Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
and the American Philosophical Society
for Promoting Useful Knowledge: The Junto
Dr. Nicholas Saint-Erne
11/2003 - Updated 2006
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 17, 1706. His father,
Josiah Franklin, was a tallow chandler (candle maker) who married twice, and of Josiah's
seventeen children Benjamin was the youngest son. Ben's schooling ended at age ten,
and at twelve he was bound as an apprentice to his brother James, a printer, who published
the New England Courant newspaper in Boston. To this journal Benjamin became a
contributor, and later was for a time its nominal editor. But the brothers quarreled, and
at age seventeen Benjamin ran away, going first to New York, and then to Philadelphia,
where he arrived penniless in October, 1723. Here he worked as a printer until moving to
London in 1724 to further his printing career. In 1726 he returned to Philadelphia and
then in 1728 opened his own printing shop with Hugh Meredith.
In the fall of 1727, when Benjamin Franklin was only 21, he formed the Junto with
11 other local Philadelphia tradesmen. They met on Friday evenings at a local tavern.
The Junto had four initial precepts for membership:
1. Respect for other members
2. Love mankind in general regardless of religion or profession
3. Freedom of opinion and mode of worship
4. Love the pursuit of truth for its own sake.
“Knowledge is obtained rather by the use of the ear than of the tongue.”
The Junto formed the sounding board for ideas that led to the first subscription library in
America (1731), the creation of a volunteer fire department (1736) and a volunteer
militia (1747), establishing a neighborhood constabulary patrol (1752), and to the
establishing of an academy that later became the University of Pennsylvania (1751).
Franklin led the Junto for thirty years.
"The first drudgery of settling new colonies is now pretty well over, and there are many in
every province in circumstances that set them at ease, and afford leisure to cultivate the
finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge."
In May of 1743, Franklin published A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge Among the
British Plantations in America. This was a proposal to form an intercolonal group like his Junto,
called the American Philosophical Society. It would be based in Philadelphia and include
scientists and thinkers from all over the Colonies. They would share their ideas by mail, and
abstracts would be sent to all members four times a year. The scholarly society he advocated
became a reality that year. By 1769 international acclaim for its accomplishments
assured its permanence.
Franklin's influence and the needs of American settlements led the Society in its early days
to pursue equally "all philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things,
tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or
Pleasures of Life." Early members included doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and merchants
interested in science, and also many learned artisans and tradesmen like Franklin.
Many founders of the republic were members: George Washington, John Adams,
Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Rush, James Madison,
and John Marshall; as were many distinguished foreigners: Lafayette, von Steuben, Kosciusko.
It is still in operation to this day.
American Philosphical Society Website: http://www.amphilsoc.org/
The idea for creating the Phoenix Philosophical Society, a local group for intellectual
discussions, came when I first read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. It was to be
several years before the concept became a reality. In January of 2006, in celebration of
Benjamin Franklin's 300th Birthday, the foundation of the PPS occurred.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: http://eserver.org/books/franklin/
Other related websites: