Founded in 1805, the Peucinian Society is one of the nation’s foremost literary societies and the oldest student organization at Bowdoin College, hosting fortnightly disputations concerning statesmanship, culture, and political thought.
Among the original collegiate literary societies in the United States, the Society was formed November 22, 1805, as The Philomathian Society, by eight students who would soon adopt a constitution, and create a method for recording and bequeathing its conclusions. The avowed purpose of this debating society was “the attainment in habits of discussion and elocution.” Within a few short months, the Philomathians decided that their name was commonplace; indeed, nearly every college of that day had a Philomathian Society. Thus, they voted to change it to the Peucinian Society, from the Greek word for “pine-covered,” thereby offering the Society both distinction and local significance. The matter of changing the name was somewhat contested but, as one of its first Presidents argued: “All academies of note have had some particular ornament of this kind for their exhibition poetry. Cambridge in England has its willows, Oxford its osiers, and we have our pines. Every literary society can be a Philomathian Society and the name has often been applied. But every society cannot be a Peucinian Society: nor has there ever been one.”
As their motto, they adopted a line from Virgil: Pinos loquentes semper habemus. (“We always have the whispering pines.”) The Mission and Motto are still recited at each Society gathering before and after the President’s gavel respectively. The Peucinian Society offered students an opportunity to congregate, debate and deliberate. The questions for debate have a familiar, contemporary resonant. For instance, in 1807, they debated over “whether it be politic for the United States now to declare war against Great Britain”, “whether females be equal to males in natural ability,” [and] “whether the discovery of America has been beneficial to mankind.”
The Peucinian Society had an intense rivalry with another prominent literary society at Bowdoin, the Athenian Society. Before the creation of Hubbard Library at Bowdoin, both of the Societies amassed thousands of books purchased from dues paid by inducted members and maintained yearly catalogues. In 1880, the libraries of the Peucinian Society and its former rival, the Athenean Society, were merged, after which the two societies officially became one and has since endured under the name “The Peucinian Society.” The College also had a scientific society, the Caluvian Society, which was later simply absorbed by the Peucinian Society.
In the late nineteenth century, the Peucinian Society went through a relative period of dormancy, erroneously considered, even by the college itself, to be completely defunct. After its revival, the Society continued to thrive throughout the 20th century but, due to the prevalence of fraternities at the College, most of the undergraduates turned their attention toward other organizations. The Society continues through the present day.
Founders of the Society
- Charles Stewart Davies (1788-1873) Charles Stewart Davies was born in 1788 in Portland. His father was an officer of the Revolution and a member of the Society of Cincinnati. Of the New England branch of this society the son was at one time president. Mr. Daveis graduated with good reputation as an elegant scholar and writer. He pursued the study of the law and it principles and spent his time writing for literary periodicals. In 1808, he delivered before the Peucinian Society a lecture. In silver tones, he began, “In the evening the Athenian exiles used to sing… Let us, my friends, return to Athens this evening, though separated from it by two great seas and two thousand years.” Mr. Daveis was for a short time a member of the State Senate. President Andrew Jackson sent him as a special agent to Holland. He served as a trustee for Bowdoin college and received an honorary law degree from Harvard University.
- Alfred Johnson (1788-1869) Johnson practiced law and was a member of the Massachusetts legislature. In 1820, he was made judge of probate. He read much, and nothing that was worth retaining ever seemed to escape from him. He was an overseer of the college and was always willing to impart the wealth of his learning to the young.
- Nathan Lord (1788-1861) After studying at Phillips Exeter Academy, Mr. Lord studied philosophy, natural theology, and revealed religion at Bowdoin. He served as minister for the Congregation Society in Amherst for twelve years. In 1928, He was chosen president of Dartmouth College and helped to establish its rank as among the most successful of the New England Colleges. He was known for his idiosyncratic theological and ethical views that differed from the majority of the orthodox community.
- Robert Means (1788-1742) Means was a native of Amherst, N.H. where he practiced law. He was the superintendent of the Suffolk Mills in Lowell. He was a man of genial aspect, manner, and temper, beloved by many, respected by all.
- Enos Merrill (1786- 1861) A native of Falmouth, he studied at Andover before founding Peucinian. He became the congregational minister of Freeport for twenty years.
- Benjamin Randall (1788-1857) A Topsham native, Randall stood at the bar and exceeded as a scholar. He engaged in political life as a member of the State Senate and collector.
- Joseph Sprague (1787-1826) A Topsham man, Sprague practiced at the law office of Benjamin Orr. He died leaving a “fair reputation as a man, a lawyer, and a Christian.”
- Henry Wood (1789- 1845) A Wiscaset Native, Wood served as a law clerk.
Source: Cleaveland, Nehemiah. History of Bowdoin College: With Biographical Sketches of its graduates. Boston: James Ripley Osgood and Company, 1882.