Pundit Club Tour

Mid-nineteenth century Rochester, New York was not only a boomtown but also an incubator for the intellect. The University of Rochester established a credible reputation soon after its founding in 1850, and its professors expanded the ranks of professionals already living in the city.  Businessmen and lawyers established themselves alongside the rapidly growing industry and commerce in the Flour City. A strong Protestantism took hold, and Rochester’s early professionals filled the pews of churches for years before they joined the rows of Mt. Hope Cemetery visible today. A spirit of productivity pervaded this period of economic growth and development, and men of nineteenth-century Rochester sought personal progress and self-cultivation through literary fraternities and clubs, following a national pattern. One of the earliest and certainly the longest running club – it continues to this day – is named simply “The Club.”

Like many clubs of the era, membership in The Club was limited to men; however, the wives of members had a lasting impact, humorously referring to the fraternity as the “Pundit Club,” the name by which it is commonly known today. Morey’s “Reminiscences of the ‘Club’” helpfully categorizes the “pundits” as men from the clerical, medical, and legal professions; the “professorial class,” mostly from the University of Rochester; and an “unclassified group,” to which Lewis Henry Morgan belonged. Morgan and University of Rochester President Martin B. Anderson are credited with forming the Club on July 13, 1854, although Morgan took a more prominent role as secretary, the Club’s only effective office. Morgan notes that upon becoming “an entity and a verity,” the Club’s roster listed only nine prominent Rochester names: himself, President Martin B. Anderson, Rev. Dr. Joshua McIlvaine, Prof. John H. Raymond, Mr. E. Peshine Smith, Mr. Calvin Huson Jr., Dr. Chester Dewey, Dr. Asahel Kendrick, and Hon. Harvey Humphrey. The official number of members would later be increased to eighteen in 1863 and twenty in 1865.

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Club meetings occurred every other Tuesday and were preceded by invitations sent out by the secretary (Records 1854-1904, vol. 1). Members took turns presenting papers on topics of their choice. Other members presided over the discussion that followed the presentation, which was limited to a five-minute response per person. Subject matter varied widely among members and from one meeting to another, ranging from translations of classical literature to discussions of the very newest science of the day – including Darwin and evolutionary theory. Dr. William Watson Ely’s “Anatomical Structure of the Beaver” and Lewis Henry Morgan’s “Beaver Dams and Lodges” provide good examples of the function of some papers as precursors to published work. The content of these papers and the results of the two men’s collaboration were published in 1868 in Morgan’s book, The American Beaver and His Works. No subject was off limits according to Morey, except for two: “polemic theology and partisan politics.” The range of subject matter for The Club was left to grow naturally based on members’ interests, in recognition of the “essential unity of all knowledge,” according to Morgan’s notes. This sentiment regarding the pursuit of knowledge became codified with the informal adoption of a Latin motto: “Si quid veri inveneris, profer,” translated as “If you discover any truth, let it be known.”

The records of Morgan and subsequent secretaries on attendance, the presenter and the title of his paper, and any proceedings of note, are bound and preserved. Referred to as Club archives, these documents were first housed in a safe deposit box acquired by The Club but are now housed at the University of Rochester Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, a testament to the strong connection between The Club and the University. The first resolutions recorded in the leather-bound volumes regard the order of presenting, hosting, and presiding – issues resolved with an alphabetical list – and attendance. The Club determined that three consecutive absences constituted resignation, unless written excuse to the secretary was made. Summer travels created poor conditions for consistent attendance, so The Club adjourned from about June to September. Later resolutions dealt with less weighty matters, such as when dinner would be held and of what the menu would consist. The exclusivity of the Club was addressed as well, and the process for proposing and approving new members rose in importance, presumably as The Club became better known. Prospective members had to be unanimously voted in, and there could be no discussion regarding a candidate’s qualifications. 

Over time, scholars have compared The Club and the Fortnightly Club, another Rochester organization, observing that The Club had an older membership with wider interests. The variety of papers supports the latter claim, while the Club’s aging membership becomes noticeable in the secretary’s minutes, which begin to include memorials for deceased members written by those members who remembered them best or were closest to them. Lewis Henry Morgan’s memorial, written by Dr. Edward Mott Moore, claims, “This audience was his greatest pleasure and it was, in response invigorated by his enthusiasm.” 

This reciprocal benefit of the Club that Morgan and many others cherished years ago is perhaps still compelling to current Club members. While the “entity and verity” that is The Club figures less prominently in Rochester today, The Club maintains not only its simple existence but also its connection with the City and University of Rochester. The Club’s ideal of the “essential unity of all knowledge” connected the diverse interests of its members, and now it also connects scholars through time: The Club remains active today. 

Authored by: Anna Remus, University of Rochester Student

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This guided tour through Mount Hope Cemetery visits the graves of Morgan and five of his fellow members of “The Club” or “Pundit Club,” a literary fraternity that Morgan co-founded in 1854. To scheduled a docent-guided tour, please contact Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery. 

Download the docent script.

We gratefully knowledge the enthusiastic support of Dr. Paul Burgett (1936-2018) for the restoration of the Morgan family mausoleum, and we dedicate this tour to his memory.