American Philosophical Society — Library & Museum

Philadelphia
PA

Philosophical Hall in Philadelphia

QUICK FACTS
  • In 1766 Benjamin Franklin is elected the first president of the American Philosophical Society, serving until his death in 1790.
  • Astronomer and mathematician David Rittenhouse, who had been vice president of the Society, serves as its next president (1791 - 96) until his death.
  • In 1794 Philosophical Hall temporarily becomes home to the Philadelphia Museum, Charles Willson Peale’s museum of natural history and important personages, until 1802.
  • Thomas Jefferson is elected as the Society’s third president (1797 - 1815), serving while he is simultaneously Vice President (1797 - 1801) and third President (1801 - 09) of the United States.
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Founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram to promote Useful Knowledge, the Society was the first of its kind in America, and it quickly gained an international reputation, which it continues to have today.

Philosophical Hall, built in the Federal style to house the Society in 1789, is now the home of the American Philosophical Society Museum. Adjacent to Independence Hall, it features special exhibits of art, scientific instruments, rare books, original manuscripts, natural history specimens, and curiosities.

Across the street is the Library, which contains 350,000 volumes and bound periodicals, eleven million manuscripts, 250,000 images, and thousands of hours of audio tape related to the history of science, medicine, and technology. Rotating exhibits in the entrance highlight the Library’s rich collections.

Since the heady moment when he married Martha Custis in 1759, combining their estates into one of the preeminent holdings in northern Virginia, everything Washington touched had turned to brass. He had failed repeatedly to grow profitable tobacco crops. In London his leaf had acquired an unshakable reputation for mediocrity. Meanwhile the expenses of maintaining a great planter’s lifestyle, while keeping up a slave labor force and several plantations, had proved unrelenting. His own debtors — former comrades-in-arms who unhesitatingly touched him for loans, neighbors with whom he ran accounts, tenants who owed him rent — were slow to pay, and sometimes never did; yet he was too tightly bound by the expectations of gentlemanly behavior to refuse a loan when asked, or to press a debtor insistently when payment fell due. By 1763 Washington found himself deep in debt, doubting that he would ever extricate himself by growing tobacco, and casting about to find some way out of his predicament.

Fred Anderson
Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 - 1766 (2000)