The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America
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Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries brought the Enlightenment to America--an intellectual revolution that laid the foundation for the political one that followed. With the "first Drudgery" of settling the American colonies now well and truly past, Franklin announced in 1743, it was high time that the colonists set about improving the lot of humankind through collaborative inquiry. From Franklin's idea emerged the American Philosophical Society, an association hosted in Philadelphia and dedicated to the harnessing of man's intellectual and creative powers for the common good. The animus behind the Society was and is a disarmingly simple one-that the value of knowledge is directly proportional to its utility. This straightforward idea has left a profound mark on American society and culture and on the very idea of America itself-and through America, on the world as a whole.
From celebrated historian of knowledge Jonathan Lyons comes The Society for Useful Knowledge, telling the story of America's coming-of-age through its historic love affair with practical invention, applied science, and self-reliance. Offering fresh, original portraits of figures like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and the inimitable, endlessly inventive Franklin, Lyons gives us vital new perspective on the American founding. He illustrates how the movement for useful knowledge is key to understanding the flow of American society and culture from colonial times to our digital present.
investigations into the world of nature.40 John Norton, a leading figure among the New England Puritans, made this link between faith and knowledge explicit: “The end of the Gospel is to be known, the duty and disposition of the Believer, is to know.”41 Besides, noted his fellow cleric John Cotton, “Zeal is but a wildfire without knowledge.”42 The Puritans also nurtured something of an intellectual tradition within their clergy, reflected in the founding of the early New England universities,
planters” were the worst of all, their entire existence taken up simply with “eating, drinking, lolling, smoking, and sleeping.”47 South Carolina was “a horrid place,” the ill-tempered Garden added in a separate letter, “where there is not a living soul who knows the least iota of Natural History.”48 To ease their shared predicament, men like Bartram, Colden, and Garden devoted enormous energy to cultivating contacts among the European scientists, often through amateur intermediaries such as
of our American Philosophical Society and at length I thought I saw my Way clear in doing it, but the Old party Leven split us for a Time,” he wrote to his old colleague in London. “We are now united and with your Presence may make a Figure, but till that happy Event, I fear much will not be done.”19 Several members of the Young Junto faction refused to join the united association, alleging the entire maneuver had been designed by the city’s political and academic leadership to co-opt their
Party or other overt acts of defiance to imperial rule, the leather aprons and the institutions they introduced or adopted successfully challenged the social, political, and intellectual order of the day. The accompanying knowledge revolution, epitomized by Franklin and his fellow Philadelphia electricians in the 1740s and early 1750s, freed the colonists of constraints imported and imposed from Europe and laid the necessary groundwork for American independence. In the ensuing decades,
Botanist: A Tercentennial Reappraisal of John Bartram, 1699–1777 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2004), xii, n1. 37 Peter Collinson to William Bartram, February 16, 1768, MJB, 296. 38 Alexander Garden to John Ellis, July 15, 1765, CLON, 1: 538. 39 Peter Collinson to John Bartram, February 17, 1737, MJB, 89. 40 Peter Collinson to John Bartram, September 20, 1736, MJB, 81–82. 41 John Bartram to Peter Collinson, December 18, 1742, MJB, 161. 42 John Bartram to Peter Collinson,