Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Federal Adelphi

The Federal Adelphi was the first organization made up of graduates of the college. It had its origin in the refusal by the Harvard branch of Phi Beta Kappa of the application of Rhode Island College to form a new branch. This happened in 1790. Harvard’s excuse for refusing the application was that “the Providence College admitted as Sophimores (sic) persons who would not rank as Freshman at Cambridge.” The applicants resolved to form their own society, but the death of President Manning and the unsettled condition of the college intervened and it was not until 1797, when Jonathan Maxcy, who had been president pro tem for five years, was appointed president, that the formation of the society was actively taken up again. The Federal Adelphi was composed of holders of college degrees, members of the learned professions, and seniors and juniors in the College. David Howell, the first professor after President Manning, was the first president of the society. There were three public disputations each year in the chapel, and at Commencement time there was a public meeting and a banquet. “Old Citizen,” writing in the Providence Journal on July 2, 1851, recalled the festivities on the day after Commencement:

“Many an aching head longs for its pillow commencement night. ... We arose on Thursday morning resolved to be cured by a repetition of a similar round of literary excess. At ten o’clock, ‘The Federal Adelphi’ met at college to elect their officers, and then to go in procession to some meeting-house, and hear an oration from some old graduate. This society was supposed to consist of the most talented, as well as the most wealthy, children of Alma Mater. Associated under their half-English name, decorated with blue ribbons, and no silver medals, professing mysterious rites of initiation and advantages unutterable to the initiated, and always meeting the day after commencement and having a good dinner, if not a good oration, and good wine in plenty, the society was a very popular one. They generally finished their literary repast, and the necessary labors of the society, by two o’clock in the afternoon, and then sat down to dinner with clearer heads than they could boast of when that ceremony was over.”
The end of the Federal Adelphi, as well as its beginning, was brought about by Phi Beta Kappa. In 1830 President Francis Wayland’s application for a branch of that society was granted. Soon after its establishment some of the Federal Adelphi were invited to membership and others were not. The Providence newspaper, The American, on September 10, 1831 foretold the dissolution of the Federal Adelphi even as it reported its latest celebration:
“This Society ... although apparently about to be superseded by a rival institution borrowed from a neighboring State, has recently held perhaps the most brilliant celebration that ever has, or ever will adorn its records. ... From some cause, however, not yet explained, a portion of the active members of the Adelphi were invited to become members of the Phi Beta, while others, of at least equal pretensions in scholarsly and literary pursuits, were not called upon for that purpose.... Most of those who have not joined the Phi Beta, decline acting as members of the Adelphi, considering that those who have become members of what they believe to be an injuriously rival institution ... claim the right of acting alternately, or simultaneously, in the capacity of members of the Phi Beta and of the Adelphi, being at liberty to state in the former, all the proceedings that take place in the latter; while they are under obligations not to reveal to the latter any thing that transpires in the former.”
In 1831 Tristam Burges 1796, resigning after many years as president of the Federal Adelphi, delivered an eloquent address. The American, reporting the Phi Beta Kappa exercises for that year, said of Francis Wayland’s oration, “The subject was the philosophy of analogy, and we were startled by the announcement of the orator that this was a new subject,” and observed of Silas Deane’s poem which followed, “Had Mr Deane left off in the middle of his poem, he would have been pronounced a wit; but continuing as he did, one hour and a quarter, without any marked elegance in elocution, he was generally set down as a bore.” After 1835 the meetings of the Federal Adelphi ceased.