18 U.S. Presidents Were in College Fraternities

Do frats create future leaders, or simply attract them?
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Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and George W. Bush were all in frats (Wikimedia)

Fraternities breed leaders. That, at least, is what most any chapter website will tell you, in not so many words—and the message certainly makes for a compelling rationale for joining the Greek system. It seems, too, to be borne out by the hard numbers. While only eight and a half percent of American male college students is a member of a fraternity, University of Kentucky professor of communication Alan DeSantis points out in his 2007 book, Inside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, those who are tend to cluster in one particular sweet spot of society: the top. 

Citing data from the Center for the Study of College Fraternity, DeSantis charts some impressive figures. Fraternity men make up 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices since 1910, 63 percent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900, and, historically, 76 percent of U.S. Senators, 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives,and 71 percent of the men in “Who’s Who in America.”  And that’s not counting the 18 ex-frat U.S. presidents since 1877 (that’s 69 percent) and the 120 Forbes 500 CEOs (24 percent) from the 2003 list, including 10—or one-third—of the top 30. In the 113th Congress alone, 38 of the hundred Senate members come from fraternity (and, now, sorority) backgrounds, as does a full quarter of the House. Is there something inherent in the fraternity culture that sends its members to the country’s top echelons?

When fraternities first came to the United States in the late 1700s—the first, Phi Beta Kappa, was established at the College of William and Mary in 1776 (though some would argue that the true start of Greek life would be the 1825 foundation of Kappa Alpha at Union College)—they were conceived, in large part, on the image of the secret society: a literal brotherhood, bound by rituals, symbol, and tradition. Phi Beta Kappa was itself preceded by some 26 years by the Flat Hat Club (F.H.C.) Society, a secret group with a literary bent that pledged itself to the values of “fraternitas, humanitas, et cognito”—brotherhood, humaneness, and knowledge (the original F.H.C. of the name). (Thomas Jefferson was a member—a fraternity president even before the advent of the first Greek fraternity.) And that initial motto—and the values it carries—has proven to be central to the groups that have followed, fraternities as we know them today.

Two of the F.H.C. pillars—fraternitas and cognito—are largely self-explanatory: a tightly-knit band of brothers who aspire to deeper knowledge. Humanitas, on the other hand, bears some elaboration. What exactly, after all, is “humanness”? As a tenet of public life, the concept dates back to Cicero’s “De Oratore,” a literal prescription, in his mind, for the training of future orators, and hence future leaders. As Yale historian Peter Gay later wrote, “The man who practiced humanitas was confident of his worth, courteous to others, decent in his social conduct, and active in his political role.” Humanitas, in other words, is a model of nothing less than social civic-mindedness, a way of being that presupposes an active, thoughtful participation in society at large, and the political arena in particular.

While today’s fraternities are hardly the literary- and debate-inspired groups of yore, their core mission—or, at the least, their ideal core mission and the one touted loudly in their public chapter and promotional materials—remains largely unchanged. (A sampling, in the organizations’ own words—Sigma Chi: Friendship, justice, and learning; Phi Gamma Delta: Friendship, Knowledge, Service, Morality, Excellence; Sigma Alpha Epsilon: The True Gentleman; Sigma Nu: Excelling with Honor—reveals language that is, at times, almost identical with the original F.H.C.)

In that sense, then, fraternities really do breed leaders—a cohort of young men dedicated to being loyal, being knowledgeable, and embracing the skills of leadership success, who hone said skills through bonding activities, community service, charity fundraising, and other community-minded endeavors. According to a 2006 study of leadership qualities among fraternal organizations, led by psychologist P.D. Harms, fraternity men do indeed exhibit higher levels of personality traits associated with successful leadership later in life, such as sociability and conscientiousness, coupled with (should said men want to rise in formal power within the organization) a driving ambition.

That, of course, is the ideal. The reality, as many critics of Greek life are quick to point out, is something far harsher. A quick academic search for fraternities and psychology, for instance, yields markedly more results on rape and binge drinking culture than the finer points of leadership. Historian Nicholas Syrett argues that the ultimate goal of the fraternity has always been overwhelmingly simple: to be manly, whatever that means in the contemporary context. Back in the early days of the system, to be manly it was largely enough to be interested in something other than the ministry. As Syrett points out, even though most college students at the time were still headed for ecclesiastical posts, a disproportionately small number of fraternity men were. As the twentieth century wore on, it became something even more exclusionary: anti-women, anti-gay, anti-minority, be it ethnic or religious (at least, as far as the white male fraternities were concerned). Step by step, colleges were diversifying; fraternities, markedly, were not.

