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.