known as the "Albany Regency." In 1825, he put his formidable political skills at Jackson's disposal.

Having assembled the coalition that made possible "Old Hickory"'s ascension to the presidency in 1828,Van Buren was rewarded with an appointment as secretary of state. The election, the first in which a candidate directly appealed for the popular vote, marked a turning point in American politics and confirmed the emergence of the Democratic Party as heir to the Jeffersonian Republicans.

When Jackson sought a second term in 1832, he chose Van Buren for vice president, and Van Buren was nominated at the Democrats’ first official national convention. On January 13, 1833, Jackson wrote a letter to his soon-to-be second-in-command reiterating his determination to stand firm in the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33. The letter also reveals the president's personal relationship with Van Buren, then his most trusted advisor. "I have recd. several letters from you which remain unanswered," he begins:

You know I am a bad correspondent at any time--lately I have been indisposed by cold, & surrounded with the nullifiers of the South, & the Indians in the South, & West; that has occupied all my time, not leaving me a moment for private friendship, or political discussion with a friend.

President Andrew Jackson to Vice-President-Elect Martin Van Buren,
January 13, 1833.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

Letter, Andrew Jackson to Martin Van Buren
Letter, Andrew Jackson to Martin Van Buren discussing the nullification crisis, 13 January 1833. (Martin Van Buren Papers.)
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

In 1837, Van Buren succeeded Jackson in the White House. Almost immediately, the Panic of 1837 sent the national economy into a tailspin. Van Buren's inability to alleviate the depression, along with his opposition to the annexation of Texas on grounds it would divide the nation over the expansion of slavery, led to his drubbing by Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840. Van Buren retired to Lindenwald, his estate at Kinderhook. 

In 1848, he agreed to run for president again on the Free Soil ticket, but was overwhelmingly defeated by Zachary Taylor. As one opposition Whig Party song spoofed him,

Come good Whigs listen to me, and some instruction learn,
While about the race of '48 I spin you a little yarn,
First on the list stood Kinderhook, that fox so shrewd and sly,
Who swore he'd win the race, or else he'd know the reason why.



Oh, Matty Van! you are a used-up man,
One thing is plain, o'er this land to reign,
Again you never can.

The political race. Air,--"Dearest Maie." [n. p.] [n. d.].
America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets

He died a prodigal Democrat at Lindenwald in 1862. At the time of his death, the political coalition between Northerners and Southerners that Van Buren had so skillfully assembled had been obliterated by civil war--but the Democratic Party that he helped to found endured to become the world’s oldest political party.

Martin Van Buren residence
Martin Van Buren Residence, Kinderhook, New York, 1961.
Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955

Learn more about the life and times of Martin Van Buren: