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Grover Cleveland Case: Honorary Membership Debate

Honorary membership was a prominent debatable question in Sigma Chi Fraternity. It was brought up at practically all early Grand Chapters with legislation on the subject enacted upon. Those in favor saw it as a way to gain membership that the fraternity could be proud of. Those opposed to the membership saw it as just a way to gain in numbers. When the fraternity adopted a centralized form of government in 1882 honorary membership was presumably prohibited and nothing further came up on the subject for years.

In 1892 the question came up again, and that time it was concerning the most prominent man in America, President Grover Cleveland. He held office from March 1885 to March 1889 and was defeated for reelection by Benjamin Harrison (an early member at Phi Delta Theta at Miami University) in 1888. Cleveland later ran for the Presidency, in 1892, against then President Harrison (whose vice presidential running mate was Whitelaw Reid, the man who had led the "loyal six" in Delta Kappa Epsilon at Miami against the six who later founded Sigma Chi) and won. He began his second term in office March 1893.

On February 22, 1892, Cleveland traveled to the University of Michigan to speak at the Washington’s Birthday celebration. Before his visit the Theta Theta Chapter at Ann Arbor had the idea to initiate him into their chapter as an honorary member. The fraternity members believed that the membership was legal and went ahead and extended the offer. Grover’s stay in Ann Arbor was short and nothing came of the honorary membership offer until he returned to New York. The Theta Theta members promptly wrote him another letter, renewing the offer, and he accepted. Cleveland, not knowing the whole situation, was much appreciative of the membership.

The young men had not gotten the approval for Cleveland’s initiation and the Chicago Grand Officers were disconcerted. Everything was put on hold until the next Grand Chapter, which was the 19th Grand Chapter held in Indianapolis. The issue was debated for the better part of the two days in session. Many attendees simply thought it courtesy to extend the honor to Cleveland, but the Chicago Grand Officers opposed. A decision was made to take no action with any legislation concerning honorary membership, therefore it was still forbidden.

Many fraternity members throughout the country felt that an exception should be made, for he was the President of the United States once and soon to be again and to not follow through with his membership could cause embarrassment. Even Grand Consul Reginald Fendall believed that the President-elect should be initiated. He even went as far as to call a special Grand Chapter meeting held in New York City on January 1893. Leading the “initiate Cleveland” group was Grand Consul Fendall, and his opposition’s leader was past Grand Consul Walter L. Fisher. Fisher had no animosity towards Cleveland, he just felt that it was illegal to initiate an honorary member. The battle went on all day and into the night until 3 am, when Grand Consul Fendall formally announced Grover Cleveland as an honorary member. Brother Cleveland was presented during his initiation a badge set with diamonds, which he wore during his inauguration as President on March 4, 1893. (This pin is now in possession of the Fraternity at the International Headquarters in Evanston, IL).