American Philosophical Society

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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The American Philosophical Society, the oldest learned society in the United States, was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743. By 1746, however, it wa no longer functioning and was not revived until 1769 when it was merged with the American Society for Promoting Usuful Knowledge.[1]

Jefferson was elected to the APS in January 1780 and the following year was elected a Counsellor. In his letter to Timothy Matlock, secretary of the Society, accepting this new postion he expressed a desire " contribute any thing worthy the acceptance of the society."[2] At that time, Jefferson was compiling data on the state of Virginia in answer to a questionnaire from the secretary of the French Legation, as the French sought to gather more information in the various states of this new republic they were supporting against England. In December of 1781 Jefferson wrote to fellow APS member, Charles Thomson, "In framing answers to some queries which Monsr. De Marbois sent me, it occurred to me that some of the subjects which I had then occasion to take up, might, if more fully handled, be a proper tribute to the Philosophical society." In a return letter Charles Thomson noted that, "This country opens to the philosophic view an extensive, rich and unexplored field," and encouraged Jefferson in his "philosophical researches."[3] With the added motivation of making a contribution to the Philosophical society, Jefferson's answers to Marbois' twenty-two questions on his native state grew into his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia.

During his long association with the APS, Jefferson served on many committees. He chaired the committee to study the hessian-fly, which was doing great damage to the American grain industry. When he made his 'botanical' tour of the Northern Lakes with James Madison in 1791, his most lengthy journal entries resulting from that tour were on the hessian-fly.[4] But despite these notes and several meetings of his committee, a final resolution was never presented to the APS.[5] Jefferson served also on a committee referred to in the Society Minutes of 16 June 1797 as the "Bone Committee" (more often referred to as the Antiquarian Committee) which had as a priority "to procure one or more entire skeletons of the Mammoth."[6] In 1807, when he financed William Clark to head a dig at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky, of the over 300 bones which Clark shipped back, Jefferson offered to the APS fossils not already in their collection.[7]

The exploration of the West to the Pacific Ocean was of interest to Jefferson for many years. He used his membership in the APS as a logical resource to support exploration which could provide information on flora and fauna, native inhabitants, and geography. In 1793 Jefferson initiated a subscription within the Society to finance an expedition by French botanist, Andre Micheaux. This expedition was never completed, but in 1803 Jefferson again turned to the society as he called upon the knowledge of fellow Society members in the preparation of what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Jefferson connected Meriwether Lewis with Caspar Wistar, knowledgeable in anatomy and zoology, botanist Benjamin Smith Barton, mathematics professor Robert Patterson to consult in astronomy and Dr. Benjamin Rush to advise on medical practice.[8] In return the Society became the repository for many of the objects along with original journals from the expedition.[9]

On March 3, 1797 Jefferson was installed as President of the American Philosophical Society, and on the following day as Vice President of the United States. He would serve as the Society's president for the next eighteen years even though he offered his letter of resignation on three different occasions, when the government moved from Philadelphia to Washington and then when retirement to Monticello moved him an even greater distance from the "seat of the meetings." The Society refused his offers of resignation and the minutes indicate that Jefferson remained active through correspondence even though the last entry listing Jefferson present at a meeting was May 2, 1800. The Society finally accepted his resignation at the meeting of January 20, 1815 "with great reluctance."[10] Following death on July 4, 1826 members of the APS voted that the President's chair, which Jefferson had occupied for so many years, be draped in black for six months. The official eulogy was delivered before the Society by Nicholas Biddle on April 11, 1827.[11]

--Original author: Gaye Wilson, November 1997


  1. Concise Dictionary of American History, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983), 36.
  2. Jefferson to Timonthy Matlock, 18 April 1781, PTJ, 5:490.
  3. Jefferson to Chas. Thomson, 20 December 1781 & Chas. Thomson to Jefferson 9 March 1782, Ibid, 6:142-143, 163-164.
  4. Ibid, 20:445.
  5. Bedini,Statesman of Science, 220.
  6. Stien, Worlds, 400.
  7. Bedini, 370.
  8. Ibid, 232, 341.
  9. Early Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, (Philadelphia: McCall & Stavrly, 1884), 379.
  10. Various entries from the Manuscript Minutes published in the Early Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society.
  11. Minutes, 555 & 564.