The Washington Literary Society and Debating Union was founded in 1831 as the Academics Society, which met in the residence of Professor Davis on the West Lawn. With the merger of a similar society in 1835, this organization became “the Washington Society, that its name, recalling the deeds of the ‘Illustrious Father of American Liberty’, might animate them with the desire of using the power the attained for the good of their country and the weal of their countrymen.”
The preamble to 1860 Constitution of the Society eloquently describes the goals of our organization:
Oratory has, in every age, exerted an influence on the political, social, and moral conditions of Nations. As governments have changed from despotic to republican, and as man has advanced in culture and civilization, this influence has become more important, until, in our age and country, its sway is almost omnipotent. Sensible, then, of the power which oratory possesses for good or evil, we have formed this association for the purpose of improving in this art, and we have called it the Washington Society, that its name, recalling the deeds of the “Illustrious Father of American Liberty,” may animate us with the desire of using the power here attained, for the good of our country, and the weal of our countrymen.
As we are thus associated in the pursuit of a common, noble object, it is our desire to also be closely united by the strong and lasting ties of friendship, and thus prove ourselves worthy of the noble sentiment our badges bear:
“Quam Fluctus Diversi, Quam Mare Conjuncti”
The Society pursued this end steadily but inauspiciously until it disbanded for the War Between the States, although the University remained in operation for the duration of the conflict. Reestablished in 1865, this lapse is the referred to as the ‘First’, or ‘Minor Interregnum’. This period proved fruitful for the Society, with Washington Hall greatly expanded and much enjoyment had in friendly competition with the Jefferson Society.
It is in this Golden Age that the Society gained its somewhat irreverent reputation, and by the 1920s a decline in the gravity of debates is matched by frequent meetings in the Madison Hall Smoking Room – a treasure lost to time. Following the stock market crash of 1929, the Society resolved to meet again at the call of the President – a call that would not come until 1979.
The second revival of the Society may be credited to the many efforts of Mr. Davis, Mr. Henson, Mr. Huntoon, Mr. Aberman, and Ms. Eliason, among others. Here some of the modern traditions begin, such as our Greek letters – Sigma Beta Phi – and official color – red. True to its tumultuous history, in recent years the society has undergone many changes, but remains connected by its motto: quam fluctus diversi, quam mare conjuncti.
Although the waves are many, the sea is one.
Washington Literary Society and Debating Union