"On Thursday evening, September 25, 1845, seven students from Illinois College gathered in a small room on the third floor of the old dormitory and made a momentous and historic decision. In order to unite a group of men whose ideas and principles were similar enough as to desire a common bond of fellowship, a new society was to be organized. Five days later the Immortal Seven drew up and adopted the constitution that proved to be the birth certificate of Phi Alpha Literary Society."
The seven founders of Phi Alpha who are called the Immortal Seven are:
Robert Davidson Wilson (January 1, 1826 – April 27, 1894) was born in
Carmi, Illinois. He attended
Illinois College from 1844 to 1850. He studied law with his father, William Wilson, chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. He died in Wallace, California.
Robert Wilkinson (September 26, 1827 – September 30, 1893) was born in
Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1827 and moved to Illinois at a young age. He entered
Illinois College in 1843 and while an active member of Phi Alpha he served as recording secretary and president. He was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1849, and ultimately practiced law in the states of Illinois, Colorado, and Kansas. He served as Probate Judge of
Doniphan County, Kansas for "about twenty years".
Greenbury Ridgely Henry (September 21, 1828 – May 14, 1885) was born in
Hopkinsville, Kentucky. He attended
Jubilee College, Illinois from 1841 to 1842, and
Illinois College from 1844 to 1847. While attending Illinois College, Phi Alpha Literary Society was founded in his dorm room on September 30, 1845. He was chosen as temporary chairman of the organization in the days before its constitution was adopted. He then studied medicine at the
University of Louisville and graduated in 1849. Soon after the
Civil War began he was offered a surgeon's commission in the Union Army but declined it. He served as a member of the school board in
Burlington, Iowa as well as a trustee of the Insane Hospital at
Mount Pleasant, Iowa. On October 16, 1850 Henry married Catherine Chambers, of Jacksonville, Illinois. That same year he was a charter member of the Iowa State Medical Society and served as its first treasurer, an office that he held for three years. Henry published "various articles" in the Boston Medical Journal and in the Medico-Chirurgical Review of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The founders formed this society in the room of Greenbury Ridgely Henry in the northeast corner of the third floor of the old dormitory. "Henry was chosen temporary chairman, while Baldwin, Jayne, and Wright were appointed a committee to prepare a constitution."
Phi Alpha has a notable connection with
Abraham Lincoln. In the early years it was customary for the society to sponsor lectures throughout the school year, and the profits were used to expand the society's library. Dr. William Jayne, a founder of the society, was "a neighbor, political and social friend of Abraham Lincoln from 1836 until the latter's death in 1865" and was largely responsible for bringing Lincoln to town. As a result, Lincoln came to Jacksonville, Illinois and delivered a speech entitled "Discoveries and Inventions" on February 11, 1859.William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and biographer, claimed the lecture was written to raise money after an expensive failed campaign for US Senate against
Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. According to one contemporary account the lecture was "received with repeated and hearty bursts of applause", and another added that "the lecturer drew largely from his fund of spicy anecdotes and the lecture proved highly entertaining". Despite the apparently high entertainment value of Lincoln's lecture, attendance was low and Phi Alpha couldn't bring in much money selling tickets. Dr. Jayne chronicled what happened next in an address delivered to the Grand Army Hall and Memorial Association on February 12, 1900: "Mr. Lincoln, with a kind smile, said to the president of the society, 'I have not made much money for you to-night.' In reply the president said, 'When we pay for the rent of the hall, music and advertising and your compensation, there will not be much left to buy books with for the library.' 'Well, boys, be hopeful; pay me my railroad fare and 50 cents for my supper at the hotel and we are square.'"
On May 5, 1881, Phi Alpha's debate victory over the Adelphi Society of
Knox College was "one of the earliest of all intercollegiate debates in the country". The subject of the debate was prohibition. This event was celebrated in 1978 on the 150th anniversary of Illinois College with another debate against Knox College. This time the subject was "Resolved: That the Electoral College Should be Abolished."
The Issue of Slavery
In its early years, Phi Alpha was built on a broad democracy in the selection of its members. Phi Alpha members debated on both sides of the question of slavery and according to the late president of the college Charles Rammelkamp, "the students who in later years got into trouble with the faculty on issues relating to the slavery question were usually members of Phi Alpha". The students who enrolled at Illinois College from the border states of Kentucky and Missouri usually joined Phi Alpha. During the
Civil War, Phi Alpha men numbered 104 for the Union and 12 for the Confederacy.
The purpose of Phi Alpha Literary Society is concisely stated in its constitution. "The purpose of the society shall be the attainment of truth, literary improvement of her members, and the furthering of her democratic heritage." The society also strives to develop the social, communication, and leadership skills of the membership.
True to its purpose, Phi Alpha hosts a number of literary functions throughout the year. Each semester, three judged Literary Productions are held. These judged meetings consist of five pieces given by society members to an audience. Pieces range from opinionated speeches to research presentations to original fiction. Also a Poet who is elected each semester will recite an original poem, and an impromptu speech is given on a subject revealed by the Critic during the meeting. A similar kind of meeting (called a Cooperative Literary Meeting) is held once a semester. It is composed of three Phis and three
Illinois College faculty or staff members. This is intended to develop a stronger relationship with the campus community, and it provides a learning opportunity for the membership.
Phi Alpha also hosts public debates in the pursuit of the strengthening of communication skills.
Finally, Phi Alpha conducts weekly business meetings, which are conducted using
Robert's Rules of Order. These meetings are intended to direct the everyday operations of Phi Alpha and also to serve the mission of Phi Alpha by practicing democratic principles.
President as of Fall 2023 is Kellen Peterson.
Since its founding, Phi Alpha has incorporated many successful men into its ranks, for example,
William Jayne, First Governor of the Dakota Territory, 1861–1863, U.S. Representative from Illinois, 1863–1864.
Phi Alpha, in addition to its traditional membership, has granted honorary membership to those whom it feels exhibit the characteristics of a Phi Alpha member. Often, such a person is first invited to give a literary production to the Phi Alpha membership.