Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia For Promoting Useful Knowledge, 7 February 1781

From the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia For Promoting Useful Knowledge

Philadelphia Feby 7. 1781


The American Philosophic society on the 5th of January last held their first annual election under the act of incorporation by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, and I have it in charge to inform your Excellency, that they have elected you a Councellor for two years. The powers of the Council are to “be described, fixed and determined by the statutes, laws, regulations and ordnances of the said society hereafter to be made” of which you will have due notice.

The members of this society flatter themselves, that the benevolent and liberal objects of it will induce you to give it your countenance and assistance and enable them to shew to posterity that in the midst of a bloody and unparalled war, where every moment was indeed precious, men of the first imminence in America cherished the arts and sciences and dedicated a part of their time to Philosophy.

I have the honor to be with great respect Your Excellency’s Most obedient and very humble servt.,

T Matlack Secy. P.S.

Officers elected the “first Friday in January” 1781

Presidt. Dr Benjn Franklin

Vice Presidents. Dr Bond, D Rittenhouse and Jas Wilson

Secretaries. Dr Ewing, Own. Biddle, T Matlack and Revd. W White

Councellors. Geo Bryan, Thos McKean, DeMarbois and } 3 years
Charles Thomson
Revd. Dr Duffield, Govr Livingston, } 2 years
Govr Jefferson and Dr Witherspoon
Dr Ezra Stiles, M Clarkson, J B Smith and } 1 year
John Lukens

Curators, Coll Nicola, Du Simitiere and Dr Duffield
Treasurer F Hopkinson.

RC (MHi); in Timothy Matlack’s hand; addressed: “His Excellency Thomas Jefferson Esqr. Governor of the State of Virginia”; endorsed by TJ: “American Philosoph. Society.”

The records of TJ’s early relations with the American Philosophical Society, with which he was to be long and fruitfully associated, are imperfect and confusing. His name first appears in the Society’s MS Minutes under date of 17 Dec. 1779. The entry reads as follows:

“letters from the Revd. Mr. Maddison, President of William & Mary’s College in Virginia containing a Series of meteorological observations by his Excellency Governor Jefferson and himself seperately for an year and a half; likewise a set of Experiments on what are called the ‘sweet springs.’ Mr. Rittenhouse is desired to thank both those gentlemen in the name of the Society for these favors, and to request a continuance of their valuable correspondence.”

No minutes are preserved for a meeting of the Society on 21 Jan. 1780, when (according to a notice in the Penna. Packet, 27 Jan.) TJ, Rev. James Madison, George Washington, La Luzerne, Marbois, John Jay, Henry Laurens, John Adams, Generals St. Clair, Wayne, and Steuben, Alexander Hamilton, Timothy Matlack, and eight other new members were elected. In consequence, some of those in this list were elected again at various times, and possibly TJ himself was. If TJ was notified of his election at this time, neither the notification nor his acknowledgment has been found. (The newspaper notice of the meeting on 21 Jan. 1780 is reprinted in full in Gilbert Chinard, “Jefferson and the American Philosophical Society,” Amer. Philos. Soc., Procs., lxxxvii [1943], p. 264.)

On 5 Jan. 1781, as the present letter states, TJ was elected a councillor of the Society for a two-year term. TJ acknowledged this honor in a letter addressed to Matlack on 18 Apr. 1781, q.v.; and on the following 20 Dec. he wrote Charles Thomson (who had on 5 Jan. 1781 been elected a councillor for a three-year term) asking information as to “the particular duties of that office” and requesting Thomson’s opinion whether the answers TJ was preparing to some of Marbois’ Queries concerning Virginia (q.v. above under date of 30 Nov. 1780) might not be “a proper tribute to the Philosophical society.” See Thomson’s reply, 9 Mch. 1782.

Thus TJ, whose “aversion … to being counted as a drone in any society” was deep and sincere, seized the first opportunity that offered to promote the aims of the American Philosophical Society; but the record of his election to membership is still puzzling. Among his personal papers now in MHi there remain two diplomas of membership in the Society, both reproduced in the present volume. One of these is signed by Benjamin Franklin as president of the Society and by the other officers serving in 1786; its only date is the date when it was filled in and attested, 20 Jan. 1786. According to Mrs. Gertrude D. Hess, assistant librarian of the Philosophical Society (communication to the editors, 23 June 1944), Franklin on this date signed a number of membership diplomas for members who had been elected during the years Franklin was abroad. For example, the diploma for Ebenezer Hazard was signed by Franklin on this day but bears at its lower left-hand corner the date 19 Jan. 1781, the actual date of Hazard’s election (see Early Procs., p. 110). If TJ’s case is parallel with Hazard’s, the 1786 diploma merely confirmed TJ’s election, the date of which, not being recorded in the Society’s Minutes, was not known five years later and was therefore not entered on the document. This is a plausible explanation and would be acceptable but for the presence and nature of the other diploma. This, though an identical engraved form, is designated a “Copy” in respect to the data supplied in the spaces left blank in the text; i.e., the recipient’s name and office, the signatures of President Franklin and the other officers, and, most important, the date when originally issued and attested. TJ is here named “Governor of the State of Virginia” instead of “Minis[ter Pleni]potentiary to the Court of France” as in the 1786 diploma; the officers and witnesses are named as of Jan. 1781 (see Early Procs., p. 110); and the date of issuance and attestation is given as 20 Jan. 1781, which is certainly an error. The date when the copy was made is known because the verso of the diploma bears an affidavit (MHi) that reads and is signed as follows: “The Certificate issued by the American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for promoting usefull Knowledge, of which the foregoing is a true Copy, having miscarried, I have caused the Seal of their Corporation to be annexed to the said Copy, that it may serve in place of the Original. Given under my hand this twenty fourth day of March one thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety one. Davd. Rittenhouse President. Attested R: Patterson Jona Williams J Secretarys.”

Evidently TJ at about the time he first attended a meeting of the Society (1 Mch. 1791; Early Procs., p. 192), though he had in his possession the diploma actually signed by Franklin on 20 Jan. 1786 (which may or may not point to a second, otherwise unrecorded election), desired proof of his earlier election to the Society, and the certified copy was therefore issued to him on 24 Mch. 1791. If the original had “miscarried,” as Rittenhouse stated, it is difficult to see how it could have been copied unless, as is highly unlikely, a duplicate was retained by the Society. The 1791 document is presumably a reconstruction rather than a copy of the lost diploma, and the most likely explanation of its date (20 Jan. 1781) is that it is an error by transposition for 21 Jan. 1780, the true date of TJ’s election. Perhaps TJ himself supplied the date of his election to Rittenhouse; the error as it appears on the diploma could have been his, Rittenhouse’s, or the engrossing clerk’s.

Index Entries