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The Philomathesian Society


            The Philomathesian Society was a debate society founded at Middlebury College that became a staple of college life in the early part of the 19th century. While the exact date of the organization’s founding is unknown, it began meeting sometime during the 1802-1803 school year and thrived through the first part of the 19th century, before eventually collapsing in 1868. Established by Henry Chipman (Class of 1803) and his friends, the society’s public debates were widely attended by students who found the contests quite invigorating. 

            The Philomathesian Society fulfilled the social need on campus that existed before the establishment of fraternities. It was a non-discriminatory group that met every Wednesday night to debate many of the same questions that plague our society in the 21st century. One of the most important aspects of the Philomathesian Society was its extensive library that was considered far superior to the actual College’s library. In addition to its larger collection, the Philomathesian Library also had more lenient borrowing restrictions and was open to more people than the College’s Library.
            Membership reached a peak in the 1830’s when the society decided to publish a literary magazine called “The Philomathesian.” This venture, however, quickly disbanded due to lack of funding as the society decided to refocus on its original purpose of oral debates.

            Much of what we know about the Philomathesian society is derived from the extensive records that the group kept at each of its weekly meetings. They have dozens of books devoted to finances, judiciary infractions, and actual debates. Every question ever debated in the Philomathesian Society is chronicled in these volumes. Analyzing these issues, along with the number of members who agreed and/or disagreed with the resolution, provides us with a good view of the society’s views towards slavery, religion, and other important subjects of the era.

Views on Race at the College
            The controversy over slavery was one of the most divisive issue in 19th century America, and as such, was one of the most popular topics at Philomathesian meetings. They clashed over seemingly every aspect of the slavery debate, from debates on the establishment of a black colony in Africa to scenarios that would arise in the event of a Civil War, and more often than not the Society maintained an abolitionist view. The Philomathesian Society’s view on race is evident by their reading of “The Dignity of Human Nature” after their meetings, as well as their decision to invite Ralph Waldo Emerson, an ardent abolitionist, to speak at commencement. John Blanchard (’32), one of the society’s most famous alumnists, was a famous reformist whose two biggest targets were slavery and secret societies. Association with such abolitionists reflects the society’s deep sympathy with blacks in their struggle for freedom.