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.
given to finished goods from British manufacturers at the expensive of domestic colonial production further contributed to this centripetal tendency. Even the torturously slow lines of communication, whether for mail, goods, or personal travel, between the nascent American cities and England were often more reliable than those among the distant colonial settlements themselves. The diary of Alexander Hamilton, the Scottish physician, reveals in detail the challenges he faced throughout a tour of
Europe and the colonies for electrical phenomena. As a result, the man in the street, not just the specialist, was well aware of the theoretical problems and practical issues involved. Second, Franklin’s findings provided a seemingly straightforward example of the ways scientific knowledge could arm man with power over the forces of nature, as reflected in Turgot’s epigram. Third, they comported with contemporary sensibilities regarding common sense and bodily experience as vital complements to
discoveries” grounded in “solid and useful knowledge”—just the thing needed in the young American colonies, Franklin reckoned, as they sought to secure their place in a new and uncertain universe. Yet ideas and trends long percolating in English society underwent profound transformation in the hands of the American colonists, for the physical, intellectual, and psychological landscape of the New World was unlike anything back home in Europe. America, it turned out to the surprise of many of the
more traditional enterprises. Public anger also broke out over the use of state lotteries to help finance the SUM to the benefit of its shareholders, rather than the public at large. Jefferson and his allies were outraged at this government-backed assault on their ideal of a yeoman republic, and the SUM came in for repeated political attack as a powerful symbol of the secretary’s broader ambitions. “If it has been imputed to others as criminal to incorporate a company of merchants, engaged in a
February 8, 1780, WBF, 8: 10. 13 BF to Joseph Banks, November 21, 1783, WBF, 10: 208. 14 For a prominent example, see I. Bernard Cohen, “Some Reflections on the State of Science in America during the Nineteenth Century,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 45 (5): 666–77. Like many of his colleagues, Cohen views the events of the past exclusively through the lens of modern science. From this perspective, those endeavors and discoveries that