On a Friday evening in late September, roughly 50 members of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, the oldest student group on Grounds, gather in Hotel C on the West Range (also known as Jefferson Hall, the society’s home since 1837) and, with the bang of a gavel, begin their weekly meeting. Over the next several hours, after the society’s president introduces them, members step up to a podium and make presentations on subjects ranging from the philosophy of Albert Camus to the literary brilliance of Ulysses to the economics of reparations. Members snap rather than applaud, hiss when they disapprove and pepper presenters with questions. As the night wears on (many Jeff Society meetings run until 2 a.m.), the society’s secretary, seated with other officers on a fenced platform in front of the room, takes minutes, just as every secretary of the society has done for nearly two centuries.
The society has kept its minute books, dating to 1875, along with photographs, society publications, constitutions and correspondence in a large stack of filing cabinets on the second floor of Alderman Library since the late 1930s. Several items belonging to the society have made their way to UVA’s Special Collections Library, and the society’s most prized possession, an 1819 Thomas Sully portrait of Jefferson, hangs in the Upper West Oval Room of the Rotunda, where the Board of Visitors meets. But most of the society’s archives—a collection of approximately 30,000 objects—have been closely guarded by the society over the years, locked in the filing cabinets in Alderman, to the frustration of University librarians and researchers who are interested in studying the history of student life on Grounds.
Most troubling, says Jack Chellman (Col ’18), the society’s former historian, is that “the archives are in a really dangerous state of decay. There is no system of organization, no catalog, no labels. Nothing is housed in archival quality, acid-proof folders or boxes.”
Last spring, Chellman, who is also a Jefferson Scholar and president of UVA’s Queer Student Union, applied for a grant from the Jefferson Trust to organize the archives properly in collaboration with the UVA Library. After getting approval from the society’s executive board, Chellman wrote the application with the assistance of the society’s then-president as well as Edward Gaynor, librarian for University Archives for UVA’s Special Collections Library, and Worthy Martin, a computer science professor and co-director of UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. The Jefferson Trust, a decade-old UVA Alumni Association-affiliated program that provides funding for student and faculty projects, awarded the society a $33,000 grant to organize and digitize the archives.
Once they won the grant, Chellman and Martin put together a team of seven student workers to organize the physical documents by category and chronology, flagging items that they think are of particular importance or particularly fragile. Martin also taught the students to collect metadata about each object and enter it into Archive Space, a digital archiving program that will ultimately create a comprehensive catalog of the collection. The team has budgeted for 5,000 items to be digitized, and so far has scanned the first 50 years of minutes. Martin calls Chellman a hero for pushing to preserve the archives.
Chellman brushes off the praise. “The amount of help we’ve gotten over the course of the project has been really wonderful—we could not have done any of this without Worthy or Edward,” he says. For Chellman, saving the archives was simply part of his duties as society historian. “In a lot of ways, the history of the Jefferson Society is the history of the University of Virginia,” he says. “We’ve been around for 190 years to shape what student life looks like, and shape the University’s intellectual culture. … Special Collections is obviously a preferred space for our archives, as it’s climate-controlled and much more secure.” Although the archives will be housed in Special Collections, the library will keep them on deposit, meaning the society will retain ownership. The library agreed to this, Gaynor says, because of the society’s special status as the first student organization on Grounds.
Why, then, had the society resisted sharing its archives with the library sooner? “Part of the issue is the same with every student organization—the annual turnover of officers. It’s easy for one president to be interested [in dealing with the archives] and then the next one not,” says Gaynor. “I think the ability to digitize has made all groups more willing to turn records over. I also pointed out to Jack that we currently have a lot more [archival material from] the Washington Society,” the rival literary and debating society at UVA. “I think that didn’t hurt either,” he says, laughing.
Thomas L. Howard III (Col ’13, Educ ’14, Law ’19), a former Jeff Society president and co-author of the forthcoming book Society Ties: A History of the Jefferson Society at the University of Virginia (Kenan Endowment/UVA Press), agrees. “It’s a huge challenge for students to manage something of this scale and significance,” he says. He and his co-author, Owen W. Gallogly (Col ’13, Law ’19) began writing their book as second-year students and had to persuade the executive board to give them access to the archives. “Their first response was a firm ‘no,’” Howard says. “I think they were worried about what we might find.”
