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Signature of James L. Dusenbery and several photographs artistically combined.

The Debating Societies and College Friendships

Erika Lindemann

1. The Debating Societies

All students were members of a debating society, either the Dialectic Society or the Philanthropic Society. These societies met weekly on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. Friday evenings were given over to debates, and on Saturdays, students wrote compositions or engaged in declamation. James was a member of the Dialectic Society; he was a "Di." Because the societies boasted elegant meeting rooms and large libraries, students such as James found it a point of pride to escort visitors, especially young ladies, on tours of the Dialectic Society Hall (September 19, 1841; April 9, 1842). James also represented the Dialectic Society on a committee to secure from Roswell A. King specimens of gold and silver from his mines near Lexington (August 7, 1841).
A map showing
                            the location of Silver Hill, Davidson County, NC. Silver Hill was one of
                            the mines operated by Roswell A.
                                King.A map showing the location of Silver Hill, Davidson County, NC. Silver Hill was one of the mines operated by Roswell A. King.

This map is part of the North Carolina State Archives collection, and is made available as part of the North Carolina Maps website

The rivalry between the two societies is evident in James's journal. He sometimes treated "Phis" with disdain, took pleasure in outwitting them, and occasionally misspelled their names, a sign that he, like other students, customarily did not associate with members of the rival society. Even University dormitories were divided into sections reserved for members of one or the other society. James lived on the same hall or "passage" as other Dialectic Society members and would not have had daily contact with Philanthropic Society members except during twice-daily prayers or classes, where socializing was minimal and closely controlled by faculty members. At the same time, members of both societies broke curfew, and they sometimes found themselves together in places where neither group was supposed to be. A student's closest friends were his society fellows. Nevertheless, tensions sometimes developed among members of the same society. James tells us that he got into an argument with James Campbell, a former president of the Dialectic Society, for showing favoritism toward members of the DVV, a sub-group or club within the Dialectic Society (September 26, 1841). James and Rufus Barringer, both members of the Dialectic Society, were frequent companions during much of the 1841-1842 academic year, but by April James declined to ask Rufus to sign his diploma because he was no longer speaking to him (April 30, 1842). James never served as an officer in the Dialectic Society, but like most students, he valued his association with the Dis. The friendships he formed lasted well beyond graduation.
For additional information on UNC's debating societies, see Erika Lindemann's "The Debating Societies" and Kevin Cherry's 2011 Gladys Hall Coates University History Lecture, "And They Talked. Always They Talked: 215 Years of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies".
Inside the
                            front cover of Sir Walter Scott's Tales of My
                                Landlord, Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Robert Wright,
                        1823. See the Documents page for links to Dialectic Society library records for James, Henry, and William Dusenbery.Inside the front cover of Sir Walter Scott's Tales of My Landlord, Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Robert Wright, 1823. See the Documents page for links to Dialectic Society library records for James, Henry, and William Dusenbery.

North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

2. College Friendships

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James's record of his senior year ends with a description of the 1842 Commencement, his journey back to Lexington, and his plans to join his Dialectic Society friends—John Ballanfant, Thomas Slade, William McBee, and Bartlett McNairy—for a tour thorough the western mountains of North Carolina. Not only were they curious about visiting a part of the country that most of them had not seen, but they doubtless hoped to keep one another company for a while longer, before adult responsibilities parted them. For many of James's classmates this curiosity about the West would shape their adult lives. Twelve of the students mentioned in the journal left their home states to become part of mid-nineteenth-century migrations farther south and west. Unlike James, who remained in Lexington most of his life, his brother Fayette married and left the state, living briefly in Tennessee, then settling in Resaca, GA. James's cousin and classmate, Peter Rounsaville, went to Indiana, then spent the rest of his life in Arkansas. Other native North Carolinians mentioned in James's journal moved to Mississippi, Missouri, Florida, Texas, and California. When their destinations could be determined, they are given in the biographical notes.
Philathropic
                                Society diploma issued to Jarvis Buxton, 1839.Philathropic Society diploma issued to Jarvis Buxton, 1839.

Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What James's journal does not record, of course, is what happened to him and his classmates after their graduation. According to his classmate, Philanthropic Society member Joseph John Summerell, half the members of the Class of 1842 became lawyers; James and four other classmates became physicians; two graduates engaged in farming; one joined the United States army; one became a "poetaster"; and six other students either died early or were otherwise unaccounted for. Eventually, 16 of the students mentioned in James's journal served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. Among University of North Carolina students, casualties were heaviest among students who graduated in the 1850s, but graduates of the 1840s, including six of James's contemporaries, also died. After the war, the members of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies published lists of members killed in the conflict. The Philanthropic Society lost 139 alumni; the Dialectic Society, 169 alumni.
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