History of the Kappa Alpha Society
The Spirit of Kappa Alpha by Robert S. Tarleton
Copyright 1993 (used with permission of the author)
The Kappa Alpha Society had originally been organized in the form of what was then called a "literary society." Such organizations, which were common in the colleges of the day, might be better termed in modern parlance as debating societies, since their purpose was to encourage forensic skills more than to study "literature."
Indeed, the term "literary" was far broader in scope than it is today: literary studies covered any academic discipline not defined as practical in nature.
Those of the founders who achieved maturity (death at a young age being more common in those days) all made great marks on the wider world around them, and the Society itself soon made its mark on that world. This was an institution which was, for its day, a revolutionary body.
It was an opportunity for students of a broad and liberal train of thought to gather and present ideas which were to shake the entire college world. Just calling it a "literary society" had a tinge of the radical--for the literature in question was the then modern American literature which the faculty of the day absolutely refused to acknowledge as existing, works written by authors who appear on every high school reading list today--Hawthorne, Poe, Longfellow.
Union College in 1825 was the place for such a movement to start. This was the heyday of Union, when it was among the premier intellectual institutions of the United States, the peer of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The college, started as a non-sectarian institution in a day of sectarian academic orthodoxy, was unparalleled as a place for open discussion and intellectual freedom during its 60 years under Rev. Eliphalet Nott.
College seniors transferred from other schools all over the country to Union in order to study under Dr. Nott. The diverse character and breadth of the student population was itself one of the critical factors that made the campus such a vibrant and intellectually stimulating place.
What John Hart Hunter and his friends added to this mixture was interest in a secular outlook and in the comparative school of education which later came to be called liberal arts in competition with classic education stressing single authorities and greater rigidity.
Even though many of them were headed for the ministry, they believed that America's only destiny lay in a worldly sense of progress rather than an orthodoxy rooted in the past. This was one of the first stirrings of the forces which only 40 years later turned the United States into a dynamo of progress.
They called their organization a society and clearly had in mind the same thing which had motivated the founders of Phi Beta Kappa 50 years earlier. But, consciously or not, they chose to prevent their group from going in the direction its predecessor had.
They opted for a stronger dose of fraternalism and made it clear from the beginning that this was to be a student organization, not one controlled by its alumni. As a "literary society" the group encouraged the exposition of outrageous ideas and became an early exponent of the idea of "Progress," a concept central to the development of the U.S. in the 19th century--and one viewed by most theologians in 1825 as rank heresy.
Combined with these factors was a love of music and the appreciation of literature as a recreation. While other fraternities have discarded this atmosphere in favor of becoming a "dormitory with bar attached," Kappa Alpha has maintained it to the modern day. Even now our founders would feel at home in an organization which finds fun not only in parties but also in the singing of songs and the spirited interaction of intellectual debate.
To some our views may be too sedate, but Kappa Alpha has always positioned itself as inclusive rather than excessive. To quote the words of Henry W. Porter, CG 1842:
Ours is the office to promote good fellowship and rational enjoyment: to be guided in all things by the hand of virtue and to reprove and discourage all manner of evil. If we would be respected, we must so act that we may be able to respect ourselves.
The views of the "liberal" students were not altogether appreciated by the faculty or by the educated world in general. Partly because of the resistance their ideas met, they gathered together in small secret groups to expound their beliefs.
That this support for academic change was widespread is demonstrated by the speed with which the fraternity movement spread from Union throughout the country. Kappa Alpha had little to do with creating the pent-up sentiment--but provided the spark and the example which produced the revolution.
Ironically, the sense of enjoyment of forbidden fruit created by the greater secrecy necessitated by bans on membership in secret societies at Union and other colleges probably contributed to the growth of the societies.
Despite all of the philosophical and radical overtones, our founders saw KA as fun, as an antidote to the formalism of the classroom. They believed in the Society and what it was doing; but they didn't take themselves all that seriously.