An Era of Oration: The Early History of Fulton Debating Society

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Fulton Debating Society program, 1893 May 4. Box 2, folder 3, Boston College Office of Student Affairs records, University Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

From the inception of Boston College, elocution and oratory skill were among the most important assets that the school actively cultivated in its students. The Prefect of Studies–or Dean–Robert Fulton, S.J., profoundly fostered the student interest in oratorical aptitude. Under his tutelage, the “Senior Debating Society” was officially founded in 1868, just four years after Fulton admitted the first students. By 1890, students renamed the organization in his honor as the Fulton Debating Society or, as more fondly known by the students, “the Fulton.”  Topics of political, philosophical, and social intrigue were common to the debates of the club.

Student representation of the Fulton Debating Society in 1924 Sub Turri yearbook

Student representation of the Fulton Debating Society in 1924 Sub Turri yearbook. Sub Turri. [Boston]: Boston College, 1924.

The Fulton Prize Debate took place annually in Boston College Hall and attracted students and lay spectators from all over the city. The winner was crowned the best debater of the year and received a medal of gold. The prize was one of the highest honors that could be bestowed upon a Boston College student at the time. When Boston College moved from its South End residence to the Heights of Chestnut Hill in 1913, only one club–the Fulton Debating Society, naturally–received a room specific to its use in the campus’s first building.  A century later, the debating room’s walls are still adorned with paintings of the world’s most famous orators and a list of all the past winners of the Fulton Prize Debate.

The 1919 Fulton Debating Society in their competition attire

The 1919 Fulton Debating Society in their competition attire. Sub Turri. [Boston]: Boston College, 1919.

After its first intercollegiate debate against Georgetown University in 1895, the Fulton competed against many notable institutions. Perhaps the most notable victory of the Fulton Debating Society came in 1928 against Harvard University before a sold-out Symphony Hall, holding an audience of almost 3,500.  The spectacular and overwhelming victory against “the gentlemen from across the Charles” was hoped by The Heights to “remove much of the silly prejudice that unfortunately exists now in both institutions among certain groups.”

The Boston Globe depiction of the 1928 Fulton Society debate

The Boston Globe depiction of the 1928 Fulton Society debate. Boston Globe, “Boston College Defeats Harvard in Debate over Gov ‘Al’ Smith,” 12 January 1928

Unmatched in garnering of acclaim for the university in the 19th and early 20th centuries, debates lured crowds from all across Boston and teams from across the globe.  The intercollegiate debates strengthened bonds and set a sturdy foundation with colleges across the country for future sporting matchups.

  • Jenny Frese BC 2015  and Spring 2015 Making History Public Student

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit #WeWereBC, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Seth Meehan’s Spring 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.  

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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