The History of the YDA

Triangulars: An Ivy Beginning

Yalies began to debate competitively in the 1890s, with ad hoc debates against Harvard. A more formal association of Ivy League debaters began in 1908, when Harvard, Princeton, and Yale agreed to hold three annual debates, known together as Triangulars. Debaters at each college fiercely competed before their faculty members for the coveted slots. These were high-caliber debates: overflowing audiences watched each debate, and judges and presiding officers included university presidents, mayors, U.S. Court of Appeals judges, and even the former U.S. president Grover Cleveland. The debates were avidly watched by the public, even reported on by widely circulating newspapers like The New York Times. One Times journalist remarked in 1896, "It is generally as important to win this debate [Yale v. Harvard] as to win the football debate in the fall."
Each Triangulars debate was three-on-three. Resolution topics ranged from current political and economic events, such as the independence of Panama (1904) or the repeal of the prohibition amendment (1919) to social questions like women's suffrage (1914) or the purpose of a college education (1895).

Intercollegiate Leagues: Debate Becomes Less Exclusive

Eventually Yale invited other colleges, especially Columbia, Wesleyan, Amherst, and Vassar, to similar three-on-three debates. Yale organized an inter-collegiate debating league in 1922, in cooperation with Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Bates, and Cornell; Wesleyan, Brown, and Columbia were also charter members. The first national debate tournament was hosted by West Point in 1947. Each team was composed of three men, and the debate topics were announced in advance for each of the five rounds.
But most debate between the Ivy League institutions continued in ad hoc, invitational style. Yale began a bilateral tradition of annual "humorous" debates with Princeton in 1949 that endured for nearly a decade. When the national debating league attempted to institutionalize national tournaments, to which multiple schools attended and each government team brought their own topics, Yale had a falling out with the league and refused to participate for several years. With a touch of irony, the YDA now debates primarily in a similarly national format, standardized by the American Parliamentary Debate Association founded in 1982.

International Debate: Britain v. United States

Oxford invited Yale to debate for the first time in 1922. The debate was held in New Haven, and contested whether the United States should cancel the war debts of European states. To avoid nationalistic division, the sides were split between schools: one American and two British versus two Americans and one British. Though the British-majority side won that first debate, it was not the end of Yale's debates with Oxbridge.
By the 1930s, Yale debated Cambridge and Oxford almost every year. One particularly famous 1933 debate against Cambridge was held over the radio for international listeners. Today Yale continues to debate at the annual British Parliamentary tournaments at Cambridge and Oxford; in 2006, we were proud to win both.


The YDA received our first coaching by Professor John Chester Adams (Yale 1896), from roughly 1914 until his retirement in 1948. Our second and last faculty coach was Rollin "Rolly" Osterweis, who took the position immediately after Adams' retirement.
Training under Osterweis was rigorous. The team was split into a freshman team and a varsity team, each of which had regular practices. Since debate topics were often known in advance, members were expected to do extensive research before each competition - our archives are filled with receipts for handbooks and research manuals. Osterweis placed special emphasis on refining speaking style: debaters even had to tape-record and then evaluate their own speeches. Osterweis' pupils often made debate the center of their life at Yale, joining the Yale Political Union (YPU), debating for their residential college teams, and competing in numerous prize debates held on campus. Osterweis also advised the YPU and taught a course called The History of American Oratory, which trained students in rhetoric through the examination of historic political speeches and was almost a requirement for YDA members.
Upon the retirement of Osterweis in 1979, Yale faculty founded in his honor the Osterweis Memorial High School Tournament to promote debate in local public schools; the YDA continues to host this tournament annually, in commemoration of the beloved coach's life and debate work.

Residential College Debate

The Yale Debate Association opened the opportunity to debate to hundreds of other Yale undergraduates by founding residential college teams in 1946. Dubbed the Inter-College Debate League, these 12 teams debated regularly in intramural competitions throughout the academic year. Although the League was formally independent of the YDA, each team was usually headed by a YDA member.
When Professor Adams retired in 1948, the YDA dedicated a trophy and tournament to him: the Adams Cup. During the year, debates between the residential college teams yielded one winning pair each from the North and South districts of campus; these competed for the Cup in a final round in June. In 2008, the modern YDA ressurected this tournament, and has held it annually in the spring in each year since.


The current YDA travels each weekend to colleges across the East Coast to compete in the American Parliamentary Debate Association against debate teams from across the nation. Although the YDA no longer has a coach from the Yale faculty, we usually select a coach among former debaters at the law school, to host workshops and judge practice rounds. International debate is an ever-increasing part of our competitive activities, since we travel each year to Cambridge, Oxford, at least two Canadian tournaments, and the Worlds University Debating Championships, held in a different world city each time. The British and World debates are held in the British Parliamentary format, which features four two-person teams.