A Commons Club is a type of social organization whose membership is "open" rather than selective based on personal introduction and invitation. Commons Clubs both emulated and differentiated themselves from Social Fraternities and Class Societies. Membership was usually open to anyone interested in joining. The resources of a large organization was put to sponsoring events and activities, as well as providing dining and housing, beyond the means of an individual student.
The first known Commons Club started at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut in 1832 as The Tub Philosophers. This group would grow and spawn several other student groups on campus over the years with a somewhat obscure and interrupted existence until 1889, when Woodrow Wilson, a member of the faculty, reformed the group as the Wesleyan House of Commons Debating Society in 1889 to look after the social need of male students outside the fraternity system. In 1899, sixteen non-fraternity men, led by Frederick Clark, Thomas Travis, and Herbert Ward, formally established the Wesleyan Commons Club.
By 1904, the Commons Club at Wesleyan inspired the formation of three additional Commons Clubs. The new local Commons Clubs were at: Dartmouth, Middlebury and Norwich Universities. In 1906, they formed a formal, but very loose, National Commons Club. They stated, “The purpose of this federation shall be to bind together the non-fraternity clubs in American colleges, thus securing to them a closer brotherhood and strengthening the spirit of democracy.” The Middlebury group split over the issue of selective membership in 1905. The retiring group formed the mother chapter of the national fraternity Kappa Delta Rho. The Dartmouth group ceased operations in 1908. The Wesleyan group about this time secured its first private club house, but most of the members continued to eat at the “Commons” along with many non-members of the new house. Thus, the membership list was still rather indefinite. Three additional chapters joined between 1907 and 1909, at Brown, Union and Tufts. Local Commons Clubs at Amherst and Colgate attended the 1908 annual convention, but did not formally join the national. The National Commons Club federation believed “that a broad democratic organization was more beneficial than an exclusive organization, both in the college and to the individual.” It was “to secure a larger brotherhood and give permanence and effectiveness” to such an organization that the federation was founded. “Any non-fraternity club was eligible for membership.”
Because membership was open, a Commons Club could grow to a size unwieldy to govern, inadequate for forming close friendships, and unsuited to the effective advancement of their stated ideals. Ironically, factions and in some cases whole clubs split away and sought petitions from national fraternities or declared themselves a local fraternity. The weak organization of the Federation itself left it vulnerable to splits along competing visions. Disaffiliation or disbanding of member clubs accelerated with World War I resulting in a major split and demise of the National Federation. At the 1918 general meeting, the Vermont Commons Club, successfully sponsored a resolution suggested by the Wesleyan Chapter in 1917 to declare the Federation a Greek letter fraternity, with its attendant structure and selectivity. The Commons Clubs at Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Unionratified the plan, forming Phi Mu Delta. The remaining chapters amended the Federation's constitution to demand strict open memership.
The revised National Federation secured the ratification of their more strict democratic constitution by the Hobart chapter and by the nominally existing, but war-casualty St. Lawrence chapter. With the three convention standpatters, Wesleyan, Tufts and Massachusetts, it carried on as the National Federation of Commons Clubs. Contrary to the new national constitution, the various chapters soon avoided the compulsory democracy clauses. Both Tufts and Wesleyan, since the war, had practiced exclusive membership policies, but continued as nominal members of the Federation until 1922, when the relations were so nominal that each considered itself a local fraternity and this marked the end of the order.
While the National Federation of Commons Clubs passed into limbo because of the indifference of the members following the World War, the Commons Club movement was still present on many college campuses. The ideals spread widely due to the zealous extension activities of the NFCC’s members up to 1917. The most important transplanting of this seed was in the formation of the American Association of Commons Clubs (AACC). While never a formal part of the NFCC, the AACC is a historical descendant of it. The seed of the Commons Club came to the campus of Denison University as early as 1914, during the NFCC extension campaign, and was harbored there. The NFCC’s Allegheny chapter assisted the resultant local Denison Commons Club (DCC) with literature of the Federation and organizational support at the time of its formation in 1916-1917. In 1920, just before the completion of a movement at Denison University to organize a union of local Commons Clubs of the Midwest, NFCC officers met with DCC officers to help them. Later, at Wabash College, a remnant of the former NFCC chapter joined the new American Association of Commons Clubs.
The AACC maintained over 17 active chapters during its lifetime and started at least 20 others through extension efforts. Not all of these chapters were successful. Like the NFCC before it, the members constantly struggled with how to maintain a successful chapter while adhering to the stated ideals, in particular the ideal of Democracy and the Open Door policy. Many students used the AACC as a stepping stone to gain membership in other Greek-letter fraternities. Trying to uphold its strict interpetation of the Democratic ideal, the AACC allowed members to come and go from the organization as they pleased. Many chapters found this to be self-destructive over the long run and, like their NFCC predecessors, rebelled and left the organization. During the 1950s and 1960s, the AACC also lost its distinctiveness as a nondiscriminatory organization. Prior to the social agitation of these times, the AACC was virtually the only organization with open membership policies allowing any student, regardless of race, creed or social position to join. Many national fraternities changed their restrictive membership policies during this time reducing the appeal of AACC membership. The AACC also suffered from continual financial constraints. As part of its Democratic ideal, it strove to keep costs to a minimum necessary to operate the chapters, leaving very little money available for national oversight and extension. While this was a benefit to members of individual chapters, especially during the dark years of the Great Depression, it stripped the national of the ability to oversee the chapter development and foster the growth of new chapters. Finally, the dramatic rise in the number of students attending colleges and universities severely strained the interpretation many older alumni of the AACC had of the Democratic ideal requiring the chapters to provide for all unaffiliated students. As the number of unaffiliated students rose, many chapters found themselves with memberships approaching 200, and running out of living space. In many cases, the colleges and universities stepped in and provided halls and dormitories for chapter use, the large size allowed cliques to form inside chapters and some divisions resulted. Finally, the American-letter name and non-secret nature of the AACC lead to many students regarding them as a "second-rate" fraternity. The allure of "mystical" Greek-letter names and secret rituals proved too strong a temptation for many college men. As such, one by one, chapters of the AACC floundered or withdrew to join Greek-letter organizations. Finally, in 1969, the active chapter at Denison withdrew from the AACC leaving only the alumni to carry on the organization. Carry on they did, actively trying to sow new seeds and encourage the growth of new chapters.
