The Peucinian Society was established in 1805, making it one of the nation’s oldest literary societies. The society was founded by Charles Stewart Davies, Alfred Johnson, Nathan Lord, Robert Means, Enos Merrill, Benjamin Randall, Joseph Sprague, and Henry Wood, members of the three highest classes of the College. Robert Means was the first President of the Society. The Society would later become preoccupied – even obsessed, as some historians would suggest – with the number Eight, in honor of its founders. All the events of the Peucinian Society, both past and present, would either overtly or subtly involve the number Eight. At first, the Society consisted solely of members of the College, but in 1814 the members who had graduated held a meeting and, together with those belonging to the College Society, formed a General Society, of which Charles Stewart Daveis was elected the first president. Meetings of the Peucinian Society were held in alphabetical rotation in the private rooms of members. Contributions were accepted from neighboring rooms for tables and chairs, and members gathered around the tables to debate.
The Society’s extensive library was its pride. The annual election of officers was as momentous an occasion as a U.S. Presidential election but with none of the corrupt doings of the latter, nor with the unfortunate conflicts of society cliques of the present day, the custom having been borrowed from that of the nation in its better days, of the provostship being the stepping–stone to the presidency. At this election a new librarian was, of course, elected, and that involved the transfer of cases and books, it might be, from the fourth story of one building to the same story in the other. There was, however, public spirit enough for hearty cooperation in this cumbersome duty.
The Peucinian Society was the more established of the two prominent literary societies at Bowdoin. It was somewhat staid, properly Federalist (and later Whig) in its political leanings, and both earnest and urbane in social tone. For all its undergraduate pomposity, the society – whose meetings took place amid a colorful array of extracurricular activities, ranging from cadet military reviews to extravagant banquets – fulfilled a serious purpose. For one thing, it had excellent lending libraries of contemporary books and journals, conscientiously maintained and intelligently selected. While fraternities were purely social, if not frivolous and discriminatory, the Peucinian Society was founded with an entirely different objective and purpose. In the words of one of Longfellow’s biographers: “The Peucinian Society debates were an important training ground for ambitious young students seeking advancement in a post-collegiate culture that still depended so much on the spoken word – in the pulpit, before a jury, on the election stump.” It would be anachronistic to label the Society “conservative,” as many commentators have done, for the modern labels do not exactly fit (for example, Longfellow was incredibly progressive in his political views).
From one window of the hall, members could look across the narrow back–campus into the dark grove of whispering pines which were so closely associated by tradition and fact with the history of Bowdoin. Quite naturally the Peucinian Society, eager to emulate the restrained dignity of arboreal conversations, had chosen the motto, “Pinos Loquentes Semper Habemus” (“We Always Have the Whispering Pines”). To all members, living almost within reach of the symbolic branches, this view from their windows offered a pleasant reminder of the ideals fostered within their literary society.
Their members were keenly alive to every new expression of praise or criticism concerning books published in England and America. They subscribed to Blackwood’s, the North American Review, and the American Monthly, so that they might decide which books to buy for the Society’s library. Although a fire which had destroyed Maine Hall damaged the Peucinian collection, the misfortune aroused such generosity that in short order the library was larger than ever. When plans were made to compile a printed catalogue, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was appointed to serve on the committee, later writing: “How pleasant it was to handle these books! Here were no battered, dog-eared volumes, but new books, recently printed, and sump.”
Since its early days, the Peucinian Society has offered students a wonderful opportunity to congregate, debate and deliberate. The questions for debate always had a contemporary resonance. For instance, in 1807, the society debated “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 current society continues the tradition of lively wrangling through disputations that begin with a complex resolution regarding a significant political dispute. Topics in recent years have included: “Man must be forced to be free” and “The states be should eliminated.”
As of 2007, the Peucinian Society has been graced with 1,456 members. At varying points throughout its history, as many as seventy-five students were members of the society.
Famous Alumni of the Peucinian tradition include:
- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Civil War hero, 32nd Governor of Maine (1867-1871), President of Bowdoin College (1871-1883)
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (February 27, 1807 – March 24, 1882) American poet whose works include “Paul Revere’s Ride”, “The Song of Hiawatha”, and “Evangeline”. He was also the first American to translate Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.
- Seargent Smith Prentiss, Whig Congressman and Orator.
- Cyrus Hamlin, President of Middlebury College (1890-1895).
- Nathan Lord, President of Dartmouth College (1828-1863).
- Seba Smith, American Humorist and Writer.
- Thomas Brackett Reed, U.S. Representative from Maine, and Speaker of the House from 1889–1891 and from 1895–1899.
- William Pierce Frye, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator from Maine and Co-Founder of Bates College.
- William LeBaron Putnam, federal appellate judge and Portland Mayor (1869-1870).
- George Evans, U.S. Senator from Maine, (1841-1847).
- Alpheus Spring Packard, Sr., American educator, father of Alpheus Spring Packard (1839-1905) and William Alfred Packard (1830-1909).
- Charles Beecher, American minister, composer of religious hymns, and prolific author. He was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the brother of renowned Congregationalist minister, Henry Ward Beecher. He also had another prominent and activist sister, Catharine Beecher.