The recent presidential debates remind us that Americans have long enjoyed sharpening their wits through verbal combat. Such was the case in September, 1836, in tiny Elkton (Todd County) Kentucky, when a group of young men formed the Union Club to engage in “polemic exercise” and “to reap from it the fruit it affords when properly conducted.”
The club’s minute book, now part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library, recorded the outcome of debates on topics that had been selected at the previous meeting. Should the United States acknowledge the independence of Texas? Should a man falsify his word under any circumstances? Are men happier in private life, as opposed to public? The winning sides, respectively, were yes, no and yes.
The minute book also laid down some ground rules for the debates. For example, no member could interrupt another without the club president’s permission, and everyone had to observe the “rules of decorum and respect as due from one gentleman to another.” Members were also bound by a “no spin” policy forbidding them to “retail upon the streets or elsewhere what passes during the meetings of the club.”
Despite reconstituting itself as the “Elkton Debating Society,” the group appeared to enjoy only three years of existence. As its minutes show, however, members tackled both political and philosophical questions with relish.