The Fraternity War
By James Tobin
Our crazy faculty … seem determined to annihilate every secret society in College.– Alpha Delta Phi member
Chapter 1 “Gentlemen and Scholars”
In the fall term of 1845, just four years after classes had begun at the University of Michigan, a junior named George Becker and several friends joined together to create the University’s first fraternity, a chapter of Beta Theta Pi.
In their inaugural meeting, held in the Ann Arbor home of George’s parents, Hiram and Sophia Becker, they pledged upon their honor “as gentlemen and scholars to promote the best interests and welfare of all concerned, individually and collectively, in all the events of life, with friendship and fidelity, as far as may be consistent with the true principles of morality and duty.”
In December, 14 more students formed a chapter of Chi Psi. In August of the following year, 1846, a chapter of Alpha Delta Phi, with six members, joined the first two. (Betas and Chi Psis have quibbled ever since about which chapter deserves to be called Michigan’s first.)
Now something close to half the student body — all male in that era — belonged to one fraternity or another. But each society held its meetings in secret. They agreed not to wear the pins and badges that identified Greek-letter brothers on campuses back east. For as they all knew, they were breaking Rule 20 of the University’s code of student conduct, one of 23 regulations that governed virtually every hour of their lives.
Chapter 2 Life by the Rules
The rules had been written by George Palmer Williams, the first professor hired by the regents, a favorite of students for his “genial, kindly nature” and “trenchant wit” in the classroom. But as the University’s catalog put it, “no college in our country can secure public confidence without watching over the morals of its students.” So professors governed the little campus in loco parentis — “in the place of parents.” Most of them were ordained Protestant ministers, and they were strict parents indeed.
Students took their meals with local families and slept in dorm rooms on the upper floors of the two academic buildings, Mason Hall and South Hall. The rules said they must rise to the janitor’s bell at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. (depending on which half of the semester it was) and go straight to morning prayer. Then, on a typical day, they alternated between recitation periods in the classrooms and mandatory study periods in their own rooms. On a typical day, they studied from morning prayer until 7 a.m., 9 a.m. to noon, 1:30 p.m. to 4:30, and 7 p.m. to 9, after which no student was to leave the campus. “The student’s life, especially in the winter, is a life in a circle,” wrote George Washington Pray, a member of the first class. “He eats and studies and recites, recites and studies and eats.”
Rule 10 required each student to attend the local church of his choice twice each Sunday. Rule 14 forbade students to go home without a parent’s written authorization. Rule 19 required students to open their rooms to professors’ inspection “at all times.”
Then there was Rule 20, a minor matter: “No student shall become a member of any society connected with the University, or consisting of students thereof, which has not first submitted its constitution to the Faculty, and received approbation.”
Here Professor Williams was thinking only of student literary societies. The faculty approved of them, but didn’t want there to be too many.
They had no idea how much trouble Rule 20 would cause.
Chapter 3 Cabin in the Black Forest
Clearly, the faculty’s tight leash encouraged the forming of fraternities. At the Beckers’ home, or at a local hotel or tavern, Greek-letter brothers could escape for an hour now and then to smoke a pipe and commiserate away from professors’ eyes and ears.
The simple chance to make a few close friends — not provided for in the faculty’s tight schedule — was the main draw. In the grandiloquent style of the day, a Beta from Ohio said “the cultivation of intimate social relations” was “the leading motive of uniting a few choice spirits in closer bonds.”
The members of Chi Psi even built a cabin of their own east of the campus, deep in what they called the Black Forest. (The cabin’s exact site, lost to history, was probably in the acreage now occupied by Forest Hill Cemetery. Chi Psi still celebrates it as the first fraternity house in the nation.)
They all knew they were breaking Rule 20, and they knew exposure could bring grave consequences. Secrecy and danger intensified the bond. As the Betas’ charter said, they kept it “ever…in mind that gold tried seven times in the fire is therefore more pure.”
The secret held for about a year.
Chapter 4 Demands and Defiance
To supplement his skimpy salary, Andrew Ten Brook, a sour-faced Dutchman who taught moral and intellectual philosophy, fed a few student boarders in his home. One night in 1846, he overheard a couple of the boys whispering about some late-night fires that had left neighboring farmers’ fences in smoldering ruins.
There was no dean of students to whom Ten Brook could report the matter. In fact, the University had no central administration at all. The Board of Regents held the purse-strings and set policy, but they delegated in loco parentis to the faculty. Each year, on a rotating basis, one professor was saddled with the title of chancellor, but that only made him first in a band of equals, with no special authority or power.
Nonetheless, that’s who Andrew Ten Brook told what he’d heard — the chancellor for 1846-47, Daniel D. Whedon, professor of logic, rhetoric and history.
They decided they had to investigate. When they saw a couple of students sneak away from the campus after hours, the professors shadowed them into the Black Forest. Unaware of their pursuers, the young men led them to the log cabin that was Chi Psi’s secret headquarters.
The professors demanded to be allowed inside.
The students refused.
