The American Philosophical Society and Western Exploration

As Jefferson groomed Meriwether Lewis to head an expedition to explore the West, it was understandable that he would turn to fellow members of the American Philosophical Society for support. This was the oldest learned society in the United States, and one dedicated to furthering knowledge of the natural sciences as well as cultivating the arts. Its creation is credited largely to Benjamin Franklin, who in 1743 drafted "A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America." Franklin reasoned that, "The first Drudgery of Settling new Colonies, which confines the Attention of People to mere Necessaries, is now pretty well over," and it was time to begin cultivating the arts and accumulating useful knowledge. He proposed Philadelphia as the seat of the new Society due to its central location among the colonies and volunteered to serve as the first secretary, as he encouraged active correspondence between the colonies and with similar organizations in Europe.

The Society was well established by the time Jefferson was elected to membership in 1780. His avid interest in science led to a long and active participation within the Society, serving as its President from 1797 to 1815. And so in 1803 with preparations underway for the long anticipated expedition to explore the West, he called upon the assistance of fellow members of the American Philosophical Society. Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia for instruction and counseling with botanist Benjamin Smith Barton, mathematics professor Robert Patterson, physician and professor of chemistry Benjamin Rush and Caspar Wistar, physician and professor of anatomy. Lewis met also with Andrew Ellicott, surveyor and mathematician, while John Vaughn, librarian and treasurer of the Society, worked to secure the appropriate instruments needed for Lewis to record longitudes and latitudes on the western trip.

This was not the first time that members of the American Philosophical Society had supported Jefferson's dream of western exploration. In 1793 Jefferson had initiated a subscription within the Society to finance an expedition to be led by French botanist, Andre Michaux, but this expedition dissolved before reaching the Mississippi river. Still Jefferson must have been sure of their common goal for he closed his letter requesting Benjamin Smith Barton's assistance with, "I make no apology for this trouble, because I know that the same wish to promote science which has induced me to bring forward this proposition, will induce you to aid in promoting it." The goal of promoting science was innate in the Society from its inception and a comparison of Franklin's initial "Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge" and Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis on the eve of his departure for the West parallel in their objectives. Among the topics of correspondence suggested by Franklin were: newly discovered plants, herbs and trees; discoveries of fossils, mines and minerals; surveys, maps and charts including the junction of rivers and roads and the location of lakes and mountains; and along with the improvement of domesticated animals, the introduction of "sorts from foreign countries."

Jefferson echoes these themes as he follows the leading objective of exploring the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean with instructions to chart the trail with records of latitude and longitude of notable points, to take notes of soil, vegetation, and animals, especially those unknown in the United States or remains of any which may be rare or extinct, and to also note mineral production and climate. Meriwether Lewis, along with his co-captain William Clark and other members of what would come to be remembered as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, executed their instructions well by returning with journals, maps, examples of plants and animals and items exemplifying the life of the native inhabitants of the western country. The support of the American Philosophical Society in the success of the expedition was not to go without reward, as the Society became a major repository for many of the objects and original journals.

Gaye Wilson
Monticello Research Department
June 2001

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Acknowledgements and Credits
Image of Philosophical Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
courtesy The American Philosophical Society

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