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Tabor’s Literary Society: Debate in the 1850s

posted May 31, 2017, 9:59 AM by James Nennemann
By: Harry Wilkins
 

Tabor pioneers George Gaston, John Todd and Samuel Adamswere deeply committed to education and brought a tradition of learning and intellectual curiosity with them from Ohio, which would eventually bear fruit with the founding of Tabor Collegein 1866. But before the creation of the college or its forerunner,the Tabor Literary Institute, came the Tabor Literary Society organized on October 23, 1855.
 
What were literary societies? They were social organizations, commonly associated with colleges, which met to review, discuss and debate the pressing issues and news of the day. Tabor was only a small village in 1855 but the communitybelieved it was important to have a forum where participants could seek “mutual improvement in speaking and writing.” The society met twice monthly on Tuesday evenings during the falland winter months, usually for two hours. The meetings were highly structured and followed rules laid out in a constitution. Society officers were rotated monthly, key among them the president, who chose the question to be addressed at the upcoming session and assigned the “disputants,” members of two teams arguing the case either in the affirmative or the negative. In the fashion of true rhetorical debate, disputants were expected to mount the best argument possible, regardless of personal beliefs, with a panel of judges deciding the winner. The society also appointed a “critic” to evaluate written essays andspeeches.
 
Topics addressed by the society provide a unique view of local beliefs and attitudes during the mid-1800s. During this time of political and social strife in the United States many of the debates naturally centered on the institution of slavery and the possibility of civil war. The details of the discussions weren’t documented, but we know, for instance, that at the meeting onDecember 1, 1857, the question before the assembly was: “Resolved: Existing circumstances render the dissolution of the Union desirable.” The society debated and decided the Union must be preserved. In 1858 the group discussed in an “able and spirited manner” whether the federal government had a constitutional right to abolish slavery in the nation; after hearing arguments pro and con, the judges decided that it did. And on the eve of the Civil War, the society mulled the question: “The South has no right to secede from the Union: the affirmative sustained.”
 
The range of topics showed a wide breadth of interest with manyrecognizable to a modern audience. Members discussed whether the invention of labor-saving machines improved the condition of the laboring classes; if men should follow laws thought to be morally wrong; and if “every youth of the U.S. [should] obtain if possible a thorough college education.” The role of women in society was also a popular subject. The founders of Tabor’s school and college believed women deserved an education equal in every way to men, but this progressive attitude was not evident within the Literary Society. While the ladies were welcome to attend and were allowed to read essays, they were never granted full membership. The literary societies of Tabor College would later rectify this by admitting women. 
 
Most debates dealt with weighty issues, but not all. Other less serious resolutions included asking whether the use of tea and coffee were beneficial to mankind (no); if wearing ornamentaljewelry was morally wrong (yes); and if oxen were of more use to mankind than horses (yes). The reaction of local horses, if any, was not recorded.
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