Debating at Brown is as old as the “disputes” engaged in by the earliest students. At the first Commencement in 1769 the subject of the “Disputatio forensica” was “Whether, British America can under her present Circumstances consistent with good Policy, effect to become an independent State?” Public speaking was part of the early curriculum, and the students enjoyed debating enough to form literary debating societies to provide additional practice. The first of these organizations was the Misokosmian Society in 1794, which changed its name to Philermenian Society in 1798. The United Brothers Society was formed in 1806. A third organization, the Franklin Society, existed from 1824 to 1834. The two earlier ones were active until about 1860.
Modern interest in debate began in 1898 when the Brown Debating Union was formed to conduct debates with Dartmouth. The Brown-Dartmouth annual debates between that time and 1905 were won 4 times by Brown and 4 times by Dartmouth. In 1906 the Triangular League of Dartmouth, Williams and Brown was established. For the first ten years of its existence, the record stood at Brown 15, Dartmouth 11, Williams 4. Debating was introduced into the Women’s College on April 5, 1906, when the senior and juniors debated the question, “Resolved, That elaborate scenic accessories are detrimental to pure dramatic art,” was won by the juniors for the negative, and the question debated by the sophomores and the freshman, “Resolved, That women of independent means are justified in holding income-yielding positions,” was decided in favor of the sophomores for the affirmative. In 1909 a New England Oratorical League was formed by representatives Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, Wesleyan, and Williams, and the same year a Brown chapter of Delta Sigma Rho, national forensic society, was established. In 1911 a new club, the Brown Forum, was formed under the auspices of the Debating Union to foster interest in public discussion, and initially admitted any student who had taken part in a varsity, class, or prize debate.
In 1921-22 the Brown team defeated Wesleyan, Dartmouth, and Williams, but lost its debate with the women of Vassar College. At the end of that year the triangular league standings were Brown 23, Dartmouth 15, Williams 6. The next year Brown joined the Eastern Intercollegiate Debate League, joining Yale, Pennsylvania, Cornell, Williams, Wesleyan, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Amherst. The 1926 team displayed its versatility by winning its first debate with Princeton (Brown in favor of the Volstead Act), and going on to defeat Amherst the next week (Brown against the Volstead Act), but when this popular subject came up in the first debate between the men and women of Brown in 1928, the Women’s College team defeated the University team, having defended the affirmative side of the subject, “Resolved: that the Volstead Act be modified to permit the use of light wines and beers.” Brown won the championship of the Eastern Intercollegiate League in 1929. Debating gained renewed popularity in the 1930s. Professor Henry B. Huntington introduced a course in debating in 1937. Debates between men and women featured the Erasmians vs. the Elizabethans and the Brown Daily Herald vs. the Pembroke Record. Pembroke, admitted into the Eastern Intercollegiate Debate League in 1936-37, won five of six league debates that year and won second place at the League’s convention. By 1940 interest in debating waned, and the Debating Society merged with the International Relations Club.
After a lapse during World War II, debating was revived in October 1946, when a group of ten members without a coach practiced in the fall and won their first debate against the University of Connecticut on Friday the thirteenth of December. One of the judges at that debate, Matthew W. Goring ’26, agreed to coach the team, which went on to win 21 of the remaining debates and the New England Intercollegiate tournament. The next year the team entered competition with the other “Ivy League” colleges (the Ivy Group had only begun in 1945) for the Ivy League Cup. Robert Renwick of the English Department took over coaching the team in 1948. In 1952-53 the Union started to sponsor an intramural debating tournament. In October 1954 an audience of about eleven hundred watched Brown, taking the negative side of “The United States should extend diplomatic relations to Communist China,” overcome Oxford University by a 4-1 decision. The next year Oxford won its debate against Brown. In November 1957 teams from 42 schools from ten states and Canada came to Brown for a debate on “Open Shop for the Labor Union.”
Debating was a student activity until 1970, when it became a team connected to the English Department, which it remained for about ten years. Coached by Barbara Tannenbaum, the team placed fourth in a national debating tournament in 1972. There was also a competitive speaking team, which was formed in 1982 with Barbara Duley ’77 as coach, which sent five members to the Competitive Speech National Tournament at Georgia Southern College. Brown is a member of the American Parliamentary Debate Association, which holds debates in which a team of two members, the “Prime Minister” and a member of the government, competes spontaneously with two members of the opposition case within a general topic which has been proposed by the government.