Cliosophic Hall Class of 1861. (Princeton University Mudd Library/princetonianamuseum.org)
254 Years of Freedom of Speech, Civil Discourse, and Camaraderie at Princeton University
By Donald Gilpin
On the Princeton University campus, behind Nassau Hall and just beyond Cannon Green, stand two stately neoclassical buildings, remodeled in the 1890s to look like Greek temples — Whig Hall on the left and Clio Hall on the right.
Currently housed in Whig Hall, the American Whig-Cliosophic Society — the oldest college political, literary, and debating society in the country — is steeped in history and tradition. “Probably no other undergraduate organization in this country has as long and lively a history as Whig-Clio,” Robert F. Goheen, Princeton’s president from 1957 to 1972, once stated, and the past half century since he made that statement has been even more lively.
The list of students who were members of the Whig Society or the Cliosophic Society, which merged after World War II to become the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, includes two U.S. presidents, two vice presidents, hundreds of members of Congress, governors, federal and state Supreme Court justices, and dozens of college presidents.
Whig-Clio founders James Madison and Aaron Burr in the 18th century; Woodrow Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Adlai Stevenson, Ralph Nader, and Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker in the 20th century; along with, more recently, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, are just a few of the many prominent, often controversial, figures from American history who were members of the society. Not to mention an additional long list of famous honorary members and dignitaries who have delivered speeches at Whig-Clio.
Cliosophic Society, 1889. (Wikipedia)
Whig-Clio, which is run entirely by undergraduates, was originally two rival political organizations. The American Whig Society was founded in 1769 by Madison, Princeton Class of 1771 and the fourth U.S. president (1809-17); Philip Freneau, Class of 1771 and Revolutionary War poet; and William Bradford, Class of 1772 and later U.S. attorney general (1794-95). The Cliosophic Society was founded in 1765 by William Paterson, Class of 1763, a signer of the U.S. Constitution, and later governor of New Jersey (1790 to 1793); Oliver Ellsworth, Class of 1766 and later chief justice of the Supreme Court (1796-1800); and Aaron Burr, Class of 1772 and later U.S. vice president (1801-1805).
Amidst the conflicts and controversies of contemporary society, often accentuated on university campuses, Whig-Clio continues to promote that freedom of speech that Madison and others celebrated at the birth of Whig-Clio before the American Revolution and in their creation of the Bill of Rights about 20 years later.
Tina Ravitz, a 1976 Princeton graduate who was Whig-Clio’s first woman president, wrote in the December 9, 1975 Daily Princetonian about Whig-Clio’s commitment to freedom of speech and its roots in the wisdom of the founders: “Today, the Society continues to recognize what James Madison and others insightfully understood almost 200 years ago: the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech is of supreme importance to a vital, questioning and free society.”
She added, “Both politically and ideologically, Whig-Clio does not veer towards the left; nor does it veer towards the right. In fact, it does not even go down the middle of the road. Whig-Clio has no political bias. An invitation from Whig-Clio to a guest speaker is not an endorsement of that speaker’s viewpoints. What the society emphatically endorses by its invitation, though, is the guest’s right to speak.”
She went on to cite several examples of Whig-Clio programs and speakers from left to right across the political spectrum, as she emphasized the organization’s balanced, impartial approach and its adherence to the ideals of freedom of speech.
In a recent phone conversation, current Whig-Clio President Won-Jae Chang, a senior economics major, described how the same principles prevail at the Society 48 years later.
Noting Whig-Clio’s standing as the “largest political group on campus,” Chang accentuated the organization’s ongoing commitment to freedom of speech and its willingness to embrace controversial topics and speakers.
“We have political diversity in Whig-Clio, with people ranging from mainstream politics to very niche political views,” he said. “We have been able to bring together different political views within our society and to discuss a wide variety of topics.”
He continued, “We try to present a lot of different topics, and we try to make sure that discourse is protected. Whatever political views are expressed, they can be discussed as long as they aren’t disruptive. The University’s policies are very supportive of free speech and civil discourse. Our goal is to maintain impartiality and allow for civil discourse without taking a strong stand ourselves. We want to have a safe space for everyone.”
In their 1996 foreword to J. Jefferson Looney’s short history of Whig-Clio, Ravitz and the late Donald E. Stokes, a 1951 Princeton graduate and longtime dean of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, commented further on Madison’s enduring influence on Whig-Clio. “There is something hauntingly appropriate about the role played by the society he helped to found at the college in reaffirming two centuries later the tradition of free speech on the University campus,” they wrote.
“The modern history of Whig-Clio attests to the society’s successful transition to current times while maintaining these traditions of the founders,” they continued. “Although its internal structure and specific programs change from time to time, the society continues to promote the exchange of ideas on vital issues by preparing members for intelligent participation in the life of the nation its earliest members did so much to establish.”
In a recent phone conversation, Skip Rankin, a 1972 Princeton graduate who was undergraduate president of Whig-Clio in 1970 and is now president of the organization’s board of trustees, echoed those thoughts.
