An Informal and Incomplete History of Swat Debate
The Eunomian Literary Society
Swarthmore College’s Debate Society has existed and participated in collegiate debate for over one hundred thirty years, although it has gone by several names and participated in different formats of debate over the years. The oldest debate-related references we have found are the Eunomian Literary Society’s minutes from the early 1900s. The Eunomian Literary Society was founded on February 7, 1871 – only a year and a half after the opening of the College in the fall of 1869 – with a mission of “improvement in public speaking and debate.” Its Latin motto was “Unitas Profectus Perpetaitas.” The Eunomians participated in debate and extemporaneous speech competitions through at least the first decade of the 20th century, and were one of at least two debate-related organizations on campus, as their minutes have references to a group called the Delphic Literary Society that also participated in annual campus debates with them. One member of the Eunomian Literary Society, Amos J. Peaslee, entered Swarthmore College in the fall of 1904 with the Class of 1908, but ultimately moved up a year to join the Class of ’07. Belowwe have gathered information and excerpts from several of the meetings of the Eunomians during Mr. Peaslee’s tenure at Swarthmore.
Amos J. Peaslee in the Eunomian Literary Society’s yearbook photo.
- October 21, 1904 – Peaslee’s name was mentioned for the first time in Eunomian minutes. He was unanimously elected to become a member of the Society with two other students, and there was a note that “The initiation fee shall be $1.00.”
- November 4, 1904 – Amos participated in his first debate at Swarthmore, where he had to defend the negative side of the resolution, “Resolved, that it is better to be a strict adherent to party politics than to be an independent.” The negative side of this two-on-two debate won.
- November 11, 1904 – A parliamentary drill session was held.
- February 10, 1905 – Parts of the society’s constitution were suspended to allow all members to vote in the elections. The Eunomian Literary Society’s board consisted of a President, Vice President, Recording Secretary, Censor, Treasurer, Librarian, and four Library Committee members. Amos was elected as the Censor.
- May 28, 1905 – “A report that members of the Delphic Literary Society had in their possession keys to our book-case was discussed, and Harvey Lattenthwaite was appointed to look into the matter.”
- September 29, 1905 – The Eunomians met in the Alumni Room at 7:30 for a meeting, and it was noted “Mr. Daniels (member of the library committee) was fined for absence from the last meeting.” Amos continued his rise to power in the Eunomian hierarchy, as he was elected to the post of Vice President at this meeting.
- October 13, 1905 – There was a reference to “A comic story – Peaslee” in the minutes from that evening, though no further elaboration was given.
- October 27, 1905 – Peaslee gave an extemporaneous speech on the topic, “Swarthmore – 20 years hence.”
- November 24, 1905 – Peaslee saw the President of the Delphic Society about a debate issue, and the censor read an essay and roll call.
- December 8, 1905 – Peaslee was made the secretary pro-tem that day and wrote the minutes of the Eunomian Literary Society for his first and only time. He mentioned that he talked with the President of the Delphic Society about arranging the annual debate.
- February 16, 1906 – Peaslee was elected to the Library Committee, but was fined for the non-performance of duty, as he had failed to appoint a committee to arrange the debate with the Delphic Society.
- March 2, 1906 – Peaslee gave a five-minute talk and was appointed to another committee.
- March 10, 1906 – Peaslee was elected as the Vice President again, and was also put on a five-person committee for new members.
- February 2, 1907 – Peaslee was elected the President of the Eunomian Literary Society, and had a specifically designated “Eunomian Room” for meeting space.
The Late 1920s
Our next source of information about the history of Swat Debate comes in a series of articles that were published in The Phoenix during the 1928-29 academic year. By this time there was no mention of either the Eunomian or Delphic Literary Societies; whether the two groups had merged together or had simply faded out in favor of a third organization, both had now been replaced by a general Debate Society that was now competing in intercollegiate debates. The team took part in a relatively small number of debates each year, and was divided both along gender and class lines; women and men could not compete together, nor could first-years and upperclassmen. The debates were highly publicized and often drew crowds numbering in the hundreds. The following is a brief listing of facts and events gleaned from Phoenix articles from 1929.
