Remarks at the Whig-Clio Senate Debate

Oct. 5, 2023

Mr. President, officers and members of the society, friends, and guests:

It is an honor and a pleasure to address you as you convene for another year in the illustrious history of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, the oldest college literary and debating club in the United States.

As Donald Gilpin beautifully documents in an article in this month’s Princeton Magazine,[1] the Society has played a central role in student life at Princeton for more than 250 years.  Its membership from the eighteenth century until today has included a wide range of future office‑holders and leaders.

Like many Princetonians, I regard Whig-Clio as profoundly important to our University.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine Princeton without Whig-Clio.  This Society has been around almost since the University’s inception, pre-dating by more than a century other noted Princeton institutions such as eating clubs, the Triangle Club, and athletic teams.

Whig-Clio has throughout most of Princeton’s history been the largest student organization on campus, and it has touched the lives of innumerable Princetonians.

During my student days, I was myself a member, even if not an especially prominent or active one, and I served as a trustee of the Society after joining the faculty here.

The prominence of Whig-Clio in Princeton’s history and on our campus today strikes me as a fitting expression of the spirit of this University.

Indeed, as I composed these remarks, I found myself considering whether one might learn something interesting about the character of universities in general by examining their longest‑running student organizations.

For example, while I do not profess to have great expertise—or, for that matter, even modest expertise—about Harvard, it appears that the oldest continuously operating student organizations at that venerable university are two exclusive social clubs imaginatively named after a squealing pig in one case and a bowl of warm mush in the other.

I do not know what, if anything, that tells us about Harvard.  I will leave the matter for speculation and debate.

I do know, however, that all of us at Princeton who are associated with the American Whig-Cliosophic Society can take pride in its history, its ideals, and its ongoing practice.

The debates that Whig-Clio has sponsored since its inception, a tradition that you renew this evening, exemplify Princeton’s truth-seeking mission and reaffirm the importance of respectful dialogue between competing viewpoints.

Through its focus on public affairs, the Society reinforces the University’s commitment to be “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

Through your many and varied intellectual programs, you carry forward the liberal arts spirit of this scholarly community.

By welcoming all Princeton students into your membership and your leadership, you both support and benefit from the vital diversity of our campus.

I was glad to see you underscore that commitment to diversity this summer, when you added a portrait of Whig-Clio’s first female president, my friend Tina Ravitz of the great class of 1976, to the walls of this Chamber.

I would accordingly like to conclude these remarks with a quotation from an essay that Tina published in the Daily Princetonian during her term as Whig-Clio president; the quotation is featured in the fine article by Donald Gilpin that I mentioned earlier.

Tina Ravitz declared in 1975 that:

“[T]he Society continues to recognize what James Madison and others insightfully understood almost 200 years ago:  the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech is of supreme importance to a vital, questioning, and free society.”[2]

I wish you well as you continue to pursue the principles that Ms. Ravitz articulated nearly half a century ago, and I thank you both for your contributions to the intellectual life of this campus and for offering me the opportunity to speak to you tonight.

Thank you.

[1] Donald Gilpin, “Whig-Clio,” Princeton Magazine (September 2023): 26-31.

[2] Id. at 27