SINCE 1759

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American Impressions, Chapter 20: Pennsylvania
Philadelphia's Useful Knowledge:
The American Philosophical Society

The scene has all the appearance of a commencement—pomp, honors, lists of achievements—except that those being honored and those doing the honoring wear the same dark, conservative suits and generally look about the same age (advanced, for the most part). They’re not in any hurry.

A man walks up to the stage then listens to the master of ceremonies say: “By the authority and in the name of the American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for the promotion of useful knowledge, I hereby admit you in the name thereof.” The two men shake hands, the inductee signs a large ledger, the audience applauds, and the man who’s just been honored returns to his seat, to be followed by other honorees.

The whole thing looks a little absurd, like a repetitive play heavy on irony or the re-enactment of a historical scene that has slipped from everyone’s memory. Philadelphia’s Independence Hall is across the street. This could just as well be a spill-over from a touristy show over there.

But the proceedings are quite serious. The inductee was Jack Matlock, who was the American ambassador to the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991 and who’s just published his “Autopsy on an Empire.” Arlin Adams, the “master of ceremonies,” was appointed by Richard Nixon in 1971 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3 rd Circuit. His predecessors at the helm of the American Philosophical Society include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. And the society has no equal or likeness in the country.

It is America’s oldest learned society, and its proceedings have remained almost unchanged in the more than 250 years of its existence. The nation’s most brilliant minds—inventors, M1 historians, judges, statesmen and especially scientists—gather periodically at Benjamin Franklin Hall in Philadelphia, listen to each other’s papers for two or three days, kibitz a lot, then return to their private (or public) lives. Meetings in the past may have been more (or less) frequent and the membership less (and only rarely more) impressive. The society’s role as a power-broker of the nation’s intellectual capital may have once been far more pronounced, considering that it barely registers a blip today. But its quiet, eclectic mission endures in defiance of an age of celebrity and hyper-specialization.

I’m not sure when I first heard of the society. It must have been in college during a class on the Enlightenment or the American Revolution, eras when rationalists were dethroning kings and clerics, and learning was everybody’s fetish. There was a society for everything. At any rate I thought the philosophical society a relic of its age, something talked about, if talked about at all, in conjunction with founding fathers and wigs and such. If it had an address, it could only be between the hardcovers of musty library volumes.

The address is, in fact, 427 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia. It is musty. And it is quaint, all condescension aside. But it also provides an irresistible look inside the sort of tradition and institution that gave the country its intellectual foundation. It gives it still, with remarkable continuity. But it is a sign of the not-so enlightened present that places like the philosophical society are such anachronisms. Aside from its twice-yearly meetings, the society has a large staff, one of the most important research libraries in the nation, a scholarship program and a publishing house, all in the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district. Millions of visitors pass it by. And pass it by. Despite its choice location across from Independence Hall, it might as well be invisible.

I invited myself to November’s annual meeting and was welcomed with open, if bemused, arms.

It is part of the society’s lore that its exact genesis, like Genesis, is less fact than incontrovertible myth. In 1738 or 1739, the Philadelphia botanist John Bartram (who, with his son William, was the first explorer of Florida’s St. John’s River) wrote to a patron of science in London that a society of the “most ingenious and curious men” be created in Philadelphia. The patron replied that there weren’t enough ingenious and learned men in America. Bartram kept looking for support until he found it in Benjamin Franklin in 1743. Nine Philadelphians formed the first society. Its aim was to act like a magnet of knowledge and inventions, publishing and disseminating what it found useful for the advancement of mankind.

The idea was Pure Enlightenment, when it was thought possible not only to know everything, but to use that knowledge in ways that would make life better for everyone. “The pursuit of happiness” was not a window-dressing phrase but the culmination of that belief. Philosophy, at the time, was anything that rated as “useful knowledge,” and useful knowledge could have as much to do with new discoveries on the treatment of snake bites or yellow fever as with ocean currents (the subjects treated at the society’s first meeting) or the protection of human rights.

The society evolved hazily. Franklin called it “dormant” in the late 1740s, others called it dead. But by the early 1770s its publications were making the rounds of academies all over Europe. They triggered the sort of exchange of ideas that was similar in every way but speed to the earliest days of the Internet, when the computer network belonged exclusively to academicians who used it as their borderless intellectual club. The exchanges haven’t stopped, nor has the society’s role as a hub of knowledge. But its usefulness has fluctuated with its reputation, which has not always been that of a “pretty museumy home” of Nobel laureates, as The New Yorker described it in 1959.

