Princeton's American Whig-Cliosophic Society began around 1765 as two separate organizations: the Plain Dealing Club and the Well Meaning Club. Conflicts between the two clubs soon led to their suppression, but by 1770, the Plain Dealing Club was allowed to reorganize as the Whig Society, and the Well Meaning Club returned as the Cliosophic Society. William Paterson, a member of the Class of 1763 and later governor of New Jersey, persuaded the new president, John Witherspoon, to permit successors to the banned clubs.
The American Whig Society derived its name from the writings of a new trustee, William Livingston, soon to become first governor of the state of New Jersey, whose essays advocated adherence to the principles of British political and religious dissent that later found concrete form in the Revolution and in the founding of the American Republic. "Cliosophic" seems to have been invented by Paterson to signify "in praise of wisdom," rather than evoke the muse of history.
The societies were especially active in the years immediately preceding the Revolution. They afforded an arena in which many future leaders of the Republic, including James Madison (Whig) and Aaron Burr (Clio), developed and sharpened skills of persuasion, exposition, cooperation — and conflict — with their peers.
After the Revolutionary War, the societies enjoyed a century of great influence on the campus. Outgrowing their two small chambers in Nassau Hall, they moved to the second floor of the new Stanhope Hall in 1805. In the 1830s the societies constructed two handsome neo-classical halls, completed in 1838. The present marble halls, opened in 1893, are enlarged copies of the earlier wood and stucco buildings.
Whig and Clio, like literary societies at other American colleges, were the main focus of undergraduate life for much of the 19th century. As elaborately organized, self-governing youth groups, they were, in effect, colleges within colleges. They bought their own books and operated their own libraries, which were larger and more accessible than the campus library. They also developed and enforced elaborate codes of conduct. Intense competition for members and for college honors led to creative emulation between the two societies.
Surviving the challenge of Greek letter fraternities in the 1850s and 1860s, the societies reached their apogee in the 1880s. Then, as Princeton became a university college, enrollment increased and social clubs, expanded library facilities, and a widened curriculum replaced many of the functions once performed by Whig and Clio. By World War I, Whig and Clio were only two among the scores of student groups that appealed to undergraduates.
In 1928 the two societies merged, and in 1941 the University took over ownership of what was christened the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, "the nation's oldest political, debating, & literary society." By 1975, when it elected its first female president, Whig-Clio was again a vigorous campus organization, and today continues to attract students to the International Relations Council, Princeton Debate Panel, Mock Trial and Princeton Model Congress.