The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.

INTEREST in public speaking and debating existed almost from the first days of the University, and regular instruction was offered long before the establishment of the Department of Elocution and Oratory in 1892 (see Part IV: Department of Speech). Before that time, some training in elocution had been given by Professor Moses Coit Tyler in combination with his work in English literature. Later, in 1872, President Harry Burns Hutchins, then Instructor in Rhetoric and History, organized the Junior Debate, which was Page  1881held between various sections of the Junior Class. In 1876 this debate was continued by his successor, Isaac Newton Demmon, who was to become in a few years Professor of English Literature. In the next decade, under his guidance, debating became a popular pastime among the students, as evidenced by the formation of many debating societies. The great increase in the work in composition and public speaking which came with the broadening of the course of study in 1878, however, led to the abandonment of these debates, and instruction in the subject fell to a low ebb until Professor Thomas Clarkson Trueblood came in 1884 to give one-third of his time to the work. His success in this field eventually led to his appointment as Professor of Oratory in 1892, and under his direction debating enjoyed a brilliant career.

But if the powers that be were slow to recognize the desire of the students for instruction in public speaking, there were many more or less unofficial avenues for those who desired to give vent to their oratorical impulses. Two opportunities existed almost from the first, the old literary societies and the class exhibitions and Commencement programs. The first literary society, Phi Phi Alpha, was organized in 1842, to be followed by Alpha Nu. Adelphi was not formed until shortly after the demise of Phi Phi Alpha in 1860. The traditional programs of these societies were largely orations, essays, and concluding debates in which were debated such momentous questions as:

  • "Resolved: That the benefits of novel reading will compensate for its injuries.
  • Resolved: That we have sufficient evidence for belief in ethereal spirits.
  • Resolved: That brutes reason.
  • Resolved: That woman has as much influence in the nation as man.
  • Resolved: That students should not form matrimonial engagements while in college."

These societies also maintained literary papers. Phi Phi Alpha had the "Castalia," Alpha Nu, the "Sybil," and Adelphi, "The Hesperian." In 1868 they established a series of prize contests, debates for sophomores and juniors, and orations for seniors. For these, first and second prizes were awarded at public exhibitions, which never failed to arouse great interest. This traditional emphasis on public speaking was maintained consistently until the 1920's, and many distinguished alumni of the University were numbered among the contestants.

Although Alpha Nu and Adelphi rendered great service to the University, they were not the only student organizations which had public speaking as their reason for existence. Others which have come and gone are remembered only by their own student generation and by the heavy weight of their classical names. Such were a multitude of debating clubs which sprang up in the 1860's under such impressive titles as "Homotrapezoi," "Philozetian," "Panarmonian," or, in the Law Department, the less pretentious "Douglas," "Clay," and "Lincoln" societies, the forerunners of the Jeffersonian and Webster societies. A latter-day organization was the long-popular "Toastmaster's Club," which aimed to perpetuate the doubtful joys of afterdinner oratory. Other means of self-expression were those formal exhibitions of which the long-popular annual Junior Exhibition was the most prominent. Later, the only vestige of student participation in programs of this character was in the annual Class Day exercises.

Another organization which stimulated interest in platform speaking was the Students' Lecture Association, which for many years was one of the most successful undergraduate enterprises. It was Page  1882organized in September, 1854, and continued for almost sixty years to bring distinguished and sometimes, judged by latter-day standards, undistinguished speakers before student audiences. It ceased to exist in 1912, but only after the broadening interests of the University began to attract to Ann Arbor many prominent visitors, while at the same time the multiplication of other forms of entertainment lessened the attractions of the traditional lecture course.

That the privilege of hearing some of these speakers was not always properly appreciated is shown by the comments of the editor of one of the local papers on a lecture by Emerson: "The subject of the lecture was 'Human Beauty,' rather a singular subject, it strikes us, from so homely a man as Mr. Emerson. Mr. Emerson is not a pleasing speaker — in fact, is an awkward speaker, and yet he demands the utmost attention of every hearer."

From 1889, under Trueblood's direction debating enjoyed a brilliant career. With the gradual organization of the Department of Elocution and Oratory, public speaking and debating came to have a recognized place among student activities. Matches at that time were confined to rivalry between the Department of Law and the Department of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and the final contest of the season was regarded as a gala occasion.

Intercollegiate debates and contests were organized to stimulate student interest. These were first inaugurated by the Michigan Oratorical Association which, soon after its establishment in 1889, at Professor Trueblood's instigation invited neighboring universities to form an Oratorical Union — an annual intercollegiate oratorical contest, open only to undergraduates. Invitations were sent to Oberlin, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Cornell universities. With the exception of Cornell these were the colleges which formed the Northern Oratorical League, established in 1890.

In the next two years the universities of Chicago and Iowa were added to the list of opponents. Minnesota joined in 1897. Interest in the subject at this time was very keen; the opening of the debating season often found as many as sixty to one hundred contestants trying out for positions on the team. In 1895 debating was placed under the auspices of the Oratorical Association, an arrangement which assured it a definite place on the campus.

In 1896, under the guidance of Professor Trueblood, the Central Debating League was formed for the purpose of encouraging intercollegiate debating among the major universities. Michigan, Chicago, and Northwestern were the first members of this league. Arrangements were made to hold semifinal matches, followed by a final debate, in order to determine which league team was the winner. The first Central Debating League contest, in 1896, was won by the University of Michigan. The following years saw both Wisconsin and Minnesota as members of the league at various times. The University of Michigan held and won its first intersectional debate in 1896, with the University of Pennsylvania. By 1900 the University had won seven of its first ten debates, the last five victories having been consecutive.

In 1907, in order to replace the previous single-team arrangement, two debating teams were established for each university. With each university upholding both sides of the question, the University of Michigan won both of the final debates of the league contest. In 1914 the new Midwest Debating League was formed. The University entered two teams in this league and won both of the final debates. It was now participating in two leagues, with four teams. At the Page  1883close of the period ending in 1920, the University had established a record, having won forty-two of its sixty-four intercollegiate debates. Twenty-four debates had been won unanimously and only four lost. In 1920-21 women were admitted to the University debating teams. In 1925 the first Women's Debate League was formed, with the University of Indiana and Ohio State University as our opponents.

The University of Michigan participated in and won its first international debate, against Oxford University in 1924, and in 1926 was invited to send representatives to England to take part in a series of debates. This was the first time a university west of New York had been accorded such an honor. While in England the University won four of the five debates in which it participated.

The Western Conference Debate League was formed to supplant the other two leagues in 1926. It included all the "Big Ten" schools except the University of Chicago, which was to enter at a later date. Both the women's and men's debating teams of each university were members of the league. Participation in the regular program of this league constitutes the University's present system of debate. Today, there is participation in national and regional student congresses sponsored by Delta Sigma Rho, and also an invitational tournament held each spring in Ann Arbor. Other activities include individual debates held at this and other universities and many appearances before service clubs, high schools, and community audiences. Various styles of debating are now employed with a type of cross-question debating being used most frequently. Since World War II, approximately eighty University of Michigan students have participated each year in debate activities.