Year
1776

Phi Beta Kappa is founded while army flounders

On this day in Williamsburg, Virginia, a group of five students at the College of William and Mary gather at Raleigh’s Tavern to found a new fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa. Intended to follow strictly American principles as opposed to those of England or Germany, the new society engaged in the fervent political debate typical of student life at Thomas Jefferson’s beloved college in Virginia’s capital. The fluent scholars of Greek and Latin who gathered to found the society, which was destined to count presidents and poets of the newly declared republic among its ranks, could not have differed more greatly from their Patriot fellows suffering as prisoners of the crown in British-occupied New York.

From the British stronghold, an officer writing on this day described his 5,000 American captives in Shakespearian terms: “…many of them are such ragamuffins, as you never saw in your life; I cannot give you a better idea of them than by putting you in mind of Falstaff’s recruits, or poor Tom in King Lear; and yet they had strained every nerve to cover their nakedness, by dismantling all the beds.”

While students toasted and the captured shivered, General George Washington pled the virtues of a standing army above those of an ad hoc militia. His missive to Congress came at the end of his notice that his batch of ragamuffins and their supplies were still in transit across the Delaware to Pennsylvania, protected from the rampaging redcoats by a rear guard at Princeton commanded by Lord William Stirling and General Adam Stephens.

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