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Ben Franklin

Life of Benjamin Franklin by Jared Sparks


American Philosophical Society.

The suggestion of an American Philosophical Society was undoubtedly first made by Franklin. In a paper, dated May 14th, 1743, and entitled A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America, he explains largely the objects and advantages of such an association. After mentioning the obstacles that existed in the colonies to a free communication of thoughts among men devoted to philosophical inquiries and reflection, in consequence of the extent of the country and the distances they lived apart, by which they were prevented from seeing and conversing with each other, lie says; " To remedy this inconvenience for the future, it is proposed, that a 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; and that Philadelphia, being the city nearest the centre of the continent colonies, communicating with all of them northward and southward. by post, and with all the islands by sea, and having the advantage of a good growing library, be the centre of the society." He then enumerates in detail, and very fully, the various subjects which might properly engage the labors and zeal of the society.

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With the view of extending its benefits, be proposed, "that, at the end of every year, collections should be made and printed, of such experiments, discoveries, and improvements, as might be thought of public advantage, and that every member should have a copy sent to him." He adds a few brief hints concerning the mode of organizing the society, and concludes by saying; "Benjamin Franklin, the writer of this proposal, offers himself to serve the society as their secretary, till they shall be provided with one more capable." Several copies of this paper were printed, and he sent them to his friends, and to such gentlemen in different parts of the country, as be supposed would be inclined to favor the undertaking.

The plan was in some sort successful. A society was formed a few months afterwards, as appears by a letter from Franklin to Cadwallader Colden, dated April 5th, 1744. Thomas Hopkinson was president, and Benjamin Franklin secretary. The other original members, as mentioned in that letter, were Thomas Bond, John Bartram, Thomas Godfrey, Samuel Rhoads, William Parsons, Phineas Bond, William Coleman, all of Philadelphia. A few members were likewise chosen from some of the neighbouring colonies. This society had no connexion with the JUNTO, which is often mentioned in Franklin's autobiography, and which had been established by him many years before.×

Mr. Colden suggested to Franklin, that he should print by subscription a selection from the papers, that might be furnished by the members. It is probable, that this project was not encouraged; for, nearly a year afterwards, November 28th, 1745, Franklin writes to him as follows. I am now determined to publish an American Philosophical Miscellany, monthly or quarterly. I shall begin with next January, and proceed as I find encouragement and assistance. As I purpose to take the compiling wholly upon myself, the reputation of no gentleman or society will be affected by what I insert of another's; and that, perhaps, will make them more free to communicate. Their names shall be published or concealed, as they think proper, and care taken to do exact justice to matters of invention, &c. I shall he glad of your advice in any particulars, that occurred to you in thinking of this scheme." His design was not executed; perhaps for the want of encouragement. Nor indeed is there any evidence, that the society was ever in a flourishing state. Nothing is known of its transactions. The records of its proceedings are lost, and, if any papers were contributed by the members, they were not published. Soon after the society was formed, Franklin himself became deeply engaged in his electrical experiments, which for some time absorbed his whole attention. The society seems to have languished, till, in a few years, the regular meetings were discontinued.

In the mean time, another society sprang up in Philadelphia, which was called The Junto, or Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge. The date of the origin of this association is not known. That portion of the records, which has been preserved, begins September 22d, 1758; but it had an earlier origin. If we may judge from the records, it seems to have been a society rather for the mutual improvement of the members, by discussing a great variety of subjects, than for enlarged philosophical inquiries, designed for public as well as private benefit. In 1762 this society apparently began to decline. No records have been found from October, of that year, to April 25th, 1766, when the society met, and took the name of The American Society for Promoting and Propagating Useful Knowledge. Thirty members then signed the constitution and rules. It was evidently intended now to embrace a larger compass of objects than formerly, and to have more of a public character. Franklin was elected into this society on the 19th of February, 1768, and chosen president of it on the 4th of November following. He was then absent in England.

In November, 1767, the old Philosophical Society of 1744 was revived by a few of the original members, then residing in Philadelphia. They elected many new members. A union was proposed by the other society, which was accepted on the 2d of February, 1768, by choosing all the members of that association into this society. But they refused to unite on these terms, or on any other, which did not imply a perfect equality between the two associations. There seems to have been a jealousy between them, or rather between some of the prominent members of each. On the 23d of September, 1768, the American Society was again organized, new rules were adopted, and its title was changed to The American Society held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge; and, on the 4th of November, the Medical Society of Philadelphia was incorporated with it.

After much negotiation it wag finally agreed, that the two societies should unite on equal terms, each electing all the members of the other. This union was effected on the 2d of January, 1769. A new name was formed by uniting those of the two societies, which thus became The American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge.

Five months after the union, Dr. Thomas Bond said in a letter to Dr. Franklin, "I long meditated a revival of our American Philosophical Society, and at length I thought I saw my way clear in doing it, but the old party leaven split us for a time. We are now united, and, with your presence, may make a figure; but, till that happy event, I fear much will not be done. The Assembly have countenanced and encouraged us very generously and kindly; and we are much obliged for your care in procuring the telescope, which was used in the late observations of the transit of Venus; but the micrometer did not move so well as it ought, from whence I fear there may be some defect in the calculations. The observations were made with four glasses here, three at Norriton, and one at the Cape; all of which I hope to have the pleasure of transmitting to you in a fortnight." — MS. Letter, Philadelphia, June 7th, 1769.

At the time of the union, Dr. Franklin was chosen president of the Society, to which office he was annually elected till his death.

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