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Ben Franklin

American Philosophical Society

Founded by Franklin in 1743


Popularly, Benjamin Franklin gets pegged as a sybaritic sort of fellow, a man given to lusty appetites. That Franklin did indeed enjoy eating and drinking we can gauge by looking at portraits painted of him, reading his letters, or considering the gout which afflicted him later in life. Whether his lusty appetite extended to the boudoirs of French socialites or the trysting nature of late-night dalliances, is a matter of conjecture that historians are divided over.

Regardless, Franklin carefully considered most everything he did — including eating and drinking — and could serve as a posterboy for the Platonic notion that "the life which is unexamined is not worth living." Whether it came to questions of philosophy or norms of social behavior, Franklin carefully examined pros and cons, costs and benefits. Often, added into the balance of a question was whether its consequence would have any positive public upshot, and further, to consider how the public perceived his response to said question. Thus, in this manner, even the matter of fine dining became a philosophical question for Franklin.

"Query, Whether it is worth a Rational Man's While to forego the Pleasure arising from the present Luxury of the Age in Eating and Drinking and artful Cookery, studying to gratify the Appetite for the Sake of enjoying a healthy Old Age, a Sound Mind and a Sound Body, which are the Advantages reasonably to be expected from a more simple and temperate Diet."

This question, posed by Franklin in 1732, and translated for the modern ear, more or less asks, "When there is so much good food and beverage available should we just indulge ourselves or should we partake of a blander diet as that will probably make us live longer and healthier?

Today, the public forum for that type of question might be a call-in radio show or a glossy article in a glamour magazine. But where today does one find forums and answers for the following questions?

"What is Wisdom?"

"Whence does it proceed, that the Proselytes to any Sect or Persuasion generally appear more zealous than those who are bred up in it?"

Wherein consists the Happiness of a rational Creature?

Whence comes the Dew that stands on the Outside of a Tankard that has cold Water in it in the Summer Time?

Franklin, naturally could not look for these answers on the Internet nor discuss them in college classes as he never went to college. Instead, in 1727 Franklin gathered together a group of his acquaintances and formed the Junto, a young men's association devoted to examining "queries on any Point of Morals, Politics or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the Company..."

These queries, a mixture of the scientific, social, and philosophical, were posed by Franklin. For Franklin, these were questions that, if answered, would improve society.

Franklin described the Junto this way in his Autobiography

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the JUNTO; we me on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy [physics], to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

In the words of Philadelphia historians Scharff and Westcott, the Junto was...

a secret association, of people from the several ranks of society, which was at once an intelligence office and a star chamber, a business protective union and an inquisition.

a gossip club and a propagator of political opinion, a whispering gallery and a vehmegericht. It is easy to conceive how many advantages a skillful and plausible man life Franklin could secure to his business through such an association, in addition to the stores of useful knowledge about men and things he would be able to accumulate through it.

The Junto met weekly Over time, Franklin and many of his compatriots in the Junto grew successful businessmen. Franklin, in particular, could turn his attention away, to some degree, from moneymaking to scientific study. Other Americans had already been devoted to science. In fact, by 1743, nineteen Americans had already been elected to the Royal Society of London, a scientific organization.

In 1739, John Bartram, a Philadelphia farmer and botanist who was also interested in natural history, proposed "that a society or academy of the most ingenious and curious men' be established in America to promote inquiries into `natural secrets, arts & syances.' It should have a house of its own, sponsor lectures, and underwrite expeditions.

Bartram, while a singular scientist, did not have the force of personality or circle of friends to carry his idea out to completion. But Benjamin Franklin did. Thus, in 1743, Franklin took Bartram's idea and ran with it.

He wrote a circular entitled, "A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America. He suggested an association of virtuosi in the several colonies who should maintain regular correspondence with each other.

The first Drudgery of Settling new Colonies, which confines the Attention of People to mere Neccessaries, is now pretty well over; and there are many in every Province in Circumstances that set them at Ease, and afford Leisure to cultivate the finer Arts, and improve the common Stock of Knowledge. To such of these whoare Men of Speculation, any Hints must from time to time arise, may Observations occur, which if well-examined, pursued and improved, might produce Discoveries to the Advantage of some or all of the British Plantations, or to the Benefit of Mankind in general.