- February 19, 1929 – Swarthmore’s debate team opened up relations with Haverford’s team, and had competed against Bryn Mawr’s in the past. Debates consisted of three eight-minute speeches and two three-minute rebuttals, and were comprised of three-person teams defending either the positive or negative side of a given resolution. The varsity and freshman teams operated separately from one another, though both were under the tutelage of a professor who served as the debate coach. Meetings of the debate team were held in the professor’s office.
- February 26, 1929 – It was noted that men and women have separate debate teams. Swarthmore competed against schools such as Hillsdale, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Johns Hopkins. Contemporary topics included denouncing or upholding the fraternity system, and whether or not the house deplored the influence of advertising on public welfare.
- March 5, 1929 – Three Swarthmore students were defeated by St. Joseph’s in a debate round on the influence of advertising on public welfare in front of nearly 400 observers. St. Joseph’s team used an “old style” of debating, whereas the Swarthmore team utilized the “informal Oxford style” that it had employed for the last several years.
- March 12, 1929 – Swarthmore was to host a debate round with Hillsdale on the 15th of that month, debating the resolution, “The US government should retain and develop the water power it now owns.”
- April 9, 1929 – Swarthmore was to hold its first debate with Haverford on the “fraternity question.” Two Swarthmore students and one Haverford student were to take the positive, and two Haverford students and one Swarthmore student were to take the negative side of the debate. The first speaker for each team had eight minutes to deliver a speech, and the other two speakers for each team had ten minutes each. Both sides were allowed to make a single five-minute rebuttal speech. It was noted that Swat had had a very successful debate season, and that there would be an extemporaneous speaking contest in late April. The Debate Society was run by two coaches, a manager, and an assistant manager.
- April 16, 1929 – An audience of one hundred watched the Swarthmore / Haverford debate, which was on the question of whether or not to eliminate fraternities from colleges which enrolled fewer than 1,000 students. The decision for the round was made based on how many audience members changed their vote on the topic from before the debate round.
- April 30, 1929 – The final debate-related article of the academic year summed up the team’s activities for the year. The debate season opened with the annual Freshman / Sophomore debate on who should be the next President. Swarthmore opened up debate relations with Bryn Mawr and Haverford, and officially severed their debate ties with Duke. During the year, Swarthmore debated a number of schools, which included Western Reserve, Dartmouth, George School, St. Joseph’s College, Hillsdale, and the University of Pennsylvania.
“A Lion Among The Ladies Is A Dangerous Thing.”
According to The Political Graveyard.com, Amos J. Peaslee II was born in Clarksboro, NJ on March 24, 1887 to a Quaker family. He attended Swarthmore from 1904 – 1907, and was permitted to stay at the college even after he and several of his friends threw a fellow student into the Crum Creek only a short while after beginning his first year. (This story could be completely fabricated, of course, as our only account of it comes from Amos himself in the 1964 book Swarthmore Remembered, available from the College Bookstore.) While he was a student here he was a member both of the Eunomian Literary Society – the predecessor of the Debate Society – and the Delta Upsilon fraternity. Randomly selected highlights from his career with the Eunomians include a time when the society put Father Time on trial, and also when Amos debated the resolution, “Are our so-called objectionable classes of immigrants really undesirable?” He graduated from Swarthmore in the spring of 1907, leaving us with his senior quote, “A lion among the ladies is a dangerous thing.” Also according to The Political Graveyard, Amos served as a major in the Army in World War I, married in 1920, was a three-time delegate to the Republican National Convention, and was a member of the American Bar Association. He went on to compile and edit a multi-volume work entitled The Constitutions of Nations, the first volume of which appears to have been published in 1950; it was the first full compilation of every national constitution translated into English. Amos served as the US Ambassador to Australia (with the full title of “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary”) from August 12, 1953 to February 16, 1956.