That dichotomy makes a great deal of sense. Fraternities originally emerged, in part, to give just that sense of group cohesion that had been otherwise missing from typical collegiate life. But for an organization to hold and be strong over time, the cost is often a high one. You can’t form a group and expect it to stick, just like that. Creating groups is easy—but to make them meaningful and lasting, you have to give them a common identity that not only unites them but shows them why they are unique. One of the fundamental principles of group psychology (successfully adopted by many a religious and political group) is that, in order to define a group, you must define not only what it’s for, but what—or whom—it’s against. From the earliest studies on group formation, led by psychologist Muzafer Sherif and later developed by psychologist Henri Tajfel, the necessity of an out-group to define its own in-group has been at the root of developing a successful group identity. As Tajfel concluded in the 1974 summary of his work on social identity theory, “acting in terms of group rather than in terms of self cannot be expected to play a predominant part in an individual’s behaviour unless there is present a clear cognitive structure of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

And the “us” and “them” in the fraternity system is, in a sense, an accident of history. Think back to the earliest college fraternal organizations. The original F.H.C. had but six members—with Jefferson as one of the founders. It didn’t instill the values, ethic, or experience of a future president; it was brought to life by a future president in order to fill a niche that was missing in the existing collegiate social fabric. So, too, were many of the other fraternal precursors in the early American college system. At Princeton, the Plain Dealing Club and its rival, the Well Meaning Club, may have been banned by the university shortly after inception—but that didn’t stop James Madison (a plain dealer) and Aaron Burr (a well meaner) to then go on to voice their differences in a new arena, the American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society, respectively. And Phi Beta Kappa itself went on to become not a secret fraternal organization, but a prestigious honor society—with seven of the nine current Supreme Court justices boasting membership.

Such, then, were the early proto-frats: not creating leaders, but being created by future leaders—and attracting in the future more of the same like-minded individuals. The fraternity system was a product of America’s elite: the white, the Christian, the wealthy (the early fraternities were expensive—prohibitively so for any but the moneyed), the male. The “innest” of the in-groups the Founding Fathers could have envisioned—numbering, indeed, two of the Founding Fathers themselves in their ranks. An image of successful leadership, of the type of man who “gets ahead” in society from the very first.

And from the beginning, the invitees to these groups were almost destined for success. To be asked to join the early fraternities, according to Syrett, you had to be among the most “handsome, athletic, social, and confident” members of your class. Systems self-perpetuate: if a Thomas Jefferson or a James Madison, a Theodore Roosevelt or a Franklin D. Roosevelt was a member of a group, it certainly seems like a group well worth joining if you aspire yourself to lead one day. Once fraternities became tied to power and leadership, the powerful and would-be-leaders wanted to join.

It’s a concept we’ve all experienced in one form from the first days of school: popularity breeds popularity. Who knows why certain kids become popular—or are designated as losers—in the first place. But once they’re seen (and see themselves) in that light, it can be a tough attitude to change. Power breeds more power.

Maybe, then, the whole concept is flipped. It’s not that fraternities breed leaders, but that the young men who are drawn to—and successfully navigate—the fraternity system choose and succeed in that path for precisely the same reason they will go on to become successful leaders. In other words, the qualities that Harms identified aren’t achieved because of the fraternity, but almost in spite of it: it doesn’t really matter whether the fraternal activities these days happen to center more around drinking than around philosophical debates; successful members will have brought their leadership savvy with them when they arrived, and will distinguish themselves through whatever means are available.

And if that’s the case—that fraternities don’t breed leaders so much as leaders breed and perpetuate the fraternity system—the more relevant question to be asking may not be, “Why are so many of the nation’s leaders throughout history alumni of fraternities?’ but rather: “What of the nation’s more recent—and future—leaders?”

Here, we'd do well to go back to those proudly cited numbers—the scores upon scores of the nation’s elite who brandish a fraternity affiliation. Eighteen presidents since 1877, to be sure. But our current president is not a fraternity man. Neither was his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton (he was only made an honorary member of Yale’s Phi Beta Sigma after the fact, and the fraternal organization he chose as a Georgetown undergraduate, Alpha Phi Omega, is a national co-ed service group rather than a Greek fraternal house, despite its Greek name). In fact, if we take our last ten presidents, we find that only five had Greek affiliations—still a large percentage, to be sure, but a full 20 points lower that the 69 percent post-1877 figure. Out of the last ten vice presidents, too, only five were fraternity men in their day. Out of the current U.S. governors—often feeders for the presidency—only nine are members of fraternities. And what of the generation poised to become future leaders—the twenty- and thirty-somethings who will shortly be taking the reigns of political and financial power? Did they belong overwhelmingly to fraternities? It’s a speculative question, to be sure, but one worth asking if we want to get to the roots of the tantalizing link.

As the “us” and the “them” in the ranks of society change, as groups become more fluid and high-powered alternatives to the Greek system more accessible, perhaps we will continue to see a decline in the frat-linked heads of our key institutions—a sign of a changing, albeit slowly and haltingly, America.

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Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and the forthcoming book The Confidence Game.

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