The majority of early members were no more august than shopkeepers, merchants, mechanics, lawyers, itinerant lecturers and the occasional drunk. Its famous members barely lived up to their title. John Bartram never attended a single meeting. George Washington had to be reminded that he was a member. John Adams and several lesser-knowns were elected twice, and some were elected by mistake, like John Tennent, a Virginia physician with a penchant for quackery who ended his career in a London debtors’ prison and under indictment for bigamy.

The reputation of the society reached a low point by the time Henry David Thoreau visited Philadelphia in 1854 and was told that the society was “a company of old women.” He didn’t visit. “Prosy, stupid, clublike though it may have been, not especially vigorous in promoting knowledge, no longer the only, possibly not the principal, learned society in the country.” Whitfield Bell, the society’s former librarian and executive officer, wrote, “the Society had indeed fallen into a kind of genteel decadence.”

The 20 th century has restored the society’s pre-eminence as a learned institution as it has aggressively built one of the most important library collections in the nation, opening it up to (and funding) research, and by consciously bucking the century’s academic obsession toward specialization.

”Learned societies have always been the butt of satires and lampoons,” Bell wrote, “while in our own day even serious journalists reporting learned society meetings cannot always resist the temptation to raise a smile by the well-tested device of quoting at random the titles of the papers read.”

I must oblige. Here are the titles of some of the papers I heard at the autumn meeting: “First Use of Crystal Rectifiers in Wireless.” “How the Ear’s Works Work.” “Sir Reginald Wingate and the British Empire in the Middle East.” “Vive le Dilettante!”

But as Bell would say, “the very success of the Philosophical Society invites such gibes.” The same meeting also produced a vigorous symposium on globalization and inequality followed by the presentation of a paper on the coming “century of the environment”—hardly the sort of subjects that could be considered either doddering or esoteric. Still, despite the dozens of Nobel laureates in the audience and the intellectual-hothouse atmosphere of the place, and despite the proximity, literally around the corner, of Fox and CBS television stations and of Philadelphia’s “All news all the time” radio station, the two entities—media and brains—never crossed even once during the two-day meeting. And the most frequently-asked question of passers-by outside Benjamin Franklin Hall remains: “Say, what kind of organization is this, anyway?” “Traditionally we don’t advertise,” says Arlin Adams, the society president. “Sometimes there’s a journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer who invites himself, and we welcome him, but—“ and here Adams interrupts himself with a wave of the hand that spells out, “The fewer journalists, the better.” Journalists would only be interfering with the gatherings of the nation’s best and brightest. “They’re the very quiet type, people who don’t make a lot of noise. They’ll elect a Moynihan or a Bill Bradley—quiet men. They won’t elect a Newt Gingrich or somebody like that,” Adams says, although some of the examples he cites are not exactly closet types—Cyrus Vance and Warren Christopher (ex-secretaries of state), Daniel Patrick Moynihan ( Washington’s most intellectual senator), Supreme Court Justices David Souter and Sandra Day O’Connor, and Bradley, who, since I interviewed Adams, began campaigning for the presidency.

Adams remarks that among the 150 or so members present for the morning’s presentations, 15 or 20 are Nobel laureates. I resist the temptation of asking which ones, or worse, of sidling up to one for a run of pointless questions. What would I ask? “So, how did you come up with that theory, anyway?” Case in point: During a break, I notice someone very familiar—the tall, lanky, almost bony figure of E.O. Wilson I had come to know well from its dust-cover reproductions. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (for “The Ants” and “On Human Nature”), I’d just finished reading his newest book, “Consilience,” a wonderful defense of Enlightenment thinking and the belief “that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.” Critics have called him a genius. I don’t think I’ve ever met a genius. Here was my chance. I walked up to him, introduced myself and shook his hand. He was as cordial as could be, coddling my starry eyes with the grace of an old hand, but then what? Writers write to be read, not accosted, and it’s not as if I could give Wilson my program to sign or ask him what it was like to play for Harvard. He bailed me out by politely suggesting that I pay him a visit in Cambridge one day (the academic’s “let’s-do-lunch”) and excused himself, presumably to have a real conversation somewhere.

It’s what, as J. Peter Lesley, an officer of the society, wrote a century ago, APS members like to do best: “A few old cronies would gather around the fireplace, and the real meeting would apparently begin. There was little or nothing strictly philosophical to stay for; but racy anecdotes and sometimes very clever jokes would go round the semicircle; and a good many of them made my young unhardened cheeks burn.”

