Alexander Hamilton, King's College, and the Roots of Philolexian
According to popular legend, Philolexian was founded by Alexander Hamilton while he was an undergraduate at King's College. Given that Philo was established in 1802, and Hamilton was a member of the class of 1778, the society prefers to say that it was established by Mr. Hamilton's "associates." The claim, although tenuous, is legitimate, for Hamilton and a number of his revolutionary compatriots were directly connected with the antecedents of Philo that existed at King's College and during the early years of Columbia . The following is a brief introduction to these groups.
The earliest authoritative account of a literary society at King's College is listed with the New-York Historical Society as Misc. MSS N.Y.C., Box 8 , #95 -- referred to by some as "Minutes and Accounts of the Literary Society." The first paragraph reads, "Literary Society instituted 1766 -- The first meeting of this Society was on Monday November the ninth at the Kings Arms Tavern on the broad Way." Present were William Walton, David Clarkson, Reverend D. Auchmuty, Rev. John Ogilvie, Rev. Dr. Cooper (president of King's), and James Clossy. The first resolution read as follows: "[R]esolved that Permissions be distributed agreeable to the proposed Scheme. [R]esolved that if Medals be chosen they shall be either gold or silver according to the proposed Scheme." A list of subscribers to a medal fund then follows; the subscribers agreed to pay three pounds yearly, for a total of five years. The first balance sheet shows a total subscription of 33 pounds, 14 and sixpence.
At a meeting of the Literary Society on May 5, 1767, it was resolved that a silver medal be awarded to "Mr. Laight for his improvement in Ethics," and that "Books to the value of five Pounds be given to Mr. Benjamin Moore for his diligent Attendance, good Behavior and general Improvement since his Entrance into College." Over two years later, on Commencement Day -- May 17, 1768 -- there was given to "Mr. Gouverneur Morris one Silver Medal for Oratory" and the same to Mr. Moore.
In addition to the above, the Literary Society awarded silver medals for oratory to the following students: Chariton, Doughty and Harris (jointly), Pell and Habbard (jointly), Boden, Barclay, Roebuck, and Philips Sr. (The entry for June 2, 1769 states that the Society "pd. Mr. Charles McEvers for 20 Silver Medals engraved in London : L57:7:3." The weight of all the medals was 331.7 grams.) The Society also gave awards to itself; it presented a copy of Goldsmith's "History of England" to Mr. Ogilvy and Milton 's "Paradise Lost" to Mr. Auchmuty 3d.
As for Hamilton , his literary society existed on something of a parallel track. Most of what we know is contained in a letter written by his King's College classmate, Col. Robert Troup, to provide information of a biography of Hamilton that was never written. Col. Troup met Hamilton in 1773; he wrote on March 22, 1810: "The particular associates of the General in College, were Dr. Edward Stevens, also of St. Croix, Dr. Samuel Nicoll, lately of New York deceased, Mr. Henry Nicoll, lately of Long Island deceased, and myself. [NB: Added in the margin was "Jno Nicoll of N. Haven."] We formed ourselves into a weekly Club, for our improvement in composition -- and debating -- and in public speaking; and the Club continued until we were separated by the revolution. In all the performances of the Club, the General made extraraordinary [sic] displays of richness of genius, and energy of mind."
There is no record that the Literary Society that awarded medals to Moore and Morris did the same to Hamilton and his associates. It is likely that Hamilton 's club went about its business independently of the governors of King's, who may very well have discontinued their society by that time. What is noteworthy is that in its objectives and purpose, "the Club," as Troup called it, was indistinguishable from Philolexian.
The American Revolution, which brought an end to King's College, presumably quashed any literary tendencies of its students as well. When the college reopened as Columbia , however, the students were quick to fill the gap. The minutes of the regents of the University of the State of New York ( Columbia 's trustees went by this name at the time) for August 25, 1784 , noted that the regents had "Received a letter dated [NB: No date is given] signed Edward Rigg prds. informing the regents, that the students of Columbia College, with a number of others of the City, had formed a society for the purpose of improving themselves in polite literature, requesting a chamber in the College for their use -- Resolved that the committee approve of the said society and that they be permitted to deposit their books in the College library and that the librarian of this society be librarian of the said College till the regents shall make further order therein -- provided that nothing in the said institution contained shall be exercised as to weaken, or interfere with, in any degree, the authority of the officers of the College."
Again, the aims of the society, and the request for space for its library, are themes that would eventually become hallmarks of Philolexian. This society went by many names: The Columbia College Society, The Columbia College Society for Progress, and The Columbia College Society for Progress in [NB: some sources list "and" instead of "in"] Letters. In his centennial volume "History of the Philolexian Society of Columbia University From 1802 to 1902," former Philo president Ernest Cardozo '99 wrote that there was once a certificate of membership in this society, dated May 1, 1789, issued to John B. Johnson (class of 1792) by president John P. Van Ness (class of 1789). Johnson kept a detailed diary of his years at Columbia , and many of his references are to compositions undertaken for the Society. Future vice president of the United States Daniel D. Tompkins (class of 1795) participated in the group and wrote an entire essay about it, wherein he generally disparaged its purposes.
This society died in 1795. "From this time on," wrote Cardozo, "for a couple of years the various classes, it is believed, had each their own literary associations." Cardozo continued, "In 1801 the Junior Class of the College which had formed one of these literary associations, designated it by the name of Philomathean." A year later, it was opened to all undergraduates. Perhaps it was this change in attitude that also prompted a change in name -- this time, to "Philolexian."