Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Brooke Sylvia Palmieri

American Philosophical Society

Well before the Declaration of Independence, in 1743 Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) and his friend the Quaker botanist John Bartram (1699-1777) established the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia as a declaration of scientific independence from Great Britain’s scientific domination. The APS developed from a group of local intellectuals keen on expanding human knowledge to serve informally as the national academy of science and national library for a half century after 1790, when the United States capital moved to Philadelphia. Over time, the APS expanded into a multidisciplinary society and prominent institution as members applied their expertise to endeavors ranging from charting unknown territories in the nineteenth century to examining the ethics of scientific advancement in the modern world.

[caption id="attachment_22231" align="alignright" width="230"]A color painting of Benjamin Franklin Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society with others in order to "promote useful knowledge." It was an extension of his earlier intellectual club, the Junto. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Founded in 1743, the APS was an extension of Franklin’s intellectual club the Junto and an answer to London’s Royal Society. Marking a departure from British science, the founding document of the APS asserted that because the American colonies had matured, intellectuals could employ insights from their North American experience to promote human knowledge. Franklin and Bartram designated Philadelphia as the most logical headquarters because of its location, its easy access by sea, and the vibrant bookish culture fostered by the Library Company of Philadelphia, the lending library Franklin founded in 1731. Philadelphia also had the benefit of Bartram’s unparalleled botanical knowledge, as he collected and identified species of plants found only in North America.

Franklin and Bartram organized the APS to promote advancement in all fields of science. They proposed that there should be no fewer than seven members: a physician, botanist, mathematician, chemist, mechanic, geographer, and natural philosopher, in addition to a president, treasurer, and secretary. Members would meet once a month to conduct experiments in brewing, navigation, and agriculture among other subjects. Yearly membership dues (a Spanish piece of eight) funded the cost of experiments and the publication of the society’s findings, both for distribution among society members and abroad.

The APS quickly became much more collaborative than independent as it became an important international link in the exchange of scientific information. Members such as Bartram maintained ties with their British counterparts and sent specimens overseas, even during the Revolutionary War. From its earliest days, the APS made scientific inquiry a matter of international diplomacy as it elected members from around the world. The first international member of the society, elected in 1768, was the French naturalist and cosmologist Georges-Louis Leclerc (1707-88), followed a year later by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78). As its first female member, inducted in 1789, the APS chose the president of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Princess Yekaterina Dashkova (1743-1810).

Building a Reputation

[caption id="attachment_22227" align="alignright" width="222"]A black and white illustration of David Rittenhouse seated at a telescope The American Philosophical Society rose to prominence when Philadelphia-based astronomer and APS member David Rittenhouse's observances on the transit of Venus were published in 1771. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In 1769, a merger with another scholarly society in Philadelphia, the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge, gave the APS new vigor and initiated a series of scientific activities that solidified its mission. A crucial first step in establishing the APS as a reputable scientific authority occurred in the same year when David Rittenhouse (1732-96) observed by telescope the transit of Venus. His findings, with other observations around the globe, helped to determine the distance of Earth from the sun. Rittenhouse’s results were published in the APS’s Transactions of 1771 and distributed by Franklin across Europe, putting Rittenhouse’s findings on par with those of the Royal Society in London. In 1770, gifts from Thomas Penn (1702-75), members, and from scientific societies in Dublin and London established the APS Library.

In 1783, the APS sought to further secure its future by voting to build a headquarters, a task completed in 1789. Through a combination of members’ donations and a loan from Franklin, Philosophical Hall was constructed on Fifth Street adjacent to the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall) under the direction of Samuel Vaughan (1720-1802), a friend of Franklin. Vaughan’s sense of style was also responsible at the time for gardens around Philadelphia, including that of the State House, and he designed the garden of another member of the APS: George Washington (1732-99) at Mount Vernon. With its new building, the APS also became a resource for public access to the sciences. Member Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) housed his Philadelphia Museum at the APS from 1794 to 1811, and the University of Pennsylvania also used its space for five years beginning in 1789.

[caption id="attachment_22228" align="alignright" width="249"]A black and white photograph of Philosophical Hall showing library extension on top Philosophical Hall at Fifth and Chestnut Streets is the headquarters of the American Philosophical Society. The third story addition was constructed in 1890 and removed in 1949. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

During and following the 1790s, when Philadelphia served as capital of the United States, the APS played a significant role in scientific activities and innovations of the early nation. As U.S. president, APS member Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) sent Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) to Philadelphia to study with other APS members, including Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), to prepare for their cross-country expedition in 1804. The APS helped to sponsor the mission, and in return the explorers contributed a huge bank of new scientific knowledge on botany, zoology, geography, and ethnology from their travels. Just as their founder Franklin was a leading statesman as well as a scientist, and especially after the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition, APS members tied their research to the service of the state and the expansion of American power. For instance, Commander Matthew Fountaine Maury (1806-73), the “Pathfinder of the Seas,” played a key role in charting the geography of the sea to support an expanding American Navy. In 1862, however, Maury was expelled from the APS for joining the Confederate Navy.