“We pride ourselves on civilized debate,” he said. “That is the main thing we say to our students. You can be passionate about your positions, but you need to be civil in discourse.”
In the current national climate of angry rants, siloed political groups, cancel culture shutting out unwanted opinions, and revoked invitations for unpopular speakers, Whig-Clio’s tradition and continuing commitment to civilized discourse seems to offer an admirably calmer, saner alternative — and one that is often criticized by both liberal and conservative elements.
“Whig-Clio is especially valuable today,” said Rankin, who is an attorney based in New York City with the Baker McKenzie international law firm, “because I’m concerned and I think many of the students are equally concerned that we don’t end up in such a partisan politics that we can’t talk to each other. Recent student leadership has been fantastic in this area. Credit goes to the student leaders for making sure that the society is open to all points of views and the students feel free to express themselves in a way that needs to be civilized, but encourages open discussion — people with different points of view being able to talk things through and debate issues of significance. We also bring in a variety of speakers from across the political spectrum so that we’re not viewed one way or another.”
Rankin, who continues to judge mock trials at Whig-Clio, recalled some of the many controversial speakers at the society over the years, as he recounted episodes from a history that is almost as colorful as it is long.
Going back to their beginnings, they were secret societies, Rankin noted. “If you look at the buildings architecturally, originally they didn’t seem to have any windows facing each other,” he said. “As secret societies they wanted no one to peer into the other to see what was going on. Windows were later installed in order to bring some light into the buildings.”
In the 18th through the 19 centuries, Whig and Clio — known at the time as the Cliosophic Society — members met to hear declarations and to read, recite, and debate. Their activities were shrouded in ritual and secrecy, as they became dominant forces in student life on campus.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the issues of the day were debated on the Princeton University campus. During what was called the Paper Wars of 1771 the two societies competed in a series of vituperative literary battles, attacking each other verbally on a daily basis as the entire student body looked on.
The faculty threatened to shut down both organizations, and, as British and American forces occupied Nassau Hall, the societies, along with most other activities on campus, were curtailed until after the end of the war in 1781.
All of the Cliosophic Society’s records were destroyed when Nassau Hall burned down in 1802. The society met in a variety of locations during the ensuing years, most notably in the building now known as Stanhope Hall, until 1838, when it moved into a new wood frame building called Clio Hall on Cannon Green. That building was eventually demolished to make way for the two stately pillared neoclassical structures that now stand behind Nassau Hall.
In the 18th and into the 19th centuries the societies had their own libraries, with rare books and paintings, and at one point an even larger library collection than the University itself.
The dominant role of Whig and Clio at Princeton University declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the eating clubs, athletics, and other extra-curricular activities were established and rapidly gained prominence.
The rapport between Whig and Clio grew closer, and in 1914 they ended the tradition of secrecy, opened membership to the entire student body, and established increased communication between the two societies. They merged in 1928 and joined forces to conduct their activities together in Whig Hall, while bolstering their finances by renting Clio Hall to the University, though the merger did not become official until the 1940s.
“The unification of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society required two previous arch rivals to coexist with civility and humor,” wrote Ravitz and Stokes. “The new society could not be an advocacy organization. Instead, it transcended any particular cause or focus. The two parties had to collaborate to run the merged institution. Students talked to others with opposing viewpoints and entertained the possibility that they could be wrong. Impartiality became an ideological basis for the umbrella organization.”
The two buildings are owned by Whig-Clio, which has its own endowment and board of trustees.
“The University pays rent, and they give $10,000 a year to the society for the use of Clio Hall, which helps to support some of the organization’s activities,” said Rankin. He also noted that, in accordance with post-World War II documents, the University agreed to maintain the buildings and is responsible for basic upkeep.
The debating tradition between the more liberal Whig and the more conservative Clio parties prevails unabated as the organization continues to aspire to its nonpartisan, politically unbiased goals. Born in the world of the political upheavals and raging controversies of the mid 18th century, Whig-Clio moves forward and flourishes through all the upheavals and aggressions of late 20th and early 21st century politics.
The society serves a number of roles on campus as a focal point for politics and debate and the venue for events open to students, faculty, and the community at large. Subsidiaries of Whig-Clio include the award-winning Princeton Debate Panel (which Alito captained some 52 years ago), the Princeton Mock Trial Association, the International Relations Council, the Model Congress (with an annual conference drawing more than 1,000 high school participants), and the Whig-Cliosophic Honorary Debate Panel.
As a popular gathering spot on campus, the Whig-Clio senate chamber hosts watch parties during presidential debates, election night returns, and other important events. About 2,000 students, according to Rankin, crowded the chamber last March to watch Princeton play Creighton in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament.
Whig-Clio has brought many prominent public figures with a wide range of views to speak on campus, and since 1960 has bestowed its James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service on 48 prominent national figures. The invited speakers and the award recipients have not been chosen without controversy.
Rankin discussed some of the turmoil that has arisen over the years as Whig-Clio has maintained its reputation for inviting controversial speakers and pursuing its goals of open public discourse and free speech.
