American Philosophical Society: The Oldest Learned Society in the U.S.

Leave it to Benjamin Franklin to establish an entire organization devoted to the “promotion of useful knowledge.” Knowledge can be powerful and the American Philosophical Society was created as a home for critical thinkers to gather together and share ideas. At first, the enterprising group met at various sites, including Carpenters’ Hall and Christ Church. Then, in 1743, Franklin pledged 100 pounds of his own hard-earned money to erect the beautiful Georgian-style building at 104 South 5th Street, adjacent to Independence Hall.

Exterior of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia's Old City. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Members of this elite society were experts in agriculture, science, manufacturing, natural history and philosophy, all in pursuit of applying their scientific theories to an ever-changing mercantile world. They read detailed manuscripts and shared their technological findings in a free-flowing exchange of ideas.

Today, the American Philosophical Society is a treasure trove of information and is home to a library of more than 7 million items including an original copy of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges, a draft of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and the armchair where Jefferson sat while he penned the monumental document. Portraits of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington adorn the walls.

First page of the second draft of the Declaration of Independence, in hand of Thomas Jefferson, 1776. Photo courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.

The oldest learned society in America counts more than a dozen U.S presidents and 240 Nobel Prize winners as members. Some of the most respected and revered thinkers in history have walked these corridors, including Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Madame Curie, Robert Frost, Thomas Edison, Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison and Sandra Day O’Connor. APS continues to be an active society of 1,000 elected members from two dozen countries who meeting regularly to identify forward-thinking solutions to practical problems, just as they did over 275 years ago.

Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

The American Philosophical Society draws from its extensive collection with the current exhibit, Mapping a Nation: Shaping the Early American Republic, exploring how early American maps were employed as political agents. The exhibit features historical maps, surveying instruments, books, manuscripts, and other objects to show how maps were used to create and extend the physical, political, and ideological boundaries of the new nation while creating and reinforcing structural inequalities in the Early Republic.

Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia by Andrew Ellicot and Benjamin Banneker, 1792. Photo courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.

Highlights include a 1757 copy of the John Mitchell map of the British Empire in North America, manuscript maps from the American Revolution and George Washington’s copy of a 1792 map of Washington D.C. Mapping a Nation: Shaping the Early American Republic is on display through December 29, 2019.


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