In the winter of 1989, a group of students that jokingly called itself, The Industrial Spelunking Club (ISC) organized at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. The ISC members at Indiana spent time together socializing and speculating about the origin and destination of the various steam tunnels under the campus. On a cold night in December 1989, the idea was born at the “Homecoming altar” beside the Jordon River on the campus of Indiana University of forming a democratic, non-hazing brotherhood to offer all students the opportunity of enjoying fraternal benefits. The name chosen for the brotherhood was The Eclectic Society of Alpha Theta Tau to represent the differing personalities of the members. (At the time, the members did not know there was an existing group using the name Eclectic Society at Wesleyan University.) The members devised the current eight-point philosophy, selected the ideals, designed the coat-of-arms, active badge, associate badges and wrote the first ritual. At the first meeting in December, they adopted the official colors of purple and gold, and the motto “Esse Quam Videri.” In 1991, the membership voted to expand the Eclectic Society to allow full membership for women as well as men. The Eclectic Society then initiated three women as full members. The Eclectic Society also decided to adopt the characteristics of the Commons Clubs of which it had found information, and whose purposes were virtually identical to the Eclectic Society. The members sent letters to individuals connected with Commons Club chapters found during research. In November, Edward G. Voss, Ph.D., General Secretary of the American Association of Commons Clubs responded to the letter sent to him. Dr. Voss was kind enough to provide the Eclectic Society with a wealth of information regarding the AACC, including a Members’ Manual. Further correspondence ensued and the members decided they would meet with Dr. Voss and discuss possible merger. At this meeting, Dr. Voss supplied the Eclectic Society with even more information and a copy of the AACC constitution and ritual. Upon resumption of classes in the spring of 1992, the Eclectic Society reorganized itself to align with the AACC. On February 19, 1992, the Alpha Theta Tau Commons Club officially resumed operation with an installation ceremony, National Founders Day ceremony and adoption of the current constitution, name, colors and ritual. The same day, the University formally recognized the Commons Club as a student organization. Up to this point, the Commons Club had no organized pledge or associate class. This caused many problems in recruiting and retaining members. On April 23, the first associates of the new Commons Club initiated. September of 1992 was the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Denison Commons Club. Delegates from the Indiana Commons Club went to Denison University and the AACC alumni honored them with a Fowl Ball and a resounding chorus of Commons Club songs. The next term the Commons Club secured first an office in the Indiana Memorial Union and then in the spring of 1993, its first chapter house. The members began new traditions of sponsoring dinners with faculty, ice-skating parties and social nights. The new Commons Club spread itself through personal friends and contacts of the members to other campuses and continues to grow.
We still maintain the traditions and ideals of the first Commons Club, but try to overcome the mistakes of the past. We still offer membership to all interested students, but require a majority vote of the members, both active and associate, to initiate. We also hold an annual review of all members to maintain their active membership. To remain active, the members must maintain good academic standing, participate in chapter social events, be socially responsible and hold cordial relations with the members, and they must maintain their financial responsibility to the chapter and national. We uphold a strict anti-hazing policy and open all our activities to university officials and parents to prevent unwanted activities. We apply a basic rule of thumb to test if an activity constitutes hazing: we examine each activity to see if there would be any reason to hide it from the university administration, the national officers, your friends or your family. If you would, no matter to what degree, you should critically examine the activity for elimination. It is important to remember that the objective of the associate education program is to produce good active and alumni members, not to produce good associate members. The focus of the program is on integrating the associates into the whole Commons Club, not on uniting them as a class. Creating a “strong class” creates subdivisions within the Commons Club that lead to fractionalization and loss of members. Hazing also forms an impediment to the building of true Brotherhood among the members. Not only does hazing destroy chapter unity, it is also illegal and morally wrong. Democracy requires the equal treatment of all, hazing produces the exact opposite. Discipline and true respect of Brotherhood are not things that can be scared into members, or more clearly heard if shouted loudly enough, or remembered if the hours of physical labor are long enough. They can, however, be taught by discussion, working together to provide Service to the community and by learning and observing the rules of the Commons Club. Most importantly, associates will learn by the example set by the active and alumni members.
This is but a brief history of our Commons Club. History of the Commons Club is important to learn so we do not repeat the mistakes that caused so many setbacks. The problems of an open, democratic fraternity are easy to see. With a liberal admission policy, there is no aristocratic motivation to push others down to get ahead. This removes one of the drives to improve a chapter and to work hard to accomplish goals. Also, there exists a difficulty of learning to work with a vast and diverse number of students and ideas. To carry out activities, the members must build consensus. It is easier to give up and become exclusive in membership and dictatorial in leadership. However, in the long-run power-hungry members, who only look for self-advancement, cause brotherhood suffer as true friendships decline. Yours, then, is the challenge to make future history by guiding the Commons Club towards its goals; to live up to the creed, philosophy and ideals; and to strive Esse Quam Videri, “To be, rather than to seem.”