How Generations of Students Learned Oratory and Debate

By Lawrence Biemiller

Lancaster, Pa. -- In the Goethean Literary Society's first formal debate, in June of 1835, students argued the question "Ought imprisonment for debt to be abolished?" The debate took place in York, Pa., at what was then called the High School of the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church. The society's minutes record that the question "was decided in favor of the negative both as to the merits of the arguments and those of the question." Afterward the members chose a topic for the following week's discussion: "Has not the civilization of mankind been as much affected by the influence of the fair Sex as by any other cause whatever?"

So began an extraordinary run of debates and orations that continued on three different campuses for more than a hundred years, from Andrew Jackson's Presidency to Dwight Eisenhower's. Along with its twin sister, the Diagnothian Literary Society, the Goethean Society prospered as the "high school" moved to Mercersburg and changed its name to Marshall College. At weekly meetings the societies' members delivered speeches and poems and argued the issues of the day, from whether women should hold public office and whether the Roman Catholic Church was "an enemy to liberty" to whether man "is the creator of his own destiny."

Both societies assembled libraries and built Greek-revival meeting halls. There they met for hours each Saturday morning, mixing parliamentary procedure with splashes of ritual and secrecy and with floods of declamation. In January and February of 1842, for example, the Goetheans addressed a range of issues. "Would it be beneficial for the United States to admit Texas to the Union?" "Is England justified in carrying on war against China?" "Would it promote the interests of the United States to elect Henry Clay, President?" The minutes for February 23 add a contemporary-sounding note: "A Resolution was offered by Geo. L. Staley, prohibiting the chewing of Tobacco in Society on the ground of its disrespect and insult to the dignity of Society." The resolution failed, but "Mr. Brewer then moved a vote of censure to Mr. Staley for presuming to offer such a resolution." It, too, failed, and the members moved on to choosing the next question for debate: "Would it be beneficial for the Northern and Southern States, if they were peaceably disunited?"

The two societies continued to thrive after Marshall merged with Franklin College in 1853. The new institution, Franklin and Marshall, commissioned a Gothic-revival building with a soaring tower here in Lancaster; the literary societies put up matching halls, one on either side. The halls had first-floor rooms for the societies' libraries -- larger than the college's -- and also rooms for their "cabinets," or museums. Upstairs were the spacious meeting rooms, frescoed by local artists. The college's curriculum was then centered on classical texts, history, and mathematics, but the societies offered students opportunities to practice writing and public speaking and to consider subjects from politics to the nature of mankind.

In those years orators and debaters were judged more on composition and delivery than on content. Henry Kyd Douglas, a Diagnothian who attended the college in the 1850s, reported in his diary on speeches at the society's programs: " ... 5th Oration, J.B. Tredwell on 'The Dawn of a New Era.' This was nicely written and nicely spoken. Jim is a pleasant speaker but has not enough animation. 6th Oration, 'Christian Martyrdom,' by J.M. Mickly. This was a first rate speech and although he did well last year, he has made quite an improvement. His production gave evidence of thought ..." Douglas's own oration that day -- May 28, 1858 -- was titled "Tombs of the Illustrious Dead," and it was well received. "I never saw such an abundance of bouquets," he wrote. "I got 12, and Mr. Tredwell even more. They came in showers."

The few orations that survive are more interesting as samples of 19th-century writing than because they offer insights into their authors' lives; even the poems are almost entirely impersonal. The topics are general and often grand: "Marriage," "Justice," "The Past Character and Recent Prospects of Pennsylvanians." The prose is confident. In a speech titled "What Makes the Orator?" John G. Noss answered: "No gesture or attitude; no beautiful allegory or simile; no boisterous emphasis or soft cadence can make a man eloquent. True eloquence emanates from higher sources. It is only when a speaker is carried away by his passions and forgets these artificial and studied formulae, that he becomes truly eloquent." In orations this happened rarely, to judge by surviving texts, but the minutes record instances of members' being carried away in debates -- even of members' "violating the decorum of Society, by calling another member an infernal liar."

Whether associated with colleges or not, literary societies were mainstays of intellectual life in the 19th century. Diagnothian is the older of the two at Franklin and Marshall, but only by a matter of weeks. It was founded by a seminary student, Samuel Fisher, who took its name from the Greek for "thorough knowledge." As soon as the society was organized, Fisher arranged for it to split in two, hoping that a rivalry would attract members. Indeed, a rivalry developed immediately: Both groups claimed the Diagnothian name. Fisher saved the day by suggesting "Goethean" -- a popular choice in an institution with many German students. Once sparked, however, the rivalry grew, and the first debating competition between the two societies bitterly divided not only students but townspeople as well. The faculty prohibited such contests for years afterward.

The societies found other ways to compete, exchanging heated letters over alleged slights and vying to maintain bright rosters of honorary members. The Goetheans, whose records are more complete, elected and received acceptance letters from John James Audubon, James Buchanan (who lived in Lancaster and served as president of the new college's trustees), Samuel T. Clemens, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ulysses S. Grant, Washington Irving, Thomas Mann, Jean Sibelius, and Daniel Webster, among others. The society was turned down by the King of Sweden, in 1931, and by Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1947.

The societies' archives are full of such splendid minutiae. In September 1857 the Diagnothians' librarian reported having received, among other books, The Last Days of Pompeii, Dictionary of Poetical Works, Rosa of Linden Castle, Life and Speeches of Henry Clay, Living Orators of America, and Cyclopedia of American Literature. The museum curator noted the acquisition of a tortoise shell, a bottled snake, a rock from "a cave in Minnesota territory," and "a specimen of peacock coal, beautifully colored." The curator added that "Professor Agassiz, as yet, has given us no information concerning the gar-fishes he borrowed from us several years ago." The corresponding secretary, the curator added, had written to the professor "in a style not to be mistaken."

The literary societies at F&M outlived most, remaining active into the 1950s. Like societies at Davidson College and Princeton University, they left behind handsome halls that still carry their names, perhaps reminding current students of the charge with which Edmund Eck opened an oration titled "Who Are College Students?" It begins beautifully: "We are the embryo of stars, in the process of development, which are to illuminate the dark world when those before us have disappeared."

Copyright © 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published March 7, 1997.