Student Organizations: Enosinian Society

From GW Encyclopedia

Enosinian Society members, 1893
Minutes of the Enosinian Society, 1896


“When Literacy Was in Flower: The Enosinian Society”

Clubs, sports, fraternities, sororities, and various publications have come and gone at the University. Even the University's name has been changed twice as has its location during 150 years of history, but there is still one group on campus that can trace its lineage back to the opening days of 1822. That is the Enosinian Society, rich in literary and debating tradition, which counts among its honorary members four U. S. Presidents and General Lafayette and his son, George Washington Lafayette. Today the debaters at GW bear the name of the Enosinians, although literary merit is now incidental to debating skills.

The first semester of Columbian College commenced in January, 1822, and in March, 15 students decided to found a society to encourage both writing and public speaking. They chose as their “watchword” the Greek word enosis, which means “union,” hoping through unremitting study and friendship to “best attain unto Wisdom.” Across the masthead of their literary publication, the Enosinian Bee, was written the Society's motto, a quotation from Horace: “Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci.” (John F. Latimer, chairman of the Department of Classics, identified the quotation and translated it: “He gets every vote who mixes the practical with the pleasurable.” Contributions to the Bee were written in beautiful script in the florid literary style of the period and were also read aloud at meetings. Early contributors used such pseudonyms as Fabius, Scholastiches, Virgil, and the editors were elected from the members.

Questions for debate and other records were kept in large leather-bound volumes where the beautiful script flowed on and on. In the log the question for debate was recorded, the name of the person recommending the question, the names of the debaters on the affirmative and negative sides, the date, and the outcome. Many of the questions were debated more than once; for example, the question of extending equal “suffrage rights” to women. Sometimes a question might be debated twice in the same year; then after a lapse of 25-30 years it would come up again. Some of the questions debated in the 1800's have yet to be resolved: whether capital punishment should be abolished, and whether war is justified under any circumstances.

An easy answer in February, 1837, to the question of the faculty's right to fine students for non-attendance at prayers was affirmative. However, some wag noted in the journal below the vote, “Well, they oughn’t old Hop.” The question of extending suffrage to “foreign emigrants under any circumstances whatever” was debated November 10, 1837, when the negative side carried, but it was also noted that “Ned” had forgotten to ring the bell. Those present voted unanimously, that Professor Ruggles should fine “Ned” ten cents.

Fines were one source by which the Society built up its treasury. Members were fined for non-attendance at meetings, failure to show up for debates, and, later, for failure to wear the star shaped pendant or the shield in the form of a pin. In those days Columbian College was located on College Hill, and the Society acquired a hall, known as the Enosinian Hall, with a reading room and bookshelves. A part of one journal is devoted to a listing of the books acquired by the Society, and by 1859, the historian of the Society noted, the books numbered about 1800 volumes. In the printed history the historian also reported with regret that only one of the books had been written by an Enosinian. In the 1880’s when Columbian College moved to its then new location (15th and H Streets, N.W.), about 3,000 books were turned over to the College library by the Society.

From the beginning the ladies of Washington took an interest in the Enosinians, and in September, 1824, they presented the Society with a banner which flew over the entrance to Enosinian Hall. The ladies also helped to decorate the hall. In December of that year, General Lafayette returned to America, accompanied by his son, George Washington Lafayette, and he “was received by the Society.” Later the two Lafayettes were invited to become honorary members and they accepted. A bust of General Lafayette was purchased and stood in Enosinian Hall for many years. Other honorary members were four Presidents of the U. S., giants of debate Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and such literary figures as Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, and N. Parker Willis. Captain John C. Symmes lectured at Enosinian Hall on his theory of the earth, and shortly thereafter was elected an honorary member.

A change in the Society's constitution in 1858 extended to its honorary members the privilege of using the Enosinian library. To illustrate that in spite of changing literary styles students share some of the same gripes today as their forebears, the following has been excerpted from a letter that appears in its entirety in the Enosinian Bee:

College Hill, July 15, 1865

My Dear Coz—

In the enjoyment of excellent health . . . I have taken up my pen to redeem the pledge given you at parting to write you an impartial description of the College . . . So many objects both novel and interesting to fascinate my attention . . .