“The society has had a history of controversial speakers that goes back long before my time,” Rankin said. He mentioned Alger Hiss, who, in 1954 during the Cold War in the McCarthy era, was accused of being a communist spy for the Soviet Union.
“The students invited him to campus and there was an uproar,” said Rankin, “even among the then University trustees who said, ‘What is Whig-Clio doing inviting an accused communist?’ The University president [Harold Dodds] stood behind the students and said ‘No, the students invited him and we’re going let them have their discussion. It will be open.’”
The uproar on campus spread through the national news media. “The students appreciated the support by the administration,” Rankin continued. “Hiss came and spoke, but despite all the hoopla beforehand he didn’t turn out to be very controversial. Apparently he wasn’t that great a speaker. He was pretty dull from what I understand. His speech didn’t create much excitement, but he got to present his side, and life went on.”
More recently Whig-Clio was in the news over its initial decision in 2021 to revoke from Texas Senator Ted Cruz its James Madison Award for Public Service, which it had bestowed on Cruz in 2016. Cruz, a 1992 Princeton University graduate, was under fire following the January 6, 2021 attacks on the Capitol for his leadership of Republican efforts to oppose certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.
Whig-Clio, after a 90-minute series of speeches for and against, voted to rescind the award, but later, after conferring with the society’s trustees, reversed their decision — but not their criticisms of Cruz.
“The board spoke with the student leaders and said that the award was given before the events of January 6 and obviously wasn’t given in the context of what happened afterwards,” said Rankin. “We also suggested to the students that in selecting future awardees it might be good to give recognition a bit later in their careers.”
He continued, “We try not to interfere directly because it’s a student decision, but we said this might be a good example of looking to take into context the person’s contribution over time.”
Rankin described a visit by Cruz to campus in 2017 on the occasion of his 25th reunion. A leading member of Whig-Clio and a champion debater during his undergraduate days, Cruz and a former classmate teamed up at the reunion to debate against two Whig-Clio undergraduates.
Rankin, who helped to judge the contest, described a lighthearted competition in which Cruz and his former classmate were defeated by the student debaters.
Another dispute, Rankin noted, occurred in October 2019, this one concerning Whig-Clio’s invitation to University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, who had been accused of racist comments and white supremacist remarks about non-whites.
“She had been invited the previous year, and the incoming Whig-Clio administration did not want to honor the invitation,” Rankin explained. “We said ‘No, you can’t do that. You’re not endorsing her position, but as a policy we don’t disinvite folks.’ The students were very concerned that her arrival on campus was going to be perceived incorrectly. She’s been in the news a few times.”
University President Christopher L. Eisgruber became aware of the situation, and was also concerned that Whig-Clio would rescind an invitation. “He took the same position that President Dodds took with the Alger Hiss situation,” said Rankin, who attended Wax’s speech and described it as a “nonevent.” He added that she wasn’t speaking on the racially-charged issues that had caused the controversy.
“She spoke, and said her words. Not everybody agreed with what she was saying, but it was civil, she left, and there was no big deal,” Rankin said. “This seems to happen about every 20 years. It’s a good example of the organization allowing free speech to occur within reason.”
Rankin went on to describe the biggest news story concerning Whig-Clio during his undergraduate days, an event that was not figuratively but literally incendiary. In November 1969 Whig Hall was the scene of a huge fire.
Rankin, in his sophomore year and about to become Whig-Clio president at the start of 1970, was on the train from Boston to Princeton after attending the Harvard-Princeton football game when he heard about the fire.
“Word circulated,” he recalled, “by word of mouth and newspapers. Those were the days before iPhones. A terrible fire at Whig Hall had burned through the roof and destroyed the old senate chamber as we called it, which was actually a replica of the Senate chamber in the Capitol in Washington. It was a wood structure that reflected the architecture of its day. It didn’t burn the main building, which is marble, but it did destroy the inside — a tragedy.”
The University, hiring the architectural firm of Gwathmey Siegel and Associates, took on the task of renovating the building, keeping the facade intact, but replacing the eastern side wall with a contemporary — and controversial — glass structure.
“They won awards for it,” said Rankin. “It was the idea of opening the society to the campus, picking up on that theme. At one time they had been closed societies, but this was an architectural element to indicate they were open.”
During his tenure as president in 1970, as the reconstruction of the senate chamber and the rest of the building proceeded, Rankin and Whig-Clio did not have the use of Whig Hall, but the organization carried on. Their headquarters was relegated to the Green Hall Annex on Washington Road, and they often used the School for Public and International Affairs for meetings and debates, until the refurbished Whig Hall could be occupied about three years later.
As Whig-Clio looks back on its impressive history of more than a quarter millennium and forward into the unpredictable political future, Ravitz’s concluding words from her 1975 essay continue to serve as a noble goal: “Whig-Clio brings and will continue to bring to campus controversial speakers who take controversial stands. The society will continue to provide nonpareil programs for its members and the University community; however it can only do so by continuing to realize the ideals of freedom of speech and by sustaining its balanced, equitable, and impartial program.”