On December 5, 1776, a group of young male students of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, meeting in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern, Williamsburg, formed the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which they dedicated to high purposes with eighteenth-century eloquence.
The first members debated such subjects as "The cause and origin of society," "Whether a wise state hath any interest nearer at heart than the education of the youth," "Whether anything is more dangerous to civile liberty in a free state than a standing army in a time of peace," and "Whether theatrical exhibitions are advantageous to states or ye contrary." Fraternal sentiments were fostered, occasional meetings were held for social purposes, and anniversaries were celebrated.
The establishment at Yale in 1780 and Harvard in 1781 of New England branches ensured the perpetuation and propagation of the Society. During the following half century four more chapters were founded. The need of a closer unity and greater uniformity of practices led, in 1883, to the organization of the national body, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. At present there are 262 chapters.
In 1875, the Society extended the privilege of membership to women. In 1926, the one hundred and fifteenth anniversary made the occasion for raising an endowment fund and for exploring ways of encouraging scholarship in educational institutions across the country. More recently, the Society has joined in the defense of freedom of teaching and inquiry and of the liberal ideal in education.
Phi Beta Kappa is recognized as not only the oldest but also the most prestigious honor society in the United States. For more than 200 years, election to Phi Beta Kappa has been a recognition of intellectual capacities well employed, especially in the acquiring of an education in the liberal arts and sciences. The objectives of humane learning encouraged by Phi Beta Kappa include intellectual honesty and tolerance, range of intellectual interests, and understanding - not merely knowledge.