The fact that Howard and Gallogly eventually gained full access, and that the current executive board had no qualms about Chellman’s archive project, shows “a shift in the society’s priorities from protection to sharing,” Howard says. He and Gallogly “approached the society history as independent history,” he says. “We’re at a time when we’re asking more about the history of our institutions. We hope our book gives students and alumni an opportunity to celebrate the society’s past, correct misconceptions and think critically about how the society’s past challenges continue to inform what we do today.”
The society, which has around 200 members on Grounds, was founded by 16 members of the short-lived Patrick Henry Society—UVA’s first literary society, made up of students and members of the public—in July 1825, five months after UVA opened for business. Since the Jefferson Society’s founding, its literary presentations, rowdy debates and distinguished speakers have attracted UVA students who’ve gone on to become politicians, judges, academics and writers. Notable members include Edgar Allan Poe, Woodrow Wilson, Virginia governor and UVA president Colgate Darden, and Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. Among its honorary members: William Faulkner, James Monroe, James Madison and Margaret Thatcher. In August 1825 Thomas Jefferson declined an honorary membership, writing to the society that he had to “preserve the inestimable consciousness of impartiality to all,” but he did send his “sincere affections and best wishes.”
A recent look at the content of the archives in Alderman revealed nothing particularly scandalous (although the lack of organization would make a librarian cringe). Instead, it gave a fascinating glimpse into student life going back to the late 19th century. (Because the society initially kept its archives in the Rotunda, it lost most pre-1895 objects in the Rotunda fire that year.) Leafing through the minute books, it’s clear that they document not only the goings-on within the society but also larger issues at the University. Notes from an 1895 minute book, for example, show that the society held debates on whether UVA should have a president, whether coeducation would be “injurious to the University,” and whether the Honor System had “deteriorated”—an issue still hotly contested among students and alumni today.
The archives also contain copies of the University of Virginia Magazine (not to be confused with this publication), the society’s literary and news magazine that documented life on Grounds, published off and on from 1838 to 1969, as well as posters and invitations to the Restoration Ball, which the Jefferson Society and the University Guides began hosting in 1963 as a way to raise money to renovate the Rotunda. These efforts, along with its speaker series and decadent Founder’s Day and Finals celebrations that were open to the public, wove the society into student life. In their forthcoming book, Howard and Gallogly write that the Jefferson Society has survived all these years “by adapting to the times—staying interesting and compelling to the University of Virginia while preserving many of its distinctive traditions.”
In their research, Howard and Gallogly came across archives that reflect the society’s reluctance to change demographically. “The Society did not integrate until 1963,” they write, “nor did it become coeducational until 1972, the last major group on the Grounds to accept women.”
Maddie Shaw (Col ’19), a society member who is one of the student workers on the archives project, says she enjoys poring over documents to compare the society of the 19th and 20th centuries to what it is today. “We are a somewhat traditional society, and it’s taken a bit longer for us to change than others,” she says. “There are still more men than women in the society, for example, but women in the society are very active and vocal.”
Gaynor sees the society’s archives as an honest reflection of UVA student life. “The Jeff Society is a little microcosm of the student experience, and it’s particularly that for the first 100 years or so, when it was a very homogeneous student body. All male, all white, all from a certain socioeconomic level. ... It could be considered kind of representative. And that’s important,” he says. “What was the society doing? What were they debating? That gives you an in into what the big issues are. It shows you what’s happening on Grounds. For [Special Collections], it’s all about being able to say we can give as comprehensive a view of the student experience as is possible.”
It’s clear the demographics have changed entirely from just 45 years ago. The society’s probationary members, seated on the right side of the hall that meeting night in September, are diverse in race and gender and nearly outnumber the attending active members. While the society’s traditions remain—the snapping, the rule of addressing one another formally (Mr. and Ms.), the insistence that male members wear a tie when addressing the crowd (one member flings a tie around his neck like a scarf as a sort of afterthought while approaching the podium)—the atmosphere is never stodgy or dull. Presentations and arguments are earnest, and members listen carefully. No one fiddles with a smartphone.
Since its founding, Chellman says, the society has given students a place to “share what they’re passionate about with other people.” The meticulous minute books in the archives show, he says, that Jefferson Society meetings, over the decades, “have often been the highlight of a lot of people’s weeks.”