The impact of the APS extended as its members of the APS consulted on the founding of other American scientific and cultural institutions, including the National Academy of Sciences, the Franklin Institute, and the Smithsonian Institution. Ophthalmologist Isaac Hays (1796-1879), a leading member of the APS who advanced a theory of natural selection before Darwin published it in The Origin of Species (1859), was among the founders of the American Medical Association in 1847. APS membership in the nineteenth century included such prominent scientists as Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), Charles Darwin (1809-82), the Swiss-born Louis Agassiz (1807-73) and his wife American-born Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (1822-1907), Louis Pasteur (1822-95), and Thomas Edison (1847-1931). The scope of the APS also expanded to an additional field of scholarship in 1884 when, inspired by the creation of the American Historical Association, the society began to elect leading historians into its ranks and created a Committee on Historical Manuscripts to promote access to its own rich history.

Isaac Minis Mays, Secretary and Librarian

[caption id="attachment_22230" align="alignright" width="300"]A color engraving of Library and Surgeons Halls on Fifth Street The Library Company of Philadelphia operated out of Library Hall, directly across Fifth Street from Philosophical Hall, which was demolished in the nineteenth century. In 1958, APS purchased the lot and built a reconstruction of Library Hall to house the society's own library. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The work of producing manuscript catalogues and calendars of historical documents, as well as editing the Proceedings and Transactions of the APS was taken up by Hays’s son, Isaac Minis Hays (1848-1925), who served as secretary and librarian from 1897 to 1922. An energetic leader, Hays ushered the society into the twentieth century. He improved the quality of the APS library, expanded access to the library for researchers and the public, accomplished a fifteen-year project to bind and catalog the papers of Benjamin Franklin, and created the Franklin Medal to recognize excellence in both science and public service.

The APS continued its transition to a multidisciplinary scholarly organization under the leadership of biologist Edwin Grant Conklin (1863-1952), who served in a variety of APS offices leading to two terms as president in 1942-45 and 1948-52. In addition to members such as Margaret Mead (1901-78) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955), in the twentieth century the society expanded its membership from the humanities: poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97), poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), and historian Natalie Zemon Davis (b. 1928). By the early twentieth century, in a departure from the society’s early history of collaboration with the United States military and government, members included scholars whose research questioned institutional power over the individual and reflected on access to justice. They included a philosopher of ethics and human rights, Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947), queer theorists Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009) and Judith Butler (b. 1956), and post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (b. 1942).

[caption id="attachment_22229" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Paul Heyl and Lyman Briggs with their earth inductor compass and the Magellanic Premium award The American Philosophical Society awards the Magellanic Premium for significant developments in the field of navigation, astronomy, or natural philosophy. It has only been awarded thirty-four times in over two hundred years. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

These APS members and many others extended and elevated Philadelphia’s vibrancy, which initially made the city fit to host the society, to a truly international stage. In the second half of the twentieth century, the society also increased its physical presence in its home city. In 1959, across Fifth Street from Philosophical Hall, the APS opened Library Hall, a reproduction of an eighteenth-century structure that originally housed the Library Company of Philadelphia. In 1984 and 2000, the APS campus expanded to include two adjacent former bank buildings on Chestnut Street. Through its rich library and manuscript collection, research grants, and such prestigious prizes as the Magellanic Premium in navigation and astronomy, established in 1786, and the Barzun Prize in history the American Philosophical Society continued its mission of promoting useful knowledge. As affirmed by a mission statement adopted in 2008, the society’s activities sought to “reflect the founder’s spirit of inquiry, provide a forum for the free exchange of ideas, and convey the conviction of its members that intellectual inquiry and critical thought are inherently in the public interest.”

Brooke Sylvia Palmieri is a Philadelphia native living in London, working toward a Ph.D. at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at University College London. Her dissertation details the reading, writing, and publication habits of Quakers at the end of the seventeenth century and how they circulated their ideas from London to the British colonies in the West Indies and North America.