They were members of a private society, they declared, and the faculty had no rights there.
In the back-and-forth that ensued, the students conceded the truth but remained defiant. Not only had they formed an association that broke Rule 20, they said, but so had two other societies at Michigan, and all three were affiliates of national organizations.
Years later, Professor Ten Brook remembered the students’ scoffing confidence in the woods that night, how they warned the professors that “their strength had become such as to make it difficult to deal with them.”
Chapter 5 “Our Crazy Faculty”
The Chi Psis and Betas managed to keep their operations underground. But somehow the faculty sniffed out Alpha Delta Phi’s continued recruiting. Over several days, one of the professors recalled, they “labored to bring these young men to reason.”
Professor Ten Brook was astonished by their defiance. “Strange to say,” he wrote later, “many of our students whose reputation had been fair for good conduct and even for piety, under the influence of the esprit de corps seemed suddenly transformed in character. They placed themselves in the open and declared issue with the government and laws of the Institution. They assumed [themselves] to be a coordinate power competent to treat, to wage war, or to compromise with the Faculty. They broached the most desperate principles in morals, played the hero in insulting the Faculty and defaming their character. They seemed to estimate no pledge or obligation sacred in comparison with their own corporate pledge. The Faculty were warned of the danger of incurring the displeasure of associations which embraced three thousand influential men throughout our country.”
In a letter to a brother at an eastern chapter, an Alpha Delt put it more succinctly: “Our crazy faculty…seem determined to annihilate every secret society in College,” but “it is a hard matter to kill us ‘Wolverines’ when we make up our minds to live.”
One Alpha Delt quit the fraternity under the faculty’s pressure. Those who stood their ground were suspended. Some were readmitted in the fall of 1847, but only after they signed this pledge: “We, the undersigned, deeply regretting that any part of our past course has come in collision with the laws of the institution, respectfully solicit admission to the University of Michigan, pledging ourselves not to consent to the admission of any member of the University to any society in opposition to the law on the subject…”
When Alpha Delta Phi once again sought official approval, the faculty declared that it was powerless to grant it. Sensibly, the fraternity replied that if that were true, then the faculty had no power to forbid the association, either.
The brothers also raised a defense that would be heard again: they were not a society “connected with the University” — the wording of Rule 20 — but simply “of Ann Arbor,” and so beyond the University’s control.
They also took the audacious step of inviting a sympathetic member of the Board of Regents to join their ranks, and he agreed.
Chapter 6 Tactical Concessions
“Secret societies” was a loaded phrase in pre-Civil War America, with connotations that stirred fears far beyond college campuses. Not many years before Whedon and Ten Brook discovered the cabin in the woods, an entire political party had risen up to warn that Freemasons constituted a dire threat to American democracy and a secular rival to the Christian church. The worst fears had ebbed and the Antimasonic Party had blended into the old Whig Party. But many people remained uneasy about conclaves of men who swore loyalty to semi-shrouded orders. Just as many, maybe more, hotly defended the fraternal associations, saying they were devoted to nothing but fine fellowship and civic virtue.
In any case, Michigan’s professors were doubtless aware that news of collegiate fraternalism in Ann Arbor was bound to stir up trouble.
They hadn’t heard much about the spread of college fraternities in East Coast schools, notably Union College in Schenectady, New York, and Yale. But they did know, as one wrote later, “that the German Universities have long been overrun with student clans [that] fill the halls and recitation rooms with riot, disturb the community with frays and fights, and indulge in the utmost license of debauchery, drunkenness, pugilism, and duelling.”
Of course, nothing that bad seemed to be afoot at Michigan, not yet. The professors were concerned, especially about the open flouting of a rule. But they were not concerned enough to expel every member of Chi Psi, Beta Theta Pi and Alpha Delta Phi — a move that would wipe out a major fraction of the University’s enrollment, not to mention tuition dollars. They also conceded the students’ claim that perhaps the rule against unapproved societies had not been made entirely clear to the students.
So the faculty crafted a tactical concession. The fraternities would be allowed to continue their meetings, but only on the condition that they admit no new members. The professors figured that would amount to a delayed sentence of death. In another two or three years, the current members would graduate and the fraternities would be no more. In the meantime, all entering freshmen would be required to sign a pledge to abide by Rule 20.
The professors made another key concession, perhaps to preserve their own sleep. They quit enforcing the 9 p.m. curfew.
The Greek-letter men knew appeasement when they saw it. Behind the backs of the faculty, they not only went on meeting. They went on recruiting new members, too.
Chapter 7 Signs of a Storm
Meanwhile, the professors were tallying up a growing list of grievances with the not-so-secret societies.
They recruited young men without the approval of their parents.
They met “in private houses, beer shops, and hotels, at hours when…honest folks should be at home and the student should be at his room.” Thus they offered a slippery slope to “the bar, the groggery and midnight haunt,” ending with “scholars carried to their rooms at midnight dead drunk.”
They were “exclusive and oligarchic in their selection of members.”
