Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.
Just around the corner from Independence Hall on 5th Street is a much less assuming structure. Separated by just a few feet from the back of the Hall, this fading brick building that’s the only private structure on Independence National Historical Park sometimes gets extra foot traffic from Independence Hall — people stumbling in thinking it’s part of the experience.
But this separate building holds stories of its own that give a glimpse into some of the most brilliant minds, not of our time, but ever.
Philosophical Hall and three buildings near it are the campus of the American Philosophical Society, the oldest still-standing group of its kind in the nation and one that pre-dates America itself. Founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin as a way to bring together people to “improve the common stock of knowledge,” the American Philosophical Society is, interestingly enough, more than just philosophers.
Since it was established, members have been leaders in their own disciplines, whether it’s science, humanities, the arts, history, medicine, or other fields. The first three presidents of the organization were Franklin, David Rittenhouse (yes, that one) and Thomas Jefferson. Other colonial members were some of the leaders of the Revolutionary period, including Thomas Paine, John Adams, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
The Philosophical Society still has annual meetings that aim to forward the pursuit of knowledge. It has had a total of 5,000 members; 1,000 of them are alive today. Some of the modern members you may recognize: Former president Jimmy Carter, actor and film director Martin Scorcese, the late astronaut Neil Armstrong, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, investor Warren Buffett, the late journalist Walter Cronkite, and the Notorious RBG — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And today, one in every 10 members of the society is the owner of a Nobel prize.
Many of the members, certainly the colonial ones, walked the halls of Philosophical Hall on 5th Street. Billy Penn went inside to see some of the history that’s still there:
The APS was founded in the 1740s by Franklin who modeled it off similar groups in England — he wanted it to be a “learned society,” a much broader definition than what philosophy means today. The society took off in the 1760s, and Philosophical Hall was built in 1789.
It was founded as a “members only” society and an exclusive group, but it’s always been a collecting institution that saves books, manuscripts and historical relics that give a glimpse into the many accomplishments of the society’s members. Among the collections in Library Hall of the APS are a number of manuscripts — many of which can’t be pulled out or see the light of day for preservation’s sake — including a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, complete with writing in the margins.
Each year, APS displays a different theme of its collection in Philosophical Hall, and this year’s collection pays homage to Jefferson, who was president of APS for 18 years before, during and after his presidency, according to Curator of Museum Education Gigi Naglak, who took us around on a tour this week.
Stories of Jefferson line the halls of the collection on display and show how the one-time president connected science, politics, humanities and history. But you can also learn a great deal about Jefferson the person — such as his reputation as a spiteful badass.
Here’s why: Much of the research of the founding fathers surrounded around animals, plants and minerals. So some people were offended when French nobleman Count Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, who had never been to America, declared that the New World was darker and wetter and generally grosser than Europe. They viewed the entire area as a “degenerate” copy of life in Europe.
Jefferson thought Buffon was wrong. He loved his New World, and would not stand for international shade-throwing. The Count once told Jefferson in Paris that the disgusting New World would never be home to incredible species like the moose. Jefferson was pissed. So he went home to find one.
On Jefferson’s behalf, the governor of New Hampshire found a moose, killed it, packed it up in a box and shipped it to Buffon all the way in France which, mind you, probably would have been quite a long and smelly trip back in the 18th century. But no one really knows how the Count reacted to the moose. Just a few days after it arrived, the Count died.
Jefferson: 1, French nobleman: 0.
The APS has collected thousands of pieces of history over the years that trace back to its members, including meeting minutes that were kept by hand by David Rittenhouse, the brilliant 18th century astronomer and namesake of Rittenhouse Square.
Other items on display for you to get up close and personal with include a first edition of a book written by Jefferson called “Notes on the State of Virginia” that he had printed in both English and French. They also have James Madison’s weather journal, a meticulous recording of the one-time president’s observations of the conditions that was used — and is still used today — to determine patterns.
Hanging on the wall are watercolors and drawings that were used by the founding fathers to classify species, and some of the watercolors were created by William Bartram, an APS member and the namesake behind Bartram’s Garden here in Philly, which remains America’s oldest living botanical garden.
Nearby, the museum also has an edition of a book written by Bartram about his travels south. The book comes along with an inscription to the APS in the front cover and a drawing that is considered to be the first ever of a Native American chief.
Among the collection are records detailing exploration, including the preserved, personal journals of Lewis and Clark, the first Americans to cross into what’s now the western part of the United States.
Across the street from Philosophical Hall is Library Hall, where thousands of old manuscripts are held and members and scholars alike are able to reserve space to work and research. Some of the scholars have been recipients of grants from APS, which operates off of a hefty endowment and remains a grant-making institution that works to foster research in many disciplines.
In the front of Library Hall are cases that hold objects, like a Nobel prize and a corresponding acceptance speech from Baruch Blumberg, an APS member whose work changed how Hepatitis B is treated.
And inside the APS library is where scholars still sit to this day.
Unfortunately, you can’t just walk in and use the library. If you’re a scholar and you want to use the space for research, it has to be reserved in advance. You can find more information about the library here. What you can see is the collections that are on display in Philosophical Hall and the APS museum. Find hours and more information for visitors here.