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Published: March 7, 2011

American Philosophical Society

One of two competing societies made up of America’s founding fathers and leading intellectuals. Founded in Philadelphia, in 1743 by BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, probably in conjunction with John Bartram, a farmer and botanist, the society was originally established as a scientific academy for “ingenious and curious men.” At the approach of the American Revolution, it turned its attention to the diffusion of knowledge and the development of a system of public education for the new republic.
Like its competitor, the AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES, the American Philosophical Society favored and worked for establishment of a national system of public education as essential to the ultimate success of democracy. Where the society differed from the academy was not over the question of a national education system but over the kind of knowledge the system would teach. The academy, supported by John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, favored a classical curriculum, based on Latin, Greek, literature and philosophy. Benjamin Franklin and THOMAS JEFFERSON, who succeeded Franklin as president of the American Philosophical Society, favored the study of more practical courses such as natural science and natural history.
In 1795, the society held an essay contest calling for proposals for a national “system of liberal education and literary instruction . . . best calculated to promote the general welfare of the United States:—comprehending also, a plan for instituting and conducting public schools in this country. . . .” The proposal the society eventually espoused was “a uniform system of national education” made up of local parish schools, county academies, state colleges and a national university, with identical standards, curriculum and textbooks, under the direction of a central board of national education. Sectional differences in the 1830s eventually destroyed plans for implementing this and all other proposals for a national education system.
The American Philosophical Society is still located in Philadelphia and remains an honorary society, with members elected for their scholarly accomplishments in all fields of learning. (See also EDUCATION; MADISON, JAMES; RUSH, BENJAMIN; WEBSTER, NOAH.)