The Dialectic Society (originally known as the Debating Society) was established in 1795, making it the oldest student organization at the University of North Carolina.
The members adopted the motto “Virtus et Scientia” meaning virtue and knowledge in Latin. They stated as their goals: “…to promote useful knowledge…” and “…to cultivate a lasting friendship with each other…”
It is significant that the first order of business for the Debating Society was an order for the purchase of books. Indeed, as the University had no library, the Debating Society’s collection became the primary resource for the University. This organization did not remain the sole student organization at UNC for long though.
One month after the founding of the Debating Society, several members split off to create the Philanthropic Society (originally known as the Concord Society) due to strict rules and political disagreements. It took a new motto, “Virtus, Libertas, et Scientia”, with the addition of the word Libertas (Latin for “liberty”) lending some insight into the reasons for their separation.
In 1796 the two societies adopted the Greek equivalents of their names, becoming the Dialectic Society and the Philanthropic Society — now known as the Di and the Phi for short. The Philanthropic Society amassed a large library, like that of the Dialectic Society, and eventually both organizations donated their libraries (over 10,000 volumes each) to become the University Library, which still acknowledges this original endowment.
Another more noticeable, and perhaps more important contribution, of the Societies is the choice of the colors that now represent UNC. The Di decided to put light blue ribbons on its diplomas, which are given to graduates in addition to the University’s diplomas. In addition to blue standing for honor, blue ribbons were the universal symbol for excellence in agricultural regions like North Carolina. The Phi chose white ribbons, indicative of truth and virtue, for its diplomas.
When intercollegiate football began in the 1880s, the team members noticed the school colors worn by schools like Virginia and Wake Forest. They wanted similar identification as Carolina students. Quite naturally, they adopted the Societies’ light blue and white signifying that students of both the Di and Phi were on the team and supported it to victory.
In the early days of the University, the two societies had such an influence on campus that students were required to join one of the two societies. Rivalry between the two was extremely bitter. Society members would ride out on horses to greet incoming students, attempting to recruit them and dissuade them from joining the other Society.
According to legend, this rivalry eventually led to dueling. The University administration intervened in the 1850’s and changed the Societies’ official rules, opting to base membership upon geography. Di members were those North Carolinians from West of Orange County and Phi members were from East of Orange County. Members from Orange County or out of state could choose either Society. This rule remained as an unofficial tradition until 2012, and since the 1890’s students have not been required to join one of the societies.
Throughout their histories, the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies founded various campus institutions such as the General Alumni Association, the Yackety-Yack (yearbook), the University Magazine (which became Carolina Quarterly), the Honor System, and many of the academic schools (School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Law School, Medical School, etc.). The Societies united in a Joint Senate in 1959, but they continue to maintain their rivalry in a much more congenial way.The traditions and ideals of the original founders of the organizations are still found today every Monday night at 7:30 in New West 310. Take our Obscure History Quiz to learn about odd pieces of the Societies’ past. Please feel free to browse the various documents referring to history of the Societies below:
General History Resources
- “Di-Phi Helps in Improving Speech,” Daily Tar Heel article, by Mike Altieri (1985).
- “The Literary Societies and The Two Societies,” Volume I of History of the University of North Carolina, by Kemp Plummer Battle (1907). Full book here.
- Catalogue of the Members of the Dialectic Society together with Historical Sketches, edited by William James Battle (1890).
- “‘Gadfly’ to be Published by the Di and Phi Societies,” Chapel Hill Weekly article, (1971).
- “And They Talked. Always They Talked:” 215 Years of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, Gladys Hall Coates University History Lecture, by Kevin Cherry (2011).
- “Ol’ Rip Writes: North Carolina’s Nineteenth-Century Collegiate Literary Magazines,” conference paper, by Kevin Cherry (1999).
- “Address Delivered before the Two Literary Societies of the University of North Carolina,” by Albert Coates (1976).
- “Di and Phi Societies Find New Life After Illustrious History,” The Phoenix article, by Paul Cory (1989).
- “The Philanthropic Literary Society,” article in the University Magazine, by William Edward Cox (1898).
- Former Rules of Order of the Dialectic Society, (1884).
- “The Societies–Overgrown or Outgrown,” University Magazine article, by Walter Pliny Fuller (1914).
- “Old Phi Society at University Modeled After State’s House,” Greensboro Daily News article, by Peter Gerns (1947).
- “The Phi Society: 155 Years of Contribution to the Carolina Way of Life (1795-1949),” by John E. Giles (1949).
- “The Dialectic Literary Society,” article in the University Magazine, by T. R. Pearson (1898).
- “Debating Society Continues UNC Tradition,” Daily Tar Heel article, by Leigh Pressley (1988).
- “The Di Senate and Phi Assembly During World War II and Their Decline and Fall,” Historian’s report, by Max A. Spitzer.
- “The Carolina Di-Phi Societies Still Survive,” by Ben Steelman and Roger Kirkman (1974).
- “Club Changes Image to Increase Visibility,” Daily Tar Heel article, Bill Studenc (1981).
- “Brief History of the Societies,” Wilson Library Website (2012).
Society Merger Resources
- “Debate Societies Once Ruled Student Life in Chapel Hill,” Durham Morning Herald article, by Stan Fisher (1959).
- “Dialectic Senate and Philanthropic Society Merge after 164 Years of Separate Meetings,” Daily Tar Heel article, by Hobart Steele (1959).
- “University Societies May Meet Together,” Greensboro Daily News article, (1926).
Di-Phi Library Resources
- “Phis, Dis Started Town’s First Library,” Chapel Hill Newspaper article, by Ralph Watkins (1983).
- “The Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies’ Contributions to the Library of the University of North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review article, by Maurice C. York (1982).
Di-Phi Burial Ground Resources
- “Mysterious Grave at UNC,” News & Observer article, Bill Buchan (1949).
- “The Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies Burial Ground,” Historian’s report, by Edward L. Harrelson (1990).
- Di-Phi Plots, Old Chapel Hill Cemetery Website