Amos J. Peaslee died on August 30, 1969, at the age of 82. Upon his death, however, he bequeathed a large sum of money to the Debate Society of Swarthmore College, with the caveat that only the members of the Debate Society could utilize it. According to rumors passed down from past members of the Society, Peaslee apparently had some sort of conflict with the College and mandated that his money could only be used by the Society in order to spite the administration. The Society changed its name to the Amos J. Peaslee Debate Society around this time, and to the present day we are still receiving all of our annual funding from the interest gained from Mr. Peaslee’s endowment.
The APDA Era
According to A Brief History of APDA, at the beginning of the 1980s Swarthmore was at the southern end of a parliamentary debate circuit that ran from Pennsylvania to New England. When the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) was formed in 1981, Swarthmore immediately joined as one of the founding colleges. Swat hosted the first standalone APDA nationals in 1982, and since then has remained an active and powerful force on the circuit, even despite the College’s relatively small size.
A poster from 1985 advertising a debate between Princeton and Swarthmore.
During the mid-1980s Swarthmore apparently still participated in at least some of the same sort of small and highly publicized collegiate debates as it had earlier in its history. The poster to the left of this paragraph, from 1985, advertises a debate in which the Princeton Debate Panel invited Swarthmore to their campus to debate the resolution, “The beef goes on.” A similar poster still in the possession of the Peaslee Debate Society advertises a debate in the 1980s between Swarthmore and Yale on the resolution, “We should bring back the 1960s,” with Yale on the affirmative and Swarthmore on the negative. Articles about the Debate Society in The Phoenix from the mid-80s, however, indicate that Swarthmore was also participating in weekly debate tournaments not unlike those today.
The current style of APDA debate typically involves a number of schools from across the East Coast (and occasionally some schools as far away as Chicago, Minnesota, or Stanford) gathering at a host institution each weekend to compete in five rounds of parliamentary debate, with a break to outrounds starting with quarter-finals that, although open to the public, often only find debaters in the audience. In addition to attending APDA tournaments, Swarthmore on occasion sends teams to compete at tournaments in Canada hosted by the Canadian University Society for Intercollegiate Debate (CUSID). Lastly, Swarthmore annually competes in APDA’s National Debate Championship each spring, the World Universities Debating Championship over winter break, and, since its inception in 1991, the North American Debate Championships, a tournament between APDA’s and CUSID’s best. APDA tournaments use a distinctly American form of parliamentary debate that consists of a 40-minute round between two teams of two individuals each; CUSID tournaments have slightly different rules, but still feature rounds between two teams of two debaters. Worlds rounds are conducted in British Parliamentary style, which have two teams of two debaters each on the affirmative side of a resolution, and two teams of two debaters each on the negative side of the resolution. Despite the differences in style, Swarthmore debaters have excelled in both the national and international circuits over the past few decades. Additionally, we have been given the honor of hosting APDA’s National Championships three times in the span of just nine years; we hosted Nationals in 1996, 2000, and 2004.
The Peaslee Debate Society currently resides in Tarble 306, a room located behind Tarble All-Campus Space and directly above Paces. It apparently moved to Tarble from Bond Hall in the late 1990s, though we do not have information where Peaslee was located in Bond, or for how long it had been there. We were one of the few student groups on campus to have a permanent home during the late 90s and early 00s, as most groups were waiting for the upcoming renovation of Parrish before they could find a room to permanently call their own. As a side note, the Bongo Board currently in the Peaslee Room that is now used to deliver election speeches from originally belonged to Josh Davis ’87, one of Swarthmore’s most successful debaters of the past few decades.
Research for this page was conducted by David Bing ’03, Sarah Drescher ’03, Liz Engelhardt ’05, Chris Segal ’05, and Susan Wilker ’05. Additional information was provided by Josh Davis ’87. If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of Swarthmore’s Debate Society, check out the Friends Historical Library, the Phoenix archives in McCabe, and the Halcyon yearbook archives in McCabe. Any alums who have additional information or corrections for this page – no matter how major or trivial – or just have questions about what Swat Debate is up to these days are welcome and encouraged to contact our current executive board.