Zelosophic Society

History | Debates | Publications | Member | Conclusion

Zelosophic Society

Courtesy of the Penn Archives

The Zelosophic Society is a student literary society that was founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 1829. The files of the Zelosophic Society included information about their founders, the Feltus sons. Further exploration raised the following questions: 

  • What was student life like in the early to mid-19th century?
  • What kind of discussions were students having around race and slavery? 
  • Who were these students? 



Zelosophic Society: History

History | Debates | Publications | Member | Conclusion

Knowledge and literary societies were some of the first student clubs on college campuses, and were integral to student life in the 19th century. The Philomathean Society (1813) and the Zelosophic Society (1829) were at the center of intellectual life at the University of Pennsylvania. At a time when classes were mostly lecture-based, these knowledge and debate societies gave students a space to share their own opinions and ideas. The skills and knowledge that these young men gained as members of the societies served them well in their later careers. Participating in these societies gave young men the tools they needed to pursue jobs in politics, law, business, and other prominent professions.

There is one history of the Zelosophic society, The First 100 Years of the Zelosophic Society published by society members in 1929. It chronicles the events of the centennial celebration and broadly describes the evolution of the society over its first 100 years. However, the book does not delve into the inner workings of the society or address the subjects that interested society members throughout its first century. Its tone is nostalgic rather than historical. 

The Zelosophic Society’s archival materials housed at the University of Pennsylvania Archives contained records of debates, membership records, bound and unbound issues of Zelosophic magazines called The Critic, The Zelosophic Review, and The Zelosophic Magazine, lists of the books held in the Zelosophic library, and other miscellaneous items. This research focuses on materials created between the society’s founding in 1829 through 1870.



Zelosophic Society: Debates

History | Debates | Publications | Member | Conclusion

Debates were the pillar of Zelosophic Society and the heart of literary societies around the country.

Zelosophic Society

Announcement for a debate on December 9, 1862

Courtesy of the Penn Archives

By the mid 19th century, the Zelosophic society was holding debates every Tuesday evening. The debates provided an opportunity for these young men to practice their oratory skills. Within the records, there are pamphlets that announced debates for upcoming weeks, suggesting that at least some of the debates took place in front of a public audience, thereby not only preparing these students for a future as public figures, but giving them the platform to have their voices heard while at Penn.

The society’s record books catalog the debates, noting the questions asked, the members on each side of the debate, and sometimes the debate’s outcome. Examining the questions asked provides insight into the kinds of issues that interested nineteenth-century Zelosophic Society members. 


Some of the questions addressed pertinent political issues including:

"Are the efforts of abolitionists an advantage to slavery?” 

“Is foreign immigration an advantage to the United States?” 

 “Whether the fugitive slave law is in accordance with the spirit of the constitution.”


Others were philosophical questions such as:

"Is a man justified in violating the laws of his country on the grounds of conscience?” 

"Has Uncle Tom's Cabin exuded a beneficial influence on the world?”


A significant group of questions seemed to contemplate the debaters’ own positions and identities as young white men, including:

 “Is woman mentally inferior to man?” 

“Is military instruction in colleges beneficial to students?”

 “Which exerts the greatest influence on men, women or money?” 


Questions regarding slavery permeated all these categories of questions. In addition to those already mentioned and others, the members asked:

 “Is emancipation in the present crisis feasible and proper?”

 "Ought the United States to recognize the Republic of Liberia?”

"Is slavery a moral evil?”


It remains unclear whether the debaters were allowed to choose a side to argue, or if they were assigned. Either way, the fact that the questions were posed in the first place suggests that both sides were seen as valid positions to argue. 

It is also notable that the Zelosophic Society members, or ‘Zelos,’ made no distinctions between the moral and political gravity of these questions. They recorded the question of “Is slavery a moral evil?” in the same way that they recorded a debate on “Is card playing beneficial?” The fact that these two debates were recorded in the same manner and within the pages of equivalent record books suggests that the Zelos saw all of these debates as being of equal importance. The students were able to discuss slavery in the abstract because their racial privilege protected them from the reality of enslavement. Research into the debates did not include an analysis of the debates’ progression or a quantitative study into how many debates regarded slavery, but these would be worthwhile inquiries for further research.



Zelosophic Society: Publications

History | Debates | Publications | Member | Conclusion

The society’s publications offered deeper insight into the ideas that the Zelosophic Society discussed. The Critic, The Zelosophic Review, and later, the Zelosophic Magazine, members were able to share their opinions and ideas in print. The magazines gave them a voice, and they eagerly took the opportunity to publish letters from the editors, plays, stories, poems, and opinion pieces. I focused on finding references to race, slavery, and gender. 

One particularly intriguing item was a play The Pettitiad written by Johnathan Jones, Esq. between 1852-1855. The play portrayed older students tricking a freshman into thinking he was being inducted into a secret society. For the trick, one of the older students recruited a “fancy woman” named Sallie Sling. In Edward E. Baptists’s article, “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men,’” Baptist notes that in the pre-civil war south, “light-skinned enslaved women, or ‘fancy maids’” were often the targets of rape. Based on Baptist’s article and the character’s style of speaking, Sally Sling may have been written as a black woman who was hired for sex work.

