One of the wonderful perks about attending a university as old as Brown is the sheer amount of tradition we’ve got here. Say what you will about the academics at a place like Stanford – apparently they’re not half bad – but a school founded fewer than two hundred years ago isn’t exactly going to be steeped in the historically rich customs we follow up here on the Hill. Brown’s got the Van Wickle Gates, Professor Carberry, Spring Weekend, the Pembroke Seal, and a hundred other little practices that many aspiring Brunonians have proudly observed in their time here (albeit with Bob Dylan on the Main Green instead of the Glitch Mob). And yet there’s one custom, common to many universities of Brown’s age and stature, that we lack almost entirely: secret societies.
Secret societies have become so common in the American zeitgeist’s portrayal of the Ivy League – typified in the mystique surrounding Yale’s Skull and Bones – that their presence might seem almost a prerequisite for entry. On the contrary, Brown’s unique status as the most open, inclusive school in the Ivy League – if not the nation – means that our conspicuous lack of traditionally elitist, “WASP-y” secret societies doesn’t necessarily seem out of place. We have no colleges, nor houses, nor finals clubs to separate our classes as they progress through Brown as undergraduates. Those societies we do have – fraternities, sororities, athletic houses, program houses – are, compared to similar societies at peer universities, notoriously friendly and accepting. By that logic, the absence of mystery-shrouded societies on College Hill is just par for the course, right?
Maybe today. But (spoiler alert!) that wasn’t always the case.
The Encyclopedia Brunonia details the histories of several societies with apparently secretive tendencies that were founded at Brown as early as the late 18th century. The most recognized of these early groups was the Philermenian Society (originally known as the Misokosmian Society), founded in 1794. Formed for purposes of kinship and academic debate, the Philermenians limited themselves to twenty members per year and ritualistically swore their pledges to secrecy. The society later upped its membership to forty and gained recognition from the university, which granted the Philermenians space on the top floor of Hope College in which to hold meetings and establish libraries.
In 1806, the Philermenians gained a competitor: the United Brothers Society. Formed mostly of disgruntled student Democrats who’d been refused entry to the staunchly Federalist Philermenian Society, the United Brothers held their first meeting “in Room No. 6, University Hall, at midnight, without a light, and with guards at the door, to ensure the secrecy of their plan.” In later years, the societies would traditionally maintain a strong rivalry for inductees, even going to far as to physically fight one another for possession of students as they ascended to the top floor of Hope College on initiation day.
Other secret Brunonian societies tended to stay more aloof of the political debates. The Philandrian Society, established in 1799, was one such. Dedicated to the “cultivation of friendship” (yeah, that’s a bit more like Brown) the society required that a member give a “Lecture on Politeness” every quarterly meeting. Like their peers the Philermenians and the United Brothers, the Philandrians also debated literary and ethical issues before their apparent dissolution in 1810. Perhaps the best known of Brown’s former secret societies, Franklin House, was formed later in 1824, when pre-existing secret societies were unable to accommodate an unprecedentedly large entering class.
The gradual downfall of secret societies coincided, naturally, with the rise of Greek-letter fraternities and sororities, whose inclusive rushing and pledging practices proved more popular with students than the select tapping of the secret societies. A variety of smaller groups and senior societies – i.e the Cammarian Club – remained a force in student leadership until they too were made obsolete by the newly founded UCS. Today, Brown’s secret societies are essentially all but gone, with the single exception of the rather enigmatic, seniors-only Pacifica House. And in the end, Brown students really don’t seem to care, “friendly” societies like the Philandrians notwithstanding. One of our school’s major draws, after all, is the friendliness and inclusivity of the student body, something secret societies contradict almost by definition.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that Brown’s societies have survived this whole time, and are just doing secret a whole lot better than Skull and Bones. If they have their way, we’ll never know…