Authors: Jonathan Lyons
To Michelle, an Adept of Useful Knowledge from Day One
When speculative Truths are reduced to Practice, when Theories, grounded upon experiments, are applied to common Purposes of life, and when, by these Agriculture is improved, Trade enlarged, and the Arts of Living made more easy and comfortable, and of Course, the Increase and Happiness of Mankind promoted, Knowledge then becomes really useful.
âThe American Society held at Philadelphia for
Promoting Useful Knowledge
These are some of the significant dates associated with the story of
The Society for Useful Knowledge
. More details are covered in the narrative that follows.
Restoration of the British monarchy under Charles II, ending republican rule.
Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge is founded.
King grants William Penn a charter for the American province of Pennsylvania.
Englishman Josiah Franklin, father of Benjamin, emigrates to Boston.
John Bartram, American botanist, is born in Darby, Pennsylvania.
Benjamin Franklin is born in Boston.
Franklin breaks his legal contract as an apprentice with his brother James, a Boston printer, and flees to Philadelphia.
Franklin arrives in London on Christmas Eve in fruitless pursuit of money and equipment to go into the printing business back in Philadelphia. This is the first of four stints abroad, accounting for much of his adult life.
Franklin returns to Philadelphia aboard the
Franklin and other like-minded craftsmen and mechanics form the Leather Apron Club, more commonly known as the Junto.
Franklin and friends form the Library Company of Philadelphia.
David Rittenhouse, mechanical and mathematical prodigy, is born outside Philadelphia.
Franklin announces the formation of the American Philosophical Society. After a brief flurry of activity, it lies dormant for almost two decades.
Franklin begins public campaign for creation of an academy and college in Philadelphia, the future University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin publishes details of the lightning rod in his newspaper, the
The Royal Society of London awards Franklin its Copley Medal, the world's most prestigious prize for science, for his experiments in electricity.
Franklin proposes his Plan of Union, at a colonial conference in Albany, New York, anticipating many of the elements of the future independent American political structure.
Pennsylvania legislature sends Franklin to London to represent its interests before the Crown. He does not return until 1762.
Americans join the global effort to observe and record the transit of Venus, in an attempt to measure the size of the known universe.
Franklin is sent back to London on behalf of the Pennsylvania legislature. He returns empty-handed in 1775.
Treaty of union agreed between Philadelphia's rival knowledge societies, allowing the reconstitution of Franklin's original American Philosophical Society.
The second transit of Venus acts as a powerful spur to the activities of the American Philosophical Society. The Americans win plaudits from abroad.
Creation of the Virginia Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge is announced.
First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia's Carpenters' Hall, symbol of the power and influence of Pennsylvania's mechanics.
United Company of Philadelphia for Promoting American Manufactures is created. Similar societies are soon active in Boston, Baltimore, New York, Richmond, Wilmington, and Newark.
Congress approves final text of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and edited by Franklin and others.
Franklin is sent to Paris to head the American diplomatic effort to win military and political support for the rebellion against the British. He returns in triumph in 1785.
Botanist John Bartram dies, four days before the British begin their nine-month occupation of Philadelphia.
John Adams and others form Boston's American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in emulation of Franklin's American Philosophical Society.
The United States, represented by Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay, and Great Britain sign the Treaty of Paris that ends the War for Independence and recognizes American sovereignty.
Franklin and colleagues form the Society for Political Inquiries. The circle provides a forum for Tench Coxe and his vision of an industrialized and technologically advanced America.
Pennsylvania Society for the Encouragement of Manufactures and the Useful Arts is formed. It includes prominent members of the Society for Political Inquiries.
Mechanics' associations take the lead in national celebrations of the new federal Constitution and demand government support for manufacturers.
Franklin dies at the age of eighty-four, in Philadelphia. His funeral draws a crowd estimated at two thirds of the city's total population.
Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, submits his Report on Manufactures to the Congress. The plan relies heavily on the work of Coxe, now Hamilton's deputy.
The Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SUM) is incorporated in the state of New Jersey, leading to the foundation of the industrial city of Paterson.
SUM ends manufacturing efforts and concentrates on business development and the sale of power to independent entrepreneurs. It survives until 1945, when it is absorbed into the city of Paterson.
David Rittenhouse, self-taught instrument maker and astronomer, dies.
Washington delivers his Farewell Address, warning of the dangers of political factionalism and extolling the diffusion of useful knowledge in a democracy.
In the beginning, all the world was
Benjamin Franklin did not live to see the first full decade of American sovereignty. Yet he proved the central transformational figure in a transformative period of the nation's history. Born in 1706 into modest circumstances in Boston, then a mere outpost of fewer than nine thousand residents, Franklin capped his public career eight decades later, in the glittering capital of Paris, where he ushered the newly independent America onto the world stage. He died in 1790, not long after the ratification of the federal Constitution, a document he endorsed, albeit with a certain ironic detachment. Along the way, Franklin's ideas, actions, and achievementsâin short, his own lived experienceâhelped set America on course for its steady journey from colonial backwater to world power.
It is no wonder, then, that at the age of seventy-eight Franklin saw himself supremely qualified to spell out the essence of the young republic, leavened with his own hopes and aspirations, for those beyond its shores. In the few short months after victory over the British, sealed by the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, Franklinâthe best-known American of his dayâhad found himself besieged by potential immigrants eager to learn more about this new society and, perhaps, to profit from it. His response was simple and direct. Newcomers must rely on their skills or a commitment to hard, honest work, he explained in the published essay “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America,” for it was surely ill-advised for highborn Europeans to arrive on American soil in the hopes of simply trading on their breeding or conventional social standing.
“In Europe it has indeed its Value, but it is a Commodity that cannot be carried to a worse Market than to that of America, where People do not enquire
concerning a Stranger,
is he? But
?” Franklin wrote in March 1784. “If he has any useful Art, he is welcome; and if he exercises it and behaves well, he will be respected by all that know him; but a mere Man of Quality â¦ will be despised and disregarded.
“According to these Opinions of the Americans, one of them would think himself more obliged to a Genealogist, who could prove for him that his Ancestors & Relations for ten Generations had been Ploughmen, Smiths, Carpenters, Turners, Weavers, Tanners, or even Shoemakers, & consequently that they were useful Members of Society.”
Here, Franklin gives a concrete American voice to one of the most cherished notions of the Age of Enlightenmentâthat the value of learning and knowledge, of information and data, is directly proportional to its practical import or utility. In other words, to be of any real value, knowledge has to be truly
. It cannot rest on blind acceptance of past tradition or rely on sanctification by entrenched authority. After an adolescent detour into what he later dismissed as dangerous “metaphysical Reasonings,” Franklin enthusiastically adopted this notion of useful knowledge as his lifelong intellectual, social, and political standard, and he worked tirelessly to inculcate these values in the new American society that was beginning to take shape all around him.