The Literary and History Society was entirely Newman’s creation, and he was busy drafting a set of rules for what he termed a ‘debating society’ a few months before the University began. The idea of a debating society along the lines of the Historical, Literary, and Aesthetical Society (as it was originally called) can be seen from an article he wrote in 1819 for The Undergraduate, the student newspaper he and John Bowden founded and edited at Oxford. The significance of the article – and indeed of The Undergraduate itself – is that it reflects a general dissatisfaction with the Oxford that existed in Newman’s time; more importantly, it testifies to Newman’s long-held conviction that a great part of the process of education – if it is to be a real education – should lie outside the official academic routine.
The name of the Historical, Literary, and Aesthetical Society reflected the content of the society’s early meetings and the contemporary taste for literary composition and criticism. In line with Newman’s wish to keep politics at bay, he insisted (as in his 1819 article) on the rule that ‘No member may introduce the subject of British politics of the last fifty years’.
The first meeting of the Historical, Literary, and Aesthetical Society took place on 9 March 1856 in the basement of University House and was presided over by Newman. Newman retired from view for the second session of 1856/57, when the society’s president was Henry Bethell, a nephew of the attorney-general Sir Richard Bethell.
In 1856/57 the society had twenty-three members, besides the six officers (and honorary members) – which totalled to around half the number of undergraduates. Literary meetings and debates took place on alternate weeks, and proceedings were governed by a highly-elaborate rule-book. All members were required to take their turn in chairing meetings. The Rules and Regulations (1857) stated that ‘Nothing more is required from any member than a courageous determination to think for himself; to express his ideas as well as he is able; and to listen with interest to the opinions and thoughts of others, submitted to his criticism.’
There is no doubt that Newman saw the Historical, Literary, and Aesthetical Society as a great instrument for rounding out the education imparted at the Catholic University and for preparing students for the world of work. This was the practical working out of a passage from his Dublin lectures, where he had countered the claims of the educational utilitarians of his day and dwelt on the practical benefits of a liberal education:
‘the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgement, and sharpened his mental vision, will not at once be a lawyer, […] a man of business, or a soldier, or an engineer but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any of these sciences or callings […] with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger.’ (Idea of a university)
After Newman’s departure the society became known as the Literary and Historical Society, and the title of president was renamed as auditor. Today the society is known more familiarly as the ‘L&H’.
Several of its early auditors went on to distinguish themselves in public life, just as Newman had hoped: Hugh McDermot (auditor in 1858/59) became solicitor-general, attorney- general, then a privy councillor for Ireland; Charles Dawson (auditor in 1867/68) became mayor of Dublin and MP for Carlow; (Sir) George Fottrell (auditor in 1870/71) a political commentator; John Dillon (auditor in 1874/75) the leading nationalist parliamentarian.