But knowing you to be somewhat of an Epicure, suppose we initiate you all at once into the mysteries of that most important of collegiate exercises — replenishing the abdominal cavity.

To be a little Byronic, “at the sound of that tonic of the soul, the dinner bell,” a few hours after my arrival with a palpitating heart, I took up my line of march for the dining Hall. I discovered nothing here particularly worth description. The fare is such as I expected plain and substantial and in all its details rigorously adapted to the starvation system unanimously adopted by our literary institutions.

Deep solemnity resigned in every countenance . . . (One face especially caught the writer’s attention.) His thin bloodless lips quivered with intense agitation and his breast heaved tumultuously. I knew at a glance that he labored to be delivered of some tremendous idea with which his mighty mind was pregnant. I . . . awaited the “feast of Reason with which he was about to regale us . . .” “Brother Robert, won’t you ask a blessing.”

Wreathed smiles and merry peals of laughter followed this brilliant stroke of wit . . . But the sequel was equally enchanting. Assuming a cheerful aspect, an inaffable sweetness played round his mouth from which he issued the musical words, “Gentlemen, you flatter me.”

Among the 15 founders of the Society were Henry Fairfax, a captain in the U. S. Army, and Orlando Fairfax, a doctor of medicine. About the same time another society known as the Ciceronian Society was organized at Columbian College. The Enosinians frequently invited the Ciceronians to join them in celebrating the Fourth of July, or attending their debates.

On July 4, 1823, James D. Knowles delivered an oration for the Enosinian Society, and a Ciceronian read the Declaration of Independence. The following year the order was reversed. Thomas J. Brackenridge, a founder of the Enosinian Society, delivered an oration in behalf of the Ciceronians, and an Enosinian read aloud the Declaration of Independence.

Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died July 4, 1826, but as the historian of the Enosinian Society noted, eulogies could not be delivered until October 4 because school was not in session. Again a joint program was presented by the Enosinian and the Ciceronian Societies. When Columbian College suspended classes in April, 1827, for lack of funds, the two societies also ceased activities. However, when Columbian College resumed in 1829, so did the Enosinians. The Ciceronian Society failed to revive, however, and its records were lost.

In the 1850’s members of the Philophrenian Society, now defunct, (Robert E. Lee was an honorary member) were invited to join in the programs of the Enosinian Society; at one time the two groups merged, then separated again. From time to time, especially during periods of war, the Society lapsed into quiescence, then arose like the phoenix to carry on. It was a casualty of the Civil War and World War I and World War II. After the Second World War, the Society was dormant until 1947-48 when the Debate Club at GW decided to change its name to one with a great debating tradition. Those who try out for debating are named associate members, but they do not become full members unless they remain in debating two years.

The Enosinian Bee was subject to the changing whims of the Society's members and editors. In the March 7, 1902, issue an “Ode to Prince Henry of Prussia” was published. The next month Editor Frank A. Munsey introduced a news column with such short items as follow:

“J. P. Morgan is at present trying to join seven of the great steamships into one.

“Russian officials are becoming very uneasy, fearing a revolutionary outbreak at any time, but seem withal powerless to prevent it.

“The Belgian Chamber of Representatives voted 84-64 to reject the revision of the constitution ‘to provide for universal suffrage.’

“War has been proclaimed against the ‘beef trust.’”

The 1859 “catalogue” containing the history of the Society by Charles W. Hassler, a list of its honorary members and active members from the beginning up to 1859, also features a poem. It was written by a member of the class of 1831, Christopher Pearse Crouch, and is entitled “Enosis.” The first and last verses are quoted:


“Thought is deeper than all speech,
Feeling deeper than all thought;
Souls to souls can never teach
What unto themselves was taught.

We, like parted drops of rain
Swelling till they meet and run,
Shall be all absorbed again
Melting, flowing into one.”

Document Information

Images: 2
Photographic Credit: Yearbook; RG0031/Pre-1904 Collection
Author or Source: GW Magazine, Special Issue, 1970
Document Location: University Archives
Date Added to Encyclopedia: December 21, 2006
Prepared by: Lyle Slovick

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