Phi Beta Kappa admitted the Rhode Island Alpha chapter at Brown University in 1830. An earlier effort in 1789 to establish a chapter at what was then Rhode Island College was denied by the Massachusetts Alpha at Harvard, because its committee of four tutors and one resident graduate considered the standards of the college so low as to admit “as Sophimores (sic) persons who would not rank as Freshmen at Cambridge.” Determined to have its own fraternal association of learned men, the College in 1797 formed the Federal Adelphi, an organization which flourished for over thirty years until President Francis Wayland presented another petition for a branch of Phi Beta Kappa in 1829.
When Francis Wayland became president in 1827, he found that influential men among the Federal Adelphi were prepared to antagonize him as they had Asa Messer before him. As a member of the New York Alpha of Phi Beta Kappa at Union College, Wayland sought a society which would be favorable to him by applying for a charter for a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. First Samuel Deane 1805, probably prompted by Wayland, sent a letter to Edward Everett of the Harvard chapter to inquire whether an application for a charter would be likely to be successful. Some encouragement was probably received, as Wayland followed in 1829 with applications to the Alphas of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire for a charter for Rhode Island Alpha. The charter members of Rhode Island Alpha were Francis Wayland, his brother, John Wayland, a graduate of Union College, and Thomas T. Waterman, a graduate of Yale. On July 21, 1830, the charter members named four foundation members, William G. Goddard 1812, Romeo Elton 1813, Alexis Caswell 1822, and George Burgess 1826, to assist in the organization of the chapter. On August 14, 1830 eighty of the living graduates of Brown, whose scholarship records qualified them, were elected to membership in Rhode Island Alpha. Not all of them accepted. The constitution and by-laws were patterned on those of the Alpha of Massachusetts. High scholarship and good character were requisites for election to the society, and secrecy was maintained about the principles of the society. The obligation of secrecy was removed in 1832.
In 1881 at the centennial celebration of the Harvard chapter, when the National Council of Phi Beta Kappa was organized, the appointed delegates of Rhode Island Alpha were not able to attend. The Brown chapter refused to ratify the constitution of the United Chapters until 1895, becoming the last chapter to join. Until 1893 one-third of a class could be elected to membership, and one-half of that number could be chosen in the junior year. As enrollment grew, the rule was changed in 1893 to admit one-fourth of the class with a maximum of 25. In 1904 the maximum was changed to one-fifth and the minimum to one-sixth, and in 1914 another change set the minimum at one-eighth and the maximum at one-sixth. After due consideration it was decided in 1883 that candidates for the Ph.B. degree were eligible for election. In 1904 a requirement that members be chosen only from candidates for the A.B. or Ph.B. degree who had done two-fifths of their work in the humanities was adopted in order to discriminate between eligibility for Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. This requirement was abolished in 1931. New undergraduate members are elected by the current undergraduate members. There are also alumni members, associate members, and honorary members. The laws of 1905 made graduates ineligible for alumni memberships until five years after graduation. Later laws prescribed that alumni members were to be graduates of fifteen years standing, in the upper fourth of their classes, who had achieved literary or scholarly distinction. Associate members are faculty and administrative officers who are not graduates of Brown. Honorary members hold no Brown degree.
Since the beginning, annual literary exercises were held, with an oration and a poem. At the first literary exercises held in 1831, Francis Wayland was the orator and Samuel Deane was the poet. Among the orators and poets have been Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1836, George William Curtis in 1854, Edward Everett Hale in 1885, and Woodrow Wilson in 1903. After 1853, the exercises were held in alternate years. In 1911 it was voted to discontinue the exercises. However, an oration and a poem were delivered in 1915. After 1894 there was an annual midwinter banquet, which after several years was succeeded by informal initiation luncheons. Formal dinners were reinstated in 1909 and held in the spring. In 1900 Rhode Island Alpha created a special section for graduates of the Women’s College. The rules for election were the same, with provisions that the election of women would in no way diminish the number of men elected, that the women candidates must manifest a scholarship not inferior to the lowest among the men, and that the proportion of women elected from a class might not exceed the proportion of men elected. The chapter celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 1930. On this occasion Charles Evans Hughes 1881 delivered the principal address on the history of the chapter. Rhode Island Alpha holds two elections a year, electing juniors at mid-year, and seniors in April. Not more than one-sixth of a class may be elected, and only one-third of that membership may be elected in the junior year.