On September 24, 1874, the Corresponding Secretary of the Philodemic Society read aloud a letter from Richard T. Merrick, esq. Merrick was one of DC’s well-respected lawyers. Because of the Society’s reputation as one of DC’s most eminent collegiate debating societies, Merrick sought to encourage the society in its endeavor to practice eloquence in the defense of liberty. The letter began as follows: “Know all men by these presents that I, Richard T. Merrick, of the city of Washington, in the District of Columbia, being desirous of promoting the pursuit of oratory and encouraging the practice of debate among the students of the University of Georgetown in said district, have given, granted, assigned and transferred, and do hereby give, grant, assign and transfer unto Patrick F. Healy, the president of said University and his successors in office forever, eighteen shares of the Capital stock of the metropolitan Railroad company…”
The shares, worth approximately $50 a piece, was for the purpose of purchasing “a suitable gold medal…to be presented to that member of the Philodemic Society…who shall be deemed to be the best and most competent debater in said society.” Merrick went on to lay down what would ultimately become the rules and guidelines for the annual debate named in his honor. Originally, the Society would convene and select, by ballot, four speakers who would participate in two public debates. The ballot was replaced with a lengthy “Merrick Season” after our reconstitution in 1988. Merrick then called for the president of the University — along with a panel of judges — to select the winner. The medal would be bestowed upon the winner at the annual commencement of the literary department of the University and by order of Richard Merrick, “shall receive prominent mention among the awards rendered on that day.”
To this day, the University respects the wishes of Merrick, as the Merrick Medal is the only non-academic medal allowed to be worn during graduation. After convening the first Merrick committee, the society purchased a medal, selected four keynote speakers, and in 1875, held the first annual Richard T. Merrick Debate. For the debate, the Society considered the following topic: “Should the Federal Government Grant Subsidies to Railway Companies?” While it is unclear whether or not the society at large voted on the topic, an affirmation speaker by the name of James M. Hagan was selected as the first Merrick Medal winner. Mr. Hagan was a sophomore from the state of Kentucky.
Unsurprisingly, the ranks of Merrick winners include some prominent figures. Rufus Lusk, winner of the 1917 medal, became a WWI captain who, true to his Irish roots, was known as one of the most famous anti-prohibition crusaders in the District of Columbia. Philip Hart Jr., winner of the 1934 medal, became a famous Senator from Michigan, after whom the Hart Senate Office building is named. Richard Alan Gordon, winner of the 1950 medal, became a well-respected professor and assistant dean of Georgetown Law School. The success of previous winners speaks to the great level of skill required of each Merrick keynoter, and it is that skill which will undoubtedly lead our more recent Merrick Medal recipients to do great things.
Over the years, we have attracted countless prominent individuals to serve as judges including congressmen, senators, federal judges, advisers to the President of the United States, esteemed members of the media, and leaders of influential non-government organizations. That is a tradition that we proudly continue to this day. Almost 150 years ago Richard T. Merrick bestowed upon the society three things. The first was 18 shares of valuable railroad stock. The second was the tradition of holding an annual debate featuring some of the Society’s most eloquent speakers, who would demonstrate the eloquence which was fostered and developed during their time in the Philodemic. But, most importantly, the final thing which Richard T. Merrick bestowed on every member of the society was a vision to promote oratory and debate — that is, the exchange of ideas — of the highest form. It is in keeping with that vision, and the vision of our founder Father James Ryder, that we gather every year in April to engage in a debate and dialogue which advances our motto: Eloquentiam Libertati Devinctam—Eloquence in the Defense of Liberty!
Joshua Donovan (COL ’13)
Librarian Emeritus of the Philodemic Society