On February 5, 1803, while in their junior year the members of the first graduating class of Franklin College gathered together to form a society for the promotion of extemporizing, or extemporaneous speaking. On the 19th, the Society was constituted, and it was given the name Demosthenian after the Greek orator, statesman, and champion of democracy, Demosthenes.
Augustin Clayton, Williams Rutherford, and James Jackson are recognized as the founding fathers of Demosthenian. Clayton became the first student to receive his diploma from Franklin College and went on to become a judge of wide respect, Clayton County being named in his honor. Rutherford and Jackson went on to become professors at Franklin College.
For twenty years, Demosthenians met in a classroom, before they constructed their own meeting hall in 1824 at a cost of $4,000. This construction of the hall gave the Society a place to keep its growing library, which surpassed that of the University’s main library.
As in the Biblical story, wherein Satan was expelled forever from the sanctity of Heaven, thereby bringing about the existence of good and evil, so in 1820 some members broke with the Society. Thus was the ignoble birth of the “Society across the way.” Elaborate treaties, such as the Hagan Letter of 1936, were required to maintain campus tranquility, and animosity raised by a breach of treaty caused ill feelings which were carried long after the college years. The Society owns a cemetery lot for the burial of any member of the Society who might die while attending the college or while defending of the Hall against a siege from the “Society across the way.”
Demosthenian emphasizes extemporaneous speaking and knowledge of parliamentary rules, but one Demosthenian is honored for another reason. University student William Y. Atkinson (later governor of Georgia), was called upon to defend the Society’s honor in a dispute with the other Society, not with his voice, but with his fist. He won.
A notable exception to the general lack of inter-society friendships in the pre-war years was that of roommates Crawford W. Long, Demosthenian, who later was the first doctor to use anesthesia in surgery, and Alexander Stephens, a member of the other society, who became Vice President of the Confederacy.
In 1863, with most of the students away at war, Demosthenian refused an offer to merge the two societies, and shortly after, the University closed. During the war, the University housed refugees from the coast and Federal prisoners en route to Andersonville. Near the end of the war, occupying troops used Demosthenian Hall for regimental headquarters, while the meeting hall of the rival society was used as a stable and as a place of revelry for Federal troops.
When the University reopened in 1866, Demosthenians returned to their beloved Hall, but the Society’s members showed that they had not mellowed in defeat. Albert H. Cox, chosen as a junior to give an oration in true Demosthenian form at the 1867 commencement, delivered a stirring speech, denouncing the occupation forces and the policies of the reconstruction government. General John Pope, governor of the third military district, rapidly moved to close down the University, and only prompt intercession by President Andrew Johnson prevented the closure of the University. Many of the Society’s 3000 volumes had been lost during the war and the subsequent occupation of Athens, and in the late 1870′s, the Society gave most of the remaining books to the history department.
From the late 1930′s to 1950′s membership grew to more than 200 students. It is in this period that the modern Demosthenian library has its roots. During the 1950′s and 1960′s the University doubled in size. But, Demosthenian did not escape unscathed from the growing diversity in student activities and the challenge to traditional values and institutions which came during the 1960′s. Membership in Demosthenian dropped, but a dedicated group kept the Society alive. After several years of playing recordings of Marxist rhetoric out of their upper chamber windows, the other society faded from the campus scene in 1972, ending a century of intersocietal competition. The rival Society re-emerged during the early 1990′s after almost two decades in obscurity.
The Demosthenian Society is once again experiencing a renaissance of its former prominence. The membership is larger than it has been in nearly three decades, and the enthusiastic interest of every member has brought new life into the ancient hall of this honored Society. With a revival of the aims and purposes of the Society, Demosthenian will reach new heights in its third century of debate.