U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Debate Night

Debating Club of Resident Graduates (Harvard University)

Debating Club of Resident Graduates (Harvard University)

Monday nights at 7, often in Packard’s room or Crosby’s chamber, promised a fair fight. Samuel Shapleigh, a Maine orphan-turned-law-student and Harvard butler, must have been the one to beat. Since the informal Harvard debating society convened in mid-February 1792, Shapleigh regularly trounced his peers on questions of government, culture, religion, and slavery. Snowbound on the other side of the Charles (and history), I trailed Shapleigh’s progress in the club minutes for 1792-1793, recently digitized thanks to the Colonial North American Project at Harvard Libraries.

Fledgling lawyers in New England, like John Adams, relished the collegiality of clubs like Shapleigh’s. Long before independence, Adams and his friends enjoyed “forming a junto, a small sodality” to argue the finer points of letters and law. It’s fair to say that generation—Adams included—savored the 1790s less once party politics shook up their revolutionary goals. By then, the American legal profession had evolved, too. While it may have been more recitation than rumble, Shapleigh and his friends broke with polite talk and tackled big questions.

Part gentleman’s study club, and part prequel to real law practice, the Harvard society attracted a solid list of repeat attendees between February 1792 and October 1793. A familiar cast rotated the affirmative and negative positions. Frequently, a “third performer” spoke; sometimes the final tallies went unrecorded. The minutes are sparse, unlyrical, legal. The questions ranged widely, but regional roots showed in the results. Along with the Massachusetts General Court, they nixed local speculators’ plans to charter “tontine fever.” They argued, like many of their fashionable neighbors, to repeal the archaic theater ban—which loitered on the commonwealth’s books until 1797—even as the 1,000-seat Federal Street Theatre grew across town. Questions of private morality were a perennial favorite of the group, and important for any rising arbitrator to parse. The “passions of the human heart” were not “naturally bad,” they concluded, but most people might be more likely to do the right thing out of love for praise, rather than duty. Possibly running out of steam at semester’s end, one June dispute riffed on an old theme: “Is Drunkeness more detrimental to Society than Gaming” (The nayes had it).

There were new themes, too. At first the Cambridge universe, and the long tradition of a liberal education that emphasized Protestant inquiry, framed the group’s debate-night topics. Growing bolder, Shapleigh and his peers drove into hazier realms of thought. Should the French National Assembly “emancipate the blacks Negroes in their West India islands?” A close yes—and another prequel to the antebellum debates on slavery and abolitionism that would develop at other American colleges. As expected, divinity dilemmas factored in for a stretch. Like any campus club, new members joined and dropped. They heard Shapleigh and his friends insist that ministers must not memorize sermons; that religious controversy “promoted the cause of religion;” and that “a man really converted” can “fall away from the divine favour.” They were not ready to mete out the equal distribution of property, nor were the Harvard debaters entirely sold on “whether it be more praiseworthy to enjoy with moderation than to suffer with patience.” More intriguing was debaters’ inability to win consensus on the Christian republican ideology of the day—a microhistorical mirror of the new nation’s efforts at social union. In late December 1792, as France’s King Louis XVI stood trial and President George Washington settled into a second term, Shapleigh and his crew debated “Whether the Characters of the Christian & Patriot be compatible.” They nearly fought to a draw.

When debate nights resumed in 1793, the group pivoted to more abstract moral questions. Things took a decidedly theological turn, with Samuel Shapleigh interjecting to recommend history books that connected American events to the conversations at hand. In many ways, I think it’s worth folding in their debate nights with the weight of fine literature (Daniel Walker Howe, D. H. Meyer) on the growth of Harvard moral philosophy (ethics) and the antebellum conscience. Institutional minutes can yield, especially for the early American historian of ideas, key indicators of cultural thought. Enlightenment-era subscription lists and society journals are goldmines of intellectual stakeholders. Transcribing and interpreting this kind of archival source—the “plain,” business-like sources that are often plentiful in manuscript troves—is an eye-opening exercise in how we “make” cohorts for historical analysis. Take Shapleigh’s society. Getting underway as a new age of lyceums, athenaeums, and civic rhetoric dawned, this club’s tale reminds us that student debate (and protest) has a long past in early America. It’s where antebellum citizens practiced law, and rehearsed the moral choreography of citizenship. After earning his A.M. in 1792, poor health barred Shapleigh from pursuing law full-time. In 1793, as the debate season drew to another close, Harvard’s Samuel Shapleigh rose to the rank of Librarian.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Any relation to John Shepley from Manchester, father to George Leander Shepley? Clubs such as the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newport abounded the colonial Americas. These digitization projects provide alternate options to microfilm research on, for instance, the 1789-1827 minutes of the Providence Society for Abolishing the Slave Trade. I really enjoyed your post, especially as prelude to the debates in Roland Johnson’s Diplomacy in Black and White.

    • …especially, but not exclusively: your post also reminded me of crucial, if not critical, transitions from heterosocial and homosocial clubs across the colonial Americas to early Republic homosocial gentility as well as colonial continuities in antebellum heterosocial networks (as detailed by Wood, Shields, Freeman, Sweet, Brooke, Waldstreicher, Zakim, Kaplan, etc.).

      • Your post even further reminded me of Bachrach’s book as well as tensions and correlations between *elitist* practices and categories of *gentility* during the nineteenth century. In the American Bourgeoisie collection, for instance, Sven Beckert and Julia Rosenbaum argue that “shared manners and habits, such as courtship practices or forms of speech, could serve as the basis for the construction of social networks. Social networks, in turn, often strengthened by family ties, formed the basis for the construction of social institutions, which, in turn, could organize and reorganize public space and embed bourgeois culture into the larger American society…” (3).

  2. Many thanks, Cory, and apologies for a very tardy reply. I didn’t immediately ID a relationship to the Shepleys cited here, but that might require a little more genealogical digging. Your reading suggestions are super-helpful, too. I’ve been thinking about how to map the questions and actions of debating societies like this in the colonial-antebellum timeline, and so into the working bibliography they go. Thanks so much!

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