During the Civil War, the Zelosophic Society had increasingly frequent discourse about equality and race. One of my findings was reminiscent of the scientific racism that has served as a major focus of the Penn and Slavery Project’s research. In an article titled “History” from March 4th, 1862, a Zelo argued that to study history, a person must trace events back to their root causes. One of these root causes is geography:

Zelosophic Society

"History" in Zelosophic Review. March 4, 1862.

Courtesy of the Penn Archives

"It is impossible to gain much knowledge of the history of a nation unless its geography is studied…The geographical character of a country has a great influence upon the character of the inhabitants; those who live in the mountainous countries are bold and hardy, those who live on the sea coast naturally become sailors and carry on extensive commerce with other parts of the world. In hot countries, Africa for example, the people are indolent and seldom arrive at a high degree of civilization. Man arrives at the highest mental as well as bodily strength perfection in the temperate zone, he is neither stunted by the cold, nor does he become indolent and enervated by the heat. In the temperate zone too, we find the great works of men, long canals, railways, telegraphs, and great cities, which are not found in colder or hotter countries."

In a similar piece from May 14th, 1862, the author grapples with inequality among men.  Just as the previous writer attributed inherent inequality to climate, this author suggests that God intended inequality when he created man. He wrote:

Humanly speaking, beyond the natural right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” there is, and of necessity can be but little equality among men.… If all men were equal in all respects who would be found willing to serve in any subordinate capacity, or accept any inferior reward or honor? …Men are not equal to one another but are equal to what God has endowed them to be and do, and each finds his level of labor fare more providentially than is generally understood.

By putting the onus on God, this writer exonerates himself from any blame for perpetuating inequality through his own position as an educated white man.

In addition to these arguments regarding the inequality of men, the Zelos used their literary magazines as a space for explicit discussions about the civil war and its causes. A poem titled “Conservatism” argued that the union could not survive unless it accepted slavery. The author lamented that the war was not, in fact, for "Union; Law; for Liberty and rights,” but “for a cause which links them all,” slavery. The writer decreed that “with slavery as its cornerstone, then, will the Union last.” This writer seemed to want the union to survive, but believed that it could do so only “with slavery as its cornerstone.” He suggests that slavery was not necessarily wrong saying, “why did we leave it [the Union] but to show that slavery and Right/ Concordant are, and for that cause we’ll suffer, bleed and fight.” This use of the word, “we” suggests that the author of this poem was writing from a southern perspective.



Zelosophic Society: Member

History | Debates | Publications | Member | Conclusion

Zelosophic Society

Robert Ellis Thompson c. 1880

Attempts were made to identify the authors of these poems in order to learn more about their backgrounds, but unfortunately, the works (like most of the magazine’s publications) are anonymous. However, comparison of the handwriting in the debate logs, which include names, with the works in the magazines, helped identify the author of the following, anti-slavery poem. The handwriting suggests that the author of the following poem is Robert Ellis Thompson (1844-1924), who was a member of the class of 1865. Thompson served as vice secretary, secretary, and the society librarian, so his handwriting is identified as his own in the debate logs. Thompson emigrated from Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1857, and, therefore, it is highly unlikely that his family owned slaves. Thompson had a long tenure at Penn. After graduating, he returned to teach in the university and was an academic for the rest of his life. Looking through the books he wrote and his poem from the Zelosophic society, it is clear that he held anti-slavery positions.

Thompson's poem, titled, “On the Confederate Banner, By a Briton” seems to argue against slavery, repeating the same refrain at the end of each stanza:

“And the tri-colored banner in triumph shall wave/ O’er the land of secession, the home of the slave.”

Zelosophic Society

Thompson refers to the “crazed demon of slavery,” and uses the Confederate flag as a metaphor for the confederacy’s cruelty, assigning particular misdeeds to each of the flag’s sections. He suggests that the red stripes were dyed in “the hearts-blood of freedom’s defenders,” and its tinge deepened “in blood wept by your fathers.” In the last couplets he the blood motif is further employed to directly address slavery:

Steep the last in the blood of the African bondsman

With whose gore you have tempered the mortar you use,

Whose shoulders you've covered with tokens of mercy,

And pledges of kindness,– brand, ulcer, and bruise

Thompson's poem is a fierce attack on slavery and responds directly to the “Conservatism” poem. The existence of these two poems, both written in 1862 and intended for the pages of the same magazine suggests that the Zelosophic Society included both opponents and supporters of slavery in its membership. It also suggests that the Zelos used the magazine to have discourse with one another, as well as to share their views with the public.



Zelosophic Society: Conclusion

History | Debates | Publications | Member | Conclusion

These findings this semester have barely scratched the surface of the Zelosophic Society. Research concludes that members were talking and writing about slavery and race and that there were a variety of opinions on these issues within the society. It also suggests the existance of women who students might have hired. Finally, the work identifying Robert Ellis Thompson has provided a methodology to use going forward as attempts are made to identify other members and match them with their work in the Zelosophic magazines. 

This research raises a number of questions: 

How did these societies change over time? 

How did their views on race and slavery change? 

Did the type of debates they had change with the identity of the members (i.e. if there are more students from the south, did they have more debates about slavery)? 

How much influence did the students have in the university? 

What was their interaction with the local free black population? 

As centers of student engagement, these knowledge societies are vital sources for understanding early undergraduate life at Penn. Answering these questions will improve our understanding of how these men influenced the Zelosophic society, how the Zelosophic Society influenced these men in their later careers, and how these men, in turn, influenced the country.  

~ Hayle Meyerhoff