Academic and Professional Societies

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Although a number of learned societies, such as the American Philosophical Society (1743), were active in eighteenth-century British North America, far more were established in the wake of the Revolution. In March 1776, Congress endorsed a resolution by John Adams for "erecting and establishing, in each and every colony a society for the improvement of agriculture, arts, manufactures, and commerce." Few states followed this recommendation, but Adams's Massachusetts did incorporate the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) in 1780 and provided funds for its support. