For an institution that revels in decades of tradition and prides itself as an emblem of “old Yale,” the Yale Political Union has long been uncertain about the hard facts of its history.
As the Union approaches its 75th anniversary, to be celebrated in 2009, it has launched an in-depth investigation of its founding and evolution. Much of the Union’s history has been cloaked in obscurity largely because heated contention among the organization’s political parties has precluded a unified effort to compile the organization’s biography. But an increased emphasis on cooperation and civility among parties over the past five semesters has sparked interest in piecing together the umbrella organization’s history.
Paul Selker ’08, who is helping to spearhead the project, said the compilation of Union history — which unofficially began in spring 2007 — has required countless hours of poring through Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives, YPU documents and multimedia and national newspapers.
Selker said the project team, which was officially established by the Union this fall and unofficially dubbed “Team History,” spends most of its time sorting through a large and inconsistent mass of primary sources.
“Learning about the YPU’s history is like a treasure hunt,” he said. “It’s a reconstruction. It’s not like there’s a book you go and read.”
Selker, who served as the first elected chair of the Party of the Left in the fall of 2006, said one of the biggest developments of the Union in recent years has been the mollification of animosity between parties.
Selker said “intense factionalism” in the past stands in contrast to the more amicable inter-party relations today.
“We are witnessing the dawn of a new kind of YPU,” he said.
The YPU was founded in 1934 with three parties — Liberal, Conservative and Labor — but the number has fluctuated over the years. It is currently comprised of seven political parties — Liberal, Conservative, Tory, Progressive, Independent, Party of the Right and the newest addition, Party of the Left.
Details surrounding the founding, demise and fragmentation of parties have been some of the most hotly debated elements of YPU history.
“The result was that the Union did not attract … any of the attachments that would lead you to be interested enough to write a history,” said Peter Johnston ’09, secretary of the Tory Party. “In the last few years, the Union has had a renaissance of relationships between the parties.”
Johnston is a columnist for the News.
Disagreements have raged for years over issues ranging from the founding date of the Conservative Party to the details surrounding the splitting-off of the Tory Party from the Party of the Right in the late 1960s.
YPU members have long disagreed about the legacy of John Kerry’s ’66 two-term presidency, and tales of the YPU’s past occupancy of local houses have always been murky historical territory. The Union now occupies an office on Crown Street.
One reason for the Union’s contentious history is the lack of a long-term, sustained effort to keep track of the group’s evolution until very recently.
William F. Buckley Jr. ’50, who said he was a member of the Conservative Party as an undergraduate, did not think much emphasis was placed on recording Union history during his involvement with the organization, he said.
“It’s too bad that people aren’t more interested in what happened the day before yesterday,” Buckley said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Law professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84, who was chair of the Liberal Party in the late 1970s, said history was passed down largely through word of mouth. But the Liberal Party used a chairman’s notebook to record party memory, with each chairman adding an entry to the notebook before handing it down to his successor, Amar said.
Former YPU President Silas Kulkarni ’06 said some parties, such as the Party of the Right and the Tory Party, have traditionally been more concerned with recording their histories than others.
But as a whole, he said, keeping historical records has been a low priority for the Union.
“When it comes to the history of the Political Union, there’s almost none,” Kulkarni said. “Almost nobody took any attention to recording the history. People would have trouble remembering who was president three years previous.”
Although the idea of a history team has been floated for many years, he said, it did not get off the ground until 2006.
Selker said the project began informally and was largely based on growing interest in creating a list of Union alumni in preparation for the group’s 75th anniversary.
Selker began his research by contacting Union alumni and arranging a meeting at the Yale Club of New York City, where Union alumni reminisced about their experiences in the Union. Once more students began to get involved, the Union formed Team History, led by Selker.
In October 2007, leadership of the group was transferred to Chris Shelton ’10 and Elizabeth Weissberg ’09.
Team History remains engrossed in searching, organizing and digitizing Union archives. Selker said the process has included poring through the files of past Yale luminaries such as former Yale presidents Kingman Brewster ’41 and James Angell, and federal judge Thomas Swann (19)’00.
In addition, the committee is digging through reams upon reams of letters housed in Union office on Crown Street, including correspondence with Fidel Castro, who spoke to the Union in the late 1950s, Selker said.
Weissberg said the committee’s goal has expanded beyond the compilation of an alumni list and that the committee now focuses primarily on the study of Union history.
Selker said he feels that the revival of interest in Union history indicates that the present-day organization is healthy.
“When the Union is conscious of its own history, it’s healthier,” he said. “That’s the sort of thing that stops old mistakes from being repeated and old animosities from resurfacing.”