The following information was provided by a Phi Beta Kappa newsletter.
Founded in 1776 at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest honorary society, with chapters at 270 of the foremost institutions of higher education across the country. One cannot “apply” for membership. Almost all members are elected by the chapters from candidates for degrees in liberal arts and sciences, usually from the top-10 percent of the graduating class.
The Society was the first to adopt Greek letters for a name and to introduce the features that have characterized such organizations ever since, including an oath of secrecy (discarded long ago), mottoes in Latin and Greek, a code of laws, and an elaborate form of imitation.
The Society’s name is formed by the first letters of the phrase Philosophia Biou Kybernetes, Philosophy (wisdom) is the Guide of Life. In line with Cardinal Newman’s conviction that the test of education lies not in what people know but in what they are, the objectives of humane learning encouraged by Phi Beta Kappa include not merely knowledge but also intellectual honesty and tolerance, a broad range of intellectual interests, and understanding.
Phi Beta Kappa members have always had an influence that far outweighed their numbers. Among the first 50 members of the Society were leaders in the American Revolution, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1788, and members of the Continental Congress and the U.S. Congress. Two of the founders became U.S. senators, and two became members of the Supreme Court – Chief Justice John Marshall and Bushrod Washington.
Sixteen U.S. presidents are counted among the membership. Six were elected as undergraduates (John Quincy Adams, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, George Bush and Bill Clinton); the rest of the 16 were elected as alumni or honorary members. Eleanor Roosevelt, elected to honorary membership in 1941, is the only Phi Beta Kappa first lady.
Among other notables of American history who have earned the coveted key are Alexander Graham Bell, Cyrus McCormick, Charles Evans Hughes, Pearl Buck, Henry W. Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Helen Keller, Helen Wills Moody, Paul Robeson, George Santayana, William Henry Seward, Booker T. Washington, Daniel Webster, and Eli Whitney.
The first chapters founded after the initial one in Williamsburg were at Harvard and Yale. Other chapters gradually were added over the years, but the number nationwide stood at only 25 in 1883, when the National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was created to prepare the Society for a century of vitality and growth to follow, documented by historian Richard N. Current in his book Phi Beta Kappa in American Life (1990).
Every three years, the Society’s governing body considers applications from institutions desiring to establish chapters, and a handful of the best are usually approved at each triennial Council.