They diluted energies that should go into the approved literary societies, and they bred rivalries within those societies. (One night the brothers of two fraternities, all members of the same literary group, nearly got in a brawl.)
Worst of all, they directly challenged the power of the faculty. They were a standing affront to the principle of in loco parentis.
When the faculty sought advice from their counterparts back east who’d been dealing with the same troubles for years, the responses were calculated to stiffen their spines. James Carnahan, president of Princeton, warned that “no society among the students should be tolerated of which the faculty and regents have not directly or indirectly the control.”
Late in the fall semester of 1849, matters suddenly came to head.
The faculty warned that further defiance would bring widespread expulsions. Newspaper headlines cropped up across the state — “REBELLION,” “SECRET LEAGUE” — and now the public began to take an interest. Freemasons and Oddfellows, smelling a revival of the old anti-fraternal movement in the air, began to speak up for the boys and condemn the harsh rule of a stodgy band of professors.
At a campus meeting on December 20, the faculty issued a final ultimatum. If the fraternities refused to disband, every member would be suspended after the Christmas holiday.
The outcry was immediate and raucous, and the faculty detected “signs which betoken a storm.” Backers of the fraternities — led by Hiram Becker, who had hosted his son and the first U-M Betas in his home — quickly posted notices calling for a big public rally at the courthouse, and a sizable crowd “passed vigorous resolutions which vouched for the high character” of the threatened students.
Late that night, Professor Whedon spotted a heap of wood shavings ablaze in an outhouse. He put out the flames before they could spread. But as the night went on, fires sprang up in woodsheds across the campus until “every tree, shrub and fence-pole [was] visible over the whole grounds.” The sun rose with a haze of smoke hanging in the air.
Chapter 8 “The Rights of Man”
True to their word, the faculty proceeded to sack every fraternity member who refused to renounce his allegiance to his chapter. The regents called for a full report from the faculty, who laid out their case in several thousand words, declaring that Michigan was now in danger of succumbing to “a great irresponsible authority, a monster power which lays its hand upon every College Faculty in our country.”
The regents had been divided on the fraternity question, but now, in the wake of the vandalism, they supported the faculty and sent its report to the state legislature. (A minor comedy ensued when two fraternity boys grabbed a copy of the report, reprinted it with various vulgarities inserted in the text, and sent it to Lansing as the real thing, causing temporary confusion among the lawmakers and more consternation in the faculty.)
Angry citizens of Ann Arbor, led by Hiram Becker, put their counter-complaints in a petition to the legislature. The ban on fraternities, they said, “is an abridgement of the rights of man, striking at the foundation of those social relations which tend so much to refine and elevate the character of man… In these societies confidence is engendered, honor cultivated, the intellect expanded… These privileges, these rights, the Board of Regents and the faculty of the University of Michigan cannot infringe.”
The faculty, they concluded, had forfeited public confidence. Nothing could remedy the University’s “sickly existence” but “a perfect and entire reorganization.”
They got what they asked for.
The legislature kicked the problem back to the regents, who passed it back to the faculty, who offered the fraternities a modus vivendi that conceded defeat.
As long as they did not interfere with the University’s governance, and did not enroll minors, and turned over their membership rosters, the fraternities would be allowed.
Some expelled members were welcomed back. Others left and never returned. But the societies had won the war, and several professors departed in its wake.
When the state’s leaders approved a new constitution later in 1850, the section on education included specific measures to prevent another scandal in Ann Arbor like the fraternity war. The regents of the university would be chosen by direct election, not appointed by the governor. The regents, in turn, were directed to appoint a powerful president to run the place.
That governing structure has been in place ever since.
The fraternity war thus led to the appointment of Michigan’s first president, Henry Philip Tappan, whose vision would set the University on a course toward preeminence.
* * *
Many years later, James Burrill Angell, president of Michigan from 1871 to 1909, was giving a lecture to students in his course on international relations. The topic of legal precedents arose, and Angell remarked: “One of the finest examples of the value of precedent that I have ever seen is one of the paths which you fellows make across the grass of the campus. We take that as clear proof that a walk should be there, and set about building one.”
Angell’s analogy encompassed the fundamental lesson of the fraternity war. Regents could hire presidents. Presidents could hire faculty. Professors could write syllabi and give grades. But students would always make their own mark on the university.
Sources included: “Code of rules and regulations for the government of the University of Michigan, adopted by the Board of Regents, July 19, 1848,” “Special Report of Faculty on College Difficulties…,” January meeting, 1850, Proceedings of the Board of Regents (1837-1864); Kim Clarke, “The First Freshmen,” University of Michigan Heritage Project; Shelby Schurtz, Greek Letter Fraternities at the University of Michigan, 1845-1937 (1937); Andrew Ten Brook, American State Universities (1875); Phyllis S. Vine, “Nineteenth-Century Campus Crisis: The ‘Fraternity War’ at the University of Michigan, 1850” (student paper, 1970, Bentley Historical Library); Elizabeth M. Farrand, History of the University of Michigan (1885); and Burke A. Hinsdale, History of the University of Michigan (1906).