“Do you love truth for truth’s sake?” If the answer is yes, you are one-fourth of the way through the initiation ceremony of the Junto, which Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) founded in 1727 in Philadelphia. The 21-year-old Franklin, according to his autobiography, established the Junto as a club for “mutual improvement,” inviting acquaintances to meet weekly to discuss intellectual and moral issues. From these discussions emerged inspiration for many Philadelphia institutions including the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, a fire company, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The name and concept for the Junto came from Franklin’s experiences working as a typesetter for several years in London. Not only was “Junto” used to describe a particularly select and powerful group of liberal Whig parliamentarians of the time, but also London was crammed with gentleman’s clubs aimed at encouraging the exchange of knowledge and strengthening of ties between businessmen. It is equally fitting that Franklin lifted the initiation ceremony from the writings of John Locke (1632-1704), a prominent Whig. Locke’s writings had linked intellectual scenes in London and Philadelphia as early as 1699, when William Penn (1644-1718) arranged regular shipment of Locke’s works to the young colony.

[caption id="attachment_16245" align="alignright" width="179"]A letter from Joseph Breintnall, A Junto Member, discussing the foundation of the Library Company. This letter from Joseph Breintnall, a Junto member, to Thomas Hopkinson in 1732 discusses the foundation of the Library Company of Philadelphia. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

In addition to a love of truth, Junto members pledged not to disrespect one another, not to disrespect persons based on their profession or religion, and not to condone violence against anyone “in his body, name, or goods, for mere speculative opinions, or his external way of worship.” These pledges mimic those that Locke devised in his own “Rules of a Society, which met once a week for their improvement in useful Knowledge.”

With tolerance at the base of operation, Franklin presided over the club’s discussions on morality, politics, natural philosophy, and local gossip. Membership was capped at twelve, and members worked in diverse trades (scrivener, glazier, cobbler, surveyor, cabinetmaker, clerk) with diverse tastes (poetry, astrology, natural history, mathematics, scientific invention). They met every Friday night, in early years at the Indian Head Tavern but for privacy later changing the location to Robert Grace’s house on Market near Second Street. Grace was the only early member of the Junto considered a “gentleman,” with no craft or profession.

Incubation Chamber for Improvements

In his biography of Franklin, University of Delaware scholar Leo LeMay (1935-2008) described the Junto as the “incubation chamber” for projects that greatly improved life in Greater Philadelphia. Members ran a lending library prefiguring the Library Company, considered the potential of paper money, which Franklin eventually printed, and discussed his ideas for a fire company, insurance company, local militia, and town watch. The Junto’s interest in scientific experiment also featured in their meetings, inspiring the founding of the American Philosophical Society in 1743. The Junto’s William Coleman, Jr. (1704-69), Thomas Hopkinson (1709-51), and Philip Syng (1703-89) were all founding members of the APS. The Junto also endorsed education and civic awareness, and thus supported the academy Franklin founded in 1751 that enshrined these values in the curriculum of what later became the University of Pennsylvania.

[caption id="attachment_16454" align="alignright" width="216"]Library Company of Philadelphia in 1859. The Junto members were not just men of words, but deeds, when it came to furthering Franklin’s ideas. One of these ideas, the Library Company, an independent research library, shown here in 1859, was built from 1789-1790 and is located at 100 Fifth Street. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Junto members were not just men of words, but deeds, when it came to furthering Franklin’s ideas. For instance, Coleman was the first treasurer of the Library Company (1731), treasurer of the American Philosophical Society (1743), a trustee of the Academy of Philadelphia, and one of the directors of Franklin’s insurance company. Coleman was not atypical. The Junto’s Joseph Breintnall (d. 1746) served as first secretary of the Library Company, and Philip Syng was a trustee of the Academy of Philadelphia.

Franklin’s description of the group’s convivial meetings offers a lovely glimpse into the playful side of 18th century intellectual life. Members recited silly poems, songs, played the flute drunkenly, and gave each other nicknames—“Bargos” for Ben. As Franklin wrote to Hugh Roberts (1706-86) in 1761, “I find I love Company, Chat, a Laugh, a Glass, and even a Song, as well as ever…I therefore hope [the Junto] will not be discontinu’d as long as we are able to crawl together.” But meetings were held less frequently when Franklin, the driving force behind the Junto’s activities, departed on a diplomatic mission to England in 1764. By 1765 Roberts wrote back to Franklin that in addition to his absence, the Junto’s dissolution had dovetailed with political divisions in Pennsylvania.

Although the group was comparatively small, its impact was wide-ranging on the everyday lives of those living within its orbit. The “crawling together” of its members, their intellectual and financial collaboration, ensured the success of each project beyond the life of the club itself.

Brooke Sylvia Palmieri is a Philadelphia native living in London, working toward a Ph.D. at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at the University College London. Her dissertation details the reading, writing, and publication habits of Quakers at the end of the seventeenth century and how they circulated their ideas from London across the sea to the British colonies in the West Indies and North America.

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