The House that Ben Built: American Philosophical Society

Benjamin Franklin’s name is scattered all throughout the city of Philadelphia, from a major thoroughfare to a science museum. Indeed, it is difficult to forget that this man — writer, inventor, diplomat, and so much more — contributed so much to the city he called home and to the newly formed nation of thirteen former British colonies. Franklin, popularly known for discovering electricity with a key and a kite, was a prolific thinker who cared deeply about the development of learned thought in the colonies and later, the new nation. In 1743, he created the American Philosophical Society [APS] to cultivate such knowledge among men.  Today, the APS remains an active learned society whose members range from astronaut Neil Armstrong to writer David McCullough. I took a private tour, which allowed me to view rare items from the Society’s private collection.

Standing in a brightly lit room surrounded by library card catalog cabinets of the past, the oldest artifact presented to me was in a large frame.  It held the only known copy of the US Declaration of Independence printed on vellum. Seeing this simple object in front of me yet remembering what this document symbolizes, I imagined myself reading this manifesto nailed to a wall in a public square during the colonial period. What would it have felt like–either as a colonizer or a colonized–to read this blatant act of political defiance?

The next artifact was embedded within a series of boxes, like the inner-most doll of a matryoshka set.  The protective boxes revealed a red leather book bound at the top with the following label:

Lewis and Clark Codices
Codex J. – Clark.
January 1, 1806 – March 20, 1806

I laid eyes on William Lewis’s daily journal, one of the greatest and oldest travelogues of the United States.  President Thomas Jefferson, an APS member, commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the land west of the colonies and the Mississippi River.  His diary was neatly written, covering every inch of paper in his legible penmanship and sketches.  Looking at this object easily made me imagine the various circumstances Lewis wrote in his journal.  Even after long and tiring days of exploration, perhaps sitting outdoors by a fire, he still diligently wrote his daily observations with a steady hand.

The final paper object moved from handwritten words to typewritten words; it was a transcript of the words uttered by the first man on the moon. I discovered that Neil Armstrong’s now popular evocation, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.“ was captured incorrectly. Garbled through the radio transmission, what he actually said was, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Below, you can see Armstrong’s revision to the text (look for a lightly written “L” symbol between “for” and “man” in the 3rd line and look to the right margin where it says “L a”).

Thanks to support from its members and major philanthropic foundations, the APS today continues its commitment to scholarly advancement and knowledge production. One project is the organization and digitization of its collection on Native American culture. Photographs, diaries, and audio captured on old formats (like the wire recording in the picture below) need to be upgraded so as to preserve and make them accessible not only to the scholarly community but also to the Native American tribes whose cultures these items capture.  Native American tribal elders or experts serve as consultants to the APS.  Some artifacts in the collection offer previous knowledge or information that no longer exists.  For example, some Native American languages are no longer spoken today but the APS has late 19th or early 20th century recordings of these languages.

The APS recognizes its role in educating the public. Its museum allows visitors to see revolving exhibits that highlight items from its collection.  While the APS library is only available to scholars, the public can see a few small exhibits in the library foyer such as copies of Lewis and Clark’s diaries during their US northwest expedition and a copy of Ben Franklin’s editorial mark-ups of the Declaration of Independence.

A visit to Philadelphia should definitely include a visit to the APS. After you wait on the long line to visit the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall, be sure to cross the street and check out the Society’s museum to learn unique aspects of American history.

American Philosophical Society Museum
104 South Fifth Street
Philadelphia, PA  19106-3387
$1 Donation Requested

Sunday Signs & Symbols: US Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This sentence is arguably the most recognized sentence in the US Declaration of Independence. On July 4, 1776, the words of this document were approved. The thirteen American colonies publicly asserted their desire to separate from Great Britain and the rule of King George III.

The success of the American Revolution and the subsequent creation of a new republic based on the principles of democracy and liberalism affected the entire world at the time. Notions of equality and liberty espoused in the Declaration of Independence fueled revolutions in the late 18th century such as the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, and in the early 19th century, the revolutions in Latin America. These ideals were used as the basis for change during periods of American history when the rights of a certain group of its citizens were contested namely, the abolitionist movement, the civil right’s movement, and the women’s suffrage and women’s rights movements. Even in the mid-20th century, these ideals were embraced by African and Asian colonies seeks independence from their colonizers. In America today, individuals and their respective political parties seeking election will appeal to voter sensibilities through the utilization of these ideals.

Happy Independence Day America! Read more this coming Tuesday on my trip to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia where I got to see the only known printed copy of the US Declaration of Independence on vellum.

Sunday Signs & Symbols is a weekly blog event, showcasing a picture and an explanation on this broad topic. Every culture uses signs and symbols to interpret their environment, inject meaning to life, and attach value to an object or practice so that its people share a common understanding of the world and the social rules that dictate the behavior within it.