America's Oldest "Tea Drinking and Whisky" Speaking Society


Early History

In May of 1868, three students from what today is known as Princeton University met at a local tavern in Princeton, New Jersey to discuss the events of the day. The specifics of the conversation that occurred on that day have long been obscured by memory, but the ultimate conclusion drawn from the meeting was that the contemporary American university environment lacked a proper forum for conducting scintillating yet clever intellectual discourse. As a result, and with deference to the great Oxford University center of conversational intercourse known as Merton College, the Merton Society was founded. It since has become the oldest and the most exclusive "Tea Drinking and Whisky" Speaking Society in the United States of America.

The sobriquet "Tea Drinking and Whisky" Speaking Society is derived from two important events in early American history that greatly influenced contemporary public speaking topics: the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Eventually, this phrase was changed to reflect the Scottish method of spelling "Whisky," most likely to reflect the fact that greater numbers of members of the "Tea Drinking and Whisky" Societies preferred Scotch whisky to American whiskey. The Merton Society's motto is "Sapor Cum Facetia Omnia Vincit" ("Good Taste With Humour Conquers All"). Some members say the Society's motto celebrates the cultivation of irreverent good taste; others suggest that it celebrates epicurean good taste and irreverence toward whatever other matters the Society may choose to address. The Merton Society's insignia incorporates this motto under the colors of the famous British 17th Lancers regiment (participants in the "Charge of the Light Brigade" at Balaklava in the Crimean campaign of 1854). After the University Cottage Club adopted these same regimental colors, a Maltese cross was added to the Society's insignia in order to commemorate the five members of that regiment who were awarded the Victoria Cross, Great Britain's highest military honor.

These and other historical events influenced the Merton Society's philosophy over the years. Such a rich and diverse influence attracted talented members, who demanded--and provided--scintillating lectures on a wide variety of topics. As a result, the "Merton Style" of public discourse became well-known among contemporary Speaking Societies. Its unique combination of irreverent good taste and clever innuendo gave the Merton Society a permanent reputation as a major influence on the public speaking styles of the day. Return to Top

Recent History

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Originally a very discreet organization, the Merton Society did not have a permanent home during the latter part of the nineteenth century. After the construction of the University Cottage Club (1903 - 1906) in Princeton, New Jersey, the Society conducted its affairs in that building's Merton Library. Membership in the Merton Society was and still is based on the dictates of the original Merton's Rules of Order. The Society continues to this day to be governed by one or more triumvirates known as the "Committee of Three;" however, as the Society has grown, the members have allowed different sections to select their own Committees of Three in order to meet the increased demand for meetings during the school year. A recommendation to the Committee of Three for election to membership is held to the highest degree of scrutiny, and thus is highly coveted.

A more recent tradition of the Merton Society that evolved from the late nineteenth century era of the "Seven Wise Men of Grease" (the founders of the University Cottage Club) has been to provide every member of the Society with an appropriate title modeled after the British peerage system. Such titles are awarded for life, typically upon election to Associate Membership. They often are based upon some unique or humorous aspect of the recipient's expertise, speaking topics and/or style. Merton Society titles, and membership itself, have been known to elicit favorable reactions from even the most obscure corners of the globe.

The 1975 Speaking Season proved to be a watershed year for the Society. Faced with an unprecedented demand for lectures and thus meetings, the 1975 Committee of Three made several key decisions. First, the Committee of Three decided that it would be in the best interests of the Society to allow multiple lectures per meeting. Prior to that time, at least according to what records were then available, only one lecture had been held per meeting. This decision allowed members to share the knowledge learned in one lecture with that provided in subsequent lectures in the same evening. Second, the Committee allowed audiences of selectively invited "Peons" to attend certain lectures. This enabled the meetings to take on an aura of "inverse pedantry," as Members and Peons engaged in esoteric but thoroughly entertaining banter. Finally, photographs (but only "official" ones) were allowed to be taken at meetings. The product of this last decision can be found in these pages, most notably in the Members section. Perhaps it was due to the wave of cultural changes sweeping through American society at that time, or perhaps it was due to pragmatism, no one is certain, but the effect of these decisions was significant. As a result, the Merton Society was transformed from an intimate after-dinner Speaking Society to a more open and engaging after-dinner Speaking Society that still could be discreet when necessary. There is, however, one consistent trait among members that has survived to this day: they all have a common interest in sharing their ignorance of esoteric and often humorous subject matters.

As it has grown, the Merton Society has expanded its Speaking Society activities to include more public displays of cleverness. The Society's Annual Lecture Series continues to generate scintillating discussions amongst members and non-members throughout the world, all in the name of good taste with humour conquering all. Return to Top

Great Moments in Merton Society History

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