All about the Union League — and why a Philly institution is honoring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

The fancy club was founded in 1862 to support President Lincoln’s efforts in the Civil War.

Union League of Philadelphia on South Broad Street

Union League of Philadelphia on South Broad Street

Wikimedia Commons
jordanlevy-headshot

Update, Oct. 7: The dinner, originally set for Oct. 13, has been postponed to Jan. 24, according to The Inquirer, so DeSantis can focus on storm recovery.

Members of the Union League of Philadelphia have been voicing complaints about the exclusive social club giving Florida Governor Ron DeSantis one of its top awards.

DeSantis is set to receive a gold medal from the 159-year-old institution headquartered on South Broad Street, which was first established to support President Abraham Lincoln and the Union effort as the Civil War expanded. Lincoln, in fact, was the first gold medal recipient.

Tickets to the dinner honoring the Florida politician cost $160 per person and reportedly sold out quickly, with reservations limited to a member and one guest.

It’s DeSantis’s own presumed presidential ambitions — and his current race — that have some members perturbed. At least five members are thought to have expressed their dismay to the league board, and one is thought to have resigned from the club over the issue.

“DeSantis is running for governor and he has an opponent, and they’re essentially endorsing his candidacy by giving him an award without polling the rest of the members of the Union League,” Thomas McGill, a Union League member, told The Philadelphia Tribune.

Beyond that, DeSantis has courted controversy in recent weeks, most notably after organizing for Venezuelan migrants to be flown to Martha’s Vineyard, ostensibly to demonstrate that highly liberal areas aren’t sincere in their support. After staying at a church for two nights, the newcomers were ferried to a military base in Cape Cod, and are expected to leave the base by the end of October.

On a local tip, DeSantis has been a vocal backer of Pa. gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who has vowed to make Pennsylvania the “Florida of the North.”

Distaste with an award recipient hasn’t surfaced like this recently, even when the Union League has honored other nationally known conservatives with similar political views.

Jeff Sessions, former President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, received the League’s Lincoln Award in 2018, joining past honorees that include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito — all figures who match or surpass DeSantis in their fervor across a gamut of issues, from immigration to anti-LGBTQ policy.

The group’s members are known to be conservative, and have been for a long time now. What is the Union League, anyway? Here’s a rundown.

Inside cover to the program for a Lincoln birthday dinner held at the Union League in 1894

Inside cover to the program for a Lincoln birthday dinner held at the Union League in 1894

Wikimedia Commons / NYPL

An abridged history of war and bounty

In December 1862, a local forerunner called the Union Club officially became the Union League, part of a wider network of leagues founded in the early 1860s to support Lincoln and the Union effort in the Civil War.

Philly’s was the first urban group of its kind, but the first union league overall was founded a few months earlier by abolitionists in Pekin, Illinois.

Originally, there was a $25 entrance fee, roughly equivalent to $700 today. That was also the price of annual membership. One hundred men signed on as original members, and shortly thereafter began meeting at the original headquarters at 1118 Chestnut St. Their motto was (and still is) “Amor Patriae Ducit,” or “Love of Country Leads.”

Yearly dues (and various other donations) went towards the Union effort in many ways, including:

  • Recruiting nine infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment through the bounty system
  • Printing millions of pamphlets spreading news and propaganda for the Union cause
  • Supporting loyalist political candidates, like Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin

After the war, the League essentially became a club for deep-pocketed Republicans navigating the Reconstruction Era. It has remained a meeting ground for monied Philadelphians — especially lawyers and politicos. The membership is considered influential, as it holds the lifeblood of political campaigns: enough liquidity to make significant financial contributions, infused with a smattering of upper crust clout.

Famed Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer was a Union League member. In 1905 he won a design competition, and was selected to create substantial additions to the building at 140 S. Broad. The renovations, a masterclass in Beaux-Arts architecture, extended the structure to take up a whole block. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The league’s Republican bent continued into the 20th century, and survived the midcentury realignment of the two major U.S. political parties. Richard Nixon, as vice president, was a guest of honor in 1954, and George G.W. Bush received the Union League gold medal in 1987 when he was second in command. His son, former President George W. Bush, as well as Dubya’s Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, are also past recipients.

Drawing of the Union League in the 1891 British publication 'King's Hand-book of the United States'

Drawing of the Union League in the 1891 British publication 'King's Hand-book of the United States'

Wikimedia Commons / British Library

A bastion of traditionalism that still forbids jeans

Organized as a 501(c)(7) nonprofit, Philly’s Union League is one of the few remaining from the original 1860s cohort, with peers still kicking in New York and Chicago.

Like many old money institutions in the U.S., it’s experiencing some change, while also holding on to aspects of its past.

That there’s even a kerfuffle over honoring DeSantis illustrates that the club has recently become more inclusive politically — as well as in some other ways.

The institution had been a bastion of white Protestant traditionalism, not welcoming its first Black member until 1972 or letting women become members until the mid-1980s. In recent decades, gender and racial diversity have improved, though hard numbers aren’t publicly available.

A conservative dress code has loosened across some of the organization’s facilities, but at the League House on South Broad, jeans are still strictly forbidden.

Here’s how one becomes a member:

  • First, know someone in the League who can serve as your primary “Proposer”
  • Attend a reception for potential members
  • Request and complete a proposal — what it asks or entails is not public record
  • Find six sponsors, all willing to write letters of recommendation for you, and add them to your proposal
  • Impress in your interview
  • Pay your dues — Dues vary based on age and other factors, but the initiation fee is $7,500 and annual dues are $6,227 for standard membership

Today the club notes that there are over 4,000 members, a higher point for a group that was around 2,000 members or less for much of its history.

Benefits include access to five other Union League facilities in the region, including golf courses in Torresdale and South Jersey; members-only events; and reciprocal entry to more than 170 private clubs of a similar pedigree around the world.

These days, the South Broad clubhouse is also known for its in-house cuisine, prepared primarily by executive chef Martin Hamann, with guest chefs working specific dinners.

In addition to continuing to support the military, the league has become a philanthropic and historical institution. Since the 1940s, it has fiscally supported students through various scholarships. It formed the Abraham Lincoln Foundation, providing public education on Philadelphia’s contribution to the Civil War and the conflict itself over the years. In 2019, the three foundations that did this work coalesced into The Union League Legacy Foundation, which forwards their initiatives through one body.

The League House on South Broad can also be rented for events, which organizations like the Philadelphia Police Foundation regularly do for fundraising galas.

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