But as from the Extent of the Country, such Persons are widely separated, and seldom can see and converse, or be acquainted with each other, so that many useful Particulars remain uncommunicated, die with the Discoverers, and are lost to Mankind; it is, to remedy this Inconvenience for the future, proposed.

That one society be formed of Virtuosi or ingenious Men residing in the several Colonies, to be called the American Philosophical Society; who are to maintain a constant Correspondence. That Philadelphia being the City nearest the Centre of the Contienent-Colonies, communicating with all of them northward and southward by Post, and with all the Island by Sea, and having the Advantage of a good growing library, be the Centre of the Society.

Thus, Benjamin Franklin, and a group of learned individuals came together on May 25, 1743 to from The American Philosophical Society. The informal Junto would give way to a group of learned scientists.

The early membership concerned themselves with the study of the "useful" sciences. They sought to improve farm production, animal husbandry, and import new grain. They also wanted to make a beer better. Improved mining technique and figuring out better ways of assaying ore were also on the agenda. Better mapmaking, surveying and charting was important to the group.

Fossils were of interest. Geology was of interest. Improving mechanical equipment was important.

"And all philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniences of Pleasure of Life."

The early membership included naturalists, mathematicians "electricians" — those who experimented with electricity. But Franklin was disappointed with the group. They "are very idle Gentlemen; they will take no Pains..." Soon, interest in the society fell off.

But as America started to resist British authority in the 1760s, the society came back to life. Younger Philadelphians of the period who were APS members wanted to cultivate useful knowledge so as to strengthen the colonies economically. Charles Thomson, who would become known as the Sam Adams of Philadelphia, laid out the agenda of the APS. Improved methods of farming, including the breeding of livestock, new medicine an cures for specific sources of mineral wealth were to be sought after. But Thomson also wanted the society to pursue physics, mechanic, astronomy, and mathematics.

When elected to the APS, new members joined one of six committees

  1. Geography, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy (physics) and Astronomy
  2. Medicine and Anatomy
  3. Natural History and Chemistry
  4. Trade and Commerce
  5. Mechanics and Architecture
  6. Husbandry and American Improvements

One of the Society's most successful early ventures was charting the Transit of Venus from the State House yard in 1769. This experiment helped to establish the group's reputation in Europe. The APS also established a committee to study possible canal roots which would prove used to 19th-century canal builders.

The APS went into a moribund period during the Revolution, but was buoyed by the return of Franklin from Paris in 1785. Through Franklin's connections, other learned societies shared information with the Philadelphia-based group.

Throughout the years, the society had been a peripatetic group meeting at the College of Philadelphia, Christ Church Schoolhouse, Carpenters' Hall, and even in the homes of members. At a meeting in September 1785, Franklin proposed a permanent home. Franklin would generously support the building of a headquarters for the society with a contribution and loan.

A portion of the State House Yard (a plot to the east of Independence Hall) was deeded to the society.

The first meeting in the new Hall took place on November 20, 1789.

In the early part of the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States and President of the APS simultaneously. Under his imprimatur, the APS prepared the scientific instructions for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Later, the suggested subjects of study for an 1819 Rocky Mountains Expedition and between 1838-42 helped Lieutenant Charles Wilkes plan his exploration of the South Seas. This expedition brought renown to the APS, by charting 200 islands in the South Pacific and discovering the Antarctic continent.

Today there are about 700 members in the APS with nearly 200 coming from abroad. The APS Library is outstanding containing nearly 200,000 books and over 6 million manuscripts. Materials in the collection of PS include personal books of Benjamin Franklin, the journals of Lewis and Clark and 800 letters of Charles Darwin. the Society funds support for a wide rand and variety of research including The Papers of Benjamin Franklin at Yale University. The society which Franklin helped to found, now pays to preserve his legacy and provide scholarship into his life. Franklin, the inventor of bifocals, certainly had great foresight.