February 13, 1815: The Cambridge Union Society is founded. The society is often called either the Cambridge Union or even the Union. It is a debating group located in Cambridge, England and is the largest society at the University of Cambridge. It is a worldwide symbol for free speech and open debate. Many other universities have modeled debating societies on Cambridge, most notably Oxford Union and the Yale Political Union.
The founding of the Union was really a merging of two or three already existing debating societies. It quickly gained status and one of the early officers was essayist Thomas Macaulay. Other officers have also gone on to prestigious positions in business and government. On March 24, 1817, the Union was briefly shut down by the University for being too contentious. In 1821, it was once again permitted to operate, but under strict guidelines. They didn’t particularly follow the guidelines and continued to debate contentious topics, albeit in disguised form.
The current building on Bridge Street was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and opened formally on October 30, 1866. A wing was added later under the leadership of President Sir Charles Dilke. Some of the famous rooms in the building include the debating chamber, a dining room, a bar, a snooker room, the Keynes Library (named for the economist), and a variety of offices. The building was damaged by a bomb dropped during World War II. The library suffered damage and some of the older books still show shrapnel damage.
The Union is a self-funded private society and has full control over itself although it has a strong relationship with the University. They do rent out rooms to other societies at Cambridge. Even after nearly 200 years, the Union still holds rousing debates and usually fields successful teams to the World Universities Debating Championships. They host talks given by a variety of people throughout the academic year, as well. In the past year they have hosted such luminaries as Richard Dawkins, John Major (former Prime Minister of Britain), comedian Dara Ó Briain, Jesse Jackson, Seb Coe (Olympic legend), and TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson.
“Convinced as I am and as I am from my government that the world needs a new moral architecture over all I believe that this should be the first topic to debate in our world of today, ethics, moral.” – Hugo Chavez
“Debate and divergence of views can only enrich our history and culture.” – Ibrahim Babangida
“Defining the terms of the debate generally dictates who’s gonna’ win it.” – Paul Begala
“Debate is masculine, conversation is feminine.” – Amos Bronson Alcott