Neither member nor semicircle material (a lecturer that very morning had referred to “the dubious nature of journalistic reporting,” to the delight of almost everyone), I sought out Robert Cox, the manuscripts curator at the one place that attracted me the most: the society’s banklike vault in the library, where the majority of its most precious collections are kept. Included among those, I’d heard, were the journals of Lewis and Clark, which Jefferson had used on many a show-and-tell session around the society’s fireplace.

In the future, much of the manuscript collection may be available online in forms that perfectly reproduce the originals. “But there’s still something about interacting with the original material that cannot be duplicated online—no way,” Cox says.

Online, or in any other form. It’s inexplicable, but very true. Deep inside the APS library vault we’d walked up two narrow sets of stairs (seven steps one way, seven the other), bypassing in a matter of seconds 250 years of original manuscripts stacked from floor to ceiling—including 600 letters penned by Darwin and the majority of Benjamin Franklin’s personal papers—then walked into a set of shelves that formed an alcove and crouched to a bottom shelf, where Cox pointed to several dark gray boxes, each one containing four volumes of the original journals.

There are 18 red Morocco-bound volumes, 12 unbound, some of them Lewis’s, some of them Clark’s. Cox brings out one of the boxes, flaps it open and handles a volume as carefully as if he were holding radioactive material, as he once did, working in a molecular biology lab at the University of Michigan. Talk about the risk of ripping a page from history. Written in standard India ink, Lewis’s script is fine and calculated, like his style. Clark’s is more rough-edged. Both used every inch of paper, back and front, no margins, not many doodles, but many meticulous hand-drawn illustrations of the plants, wildlife and Indian cultures the Corps of Discovery encountered, which standard reproductions of the journals don’t include.

No monument could make me feel what I felt then—a sort of awe not at the thing itself, which is still, after all, just a set of notebooks filled by famous men, but at the realization of how superhuman these men became for two years despite the most ordinary means. Their technology was as basic as paper and ink supplemented by a few tools and their genius for observation. They embodied the Enlightenment’s—and the society’s—spirit of discovery and intellectual conquest (conquering Indians was a sideshow), and they did so with the simplest means.

In a sense, the society’s attraction to its members remains the same. The means haven’t changed much. Ingenuity and discovery are still paramount. So are the society’s show-and-tell sessions, where it is possible to think of a world that could survive happily without the Internet. It has never been clear at the society what “useful knowledge” means, and in society at large it is no longer an article of faith that knowledge can be useful at all. But then it is no coincidence that Independence Hall and Benjamin Franklin Hall are across the street from each other. However unequally, the nation’s foundation rests on both.





Total area: 46,058 sq. miles (rank: 33).

Population (1997): 12,019,661 (rank: 5).

State capital: Harrisburg.

Economy: Manufacturing, biotechnology, transportation (trucking and warehousing), printing.

Nickname & Motto: Keystone State; Virtue, liberty and independence.

Entered union: Second of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution ( Dec. 12, 1787).

Notable fact: Always an attraction to tourists in search of America’s roots, Philadelphia has struggled like few American cities to survive. In the 1970s and ‘80s, it experienced a $5 billion office-building boom downtown, but it had the highest taxes of any major city, forcing the flight of nearly half a million people since 1950, when it was the nation’s third-largest city with a peak population of 2.1 million. It has slipped to fifth. Downtown is alive again, and while it is not yet all well, the city will host the 2000 National Republican Convention.

Pennsylvania in quotes: “Particular gentlemen here, who have improved upon their education by travel, shine. But in general, old Massachusetts outshines ( Pennsylvania) still. In several particulars, they have more wit than we. They have societies; the Philosophical Society particularly, which excites a scientific emulation, and propagates their fame. . . . A philosophical society shall be established at Boston.”—John Adams in a letter to Abigail, 1777.

A complete history of the American Philosophical Society has yet to be written. Occasional articles about the society appear in academic journals or, very rarely, in the mainstream press (The New Yorker’s appraisal appeared in its July 18, 1959 issue; The New York Times’ article, “Franklin’s Heirs Carrying On,” appeared on No. 14, 1970). But detailed accounts of the society’s history, many of them by Whitfield Bell, appear in the society’s periodicals—the Transactions and the Proceedings, which are available at university libraries.

Web sites:
* The American Philosophical Society:
* Links to many Philadelphia sites:
* Pennsylvania tourism:


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