The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society was founded on July 14, 1825,
by sixteen disgruntled members of the now-defunct Patrick Henry Society
in Room Seven, West Lawn. In the intervening 180 years, the Jefferson
Society has distinguished itself as the oldest continuously existing
collegiate debating society in North America, and indeed the second-oldest
Greek-lettered organization in the United States. The Society, named in
honor of Thomas Jefferson, father of the
University of Virginia, boasts among
its membership the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, former
Virginia Governor James Gilmore, President Woodrow
Wilson and former University President John T. Casteen III. Honorary membership
has been conferred upon such dignified ladies and gentlemen as President
James Madison, President James Monroe,
the Marquis de Lafayette and Prime Minister
Official meetings of the Society begin at 7:29 every Friday evening in which
classes are in session. People refer to “the Hall” and “the Society”
synonymously. Before the program starts, members stop by Room 7 on the Lawn
for “Sippers” The Room 7 Resident of the Society provides food and beverages
for Society members every Friday afternoon starting around 5:30. If you are
of age, be sure to try a whiskey sour, our signature drink.
At approximately 7:29 p.m., the esteemed President of the Society gavels in
the meeting. Next, our Vice President introduces the program for that
evening. Usually, the program takes the form of a
guest speaker, though at other times it is an
oratorical or literary contest. Because the Society hosts these speakers
as a service to the community, all programs are free and open to the public.
Recent speakers have included N.O.W. President Patricia Ireland, National
Security Agency Director Lieutenant General Mike Hayden, Poet Laureate
of New York Sharon Olds, Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, Florida Senator
Bill Nelson and Westinghouse CEO Charles Pryor. Oratorical programs
throughout the year include the Moomaw Oratorical Contest, the Tell-tale
Literary Contest and the Edgar Allan Poe Reading Contest. In addition,
we have the Smith Simpson Debate on Diplomacy between the Jefferson Society
and the Washington Society every spring. Every fall, the two Societies
compete in an ethics debate, and a humorous debate known as the Harrison
After the program ends, we take a brief recess during which regular members
storm the food and beverage table provided by the Keeper of the Hall.
All catch up with their friends and the officers of the Society scurry
around trying to prepare for the meeting.
Eventually, the meeting comes back to order and we proceed with the regular
business of the Society. Committee reports, presentations by the regular
membership and, most importantly, probationary presentations follow.
Probationary membership entails passing an interview, and full membership
comes after passing a presentation and meeting several other requirements.
Generally, meetings include much oration and discussion, with an appropriate
mix of playful banter and serious debate. Occasionally, members propose
formal debates on such issues as affirmative action, the state of world
affairs and biomedical ethics, to name a few. Other activities during
meetings include flaming contests, declarations of war and even duel
challenges. The Society strikes a delicate balance between the need for
substantive debate and the fact that everyone wants to have a good time on a
Friday night. It is difficult to truly characterize Society meetings; you
just have to attend the meetings and see for yourself. Typically, save for
membership proceedings at the beginning and end of each semester, the
entirety of our meetings are open to guests.
The Society also sponsors several events for its members outside of Friday
meetings: a Meet the Probies party, a Probie vs. Regular Member football
game, the Wilson Day and Founders Day formals, the Restoration Ball
(co-sponsored with the University Guide Service) and many more. The Society
prides itself on providing this wide variety of activities for its members.
Members of the Society come from myriad corners of the University and
reflect many of its varied facets: there are members from the College
and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the Undergraduate and Graduate
School of Education, and the Engineering, Commerce, Law and Medical Schools.
We boast an appreciable number of students who hail from beyond the
Commonwealth’s borders, and have a large contingent of people from outside
the United States. Some members have always been students in an academic
setting, while others have ventured outside the world of academia to serve
in the military, to work as law clerks or to otherwise delve into the real
For more information about the Society, please browse through this web site.