The Peucinian Society was formed November 22, 1805 as The Philomathian Society, with the avowed purpose of “the attainment in habits of discussion and elocution.” Within a few short months, however, the Philomathians decided that the chosen 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: “Cambridge in England has its willows, Oxford its osiers, and we have our pines.” As the Society 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.
There were eight founding members of the Society: 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 served as the first President. 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 this time, Peucinian had an intense rivalry with another prominent literary society at Bowdoin, the Athenaean 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 the Athenaean Society were merged, after which the two societies officially became one. The College also had a scientific society, the Caluvian Society, which was later simply absorbed by the Peucinian Society.
The Society’s extensive library was its pride, and its 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. A librarian was elected every year, which involved the transfer of cases and books into their guardianship. Although the collection was once damaged by a fire that destroyed Maine Hall, this misfortune aroused such generosity that the library quickly grew 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.”
Despite its literary focus, the Peucinian Society has primarily offered students a wonderful opportunity to congregate, debate and deliberate. Meetings of the Peucinian Society were held in alphabetical rotation in the private rooms of members, with contributions of tables and chairs accepted from neighboring rooms. 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.” It was somewhat staid, properly Federalist (and later Whig) in its political leanings, and both earnest and urbane in social tone. 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 considered incredibly progressive in his political views). 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: “Abolish the Second Amendment,” and “Consider non-monogamy.”
In the late nineteenth century, the Peucinian Society went through a relative period of dormancy and was erroneously considered, even by the college itself, to be completely defunct. It was revived in the early 21st century.
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.