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.

By 1789 many of the Federalists, particularly Hamilton, had no confidence whatsoever left in the virtue or the natural sociability of the American people as adhesive forces: to rely on such wild schemes and visionary principles, as radicals like Jefferson and Paine did, to tie the United States together, the Federalists said, was to rely on nothing. Hence Hamilton and the other Federalist leaders had to find things other than republican virtue and natural sociability to make the American people a single nation.

Tying people together, creating social cohesiveness, making a single nation out of disparate sections and communities without relying on idealistic republican adhesives — this was the preoccupation of the Federalists, and it explains much of what they did — from Washington’s proposals for building canals to Hamilton’s financial program.

Gordon S. Wood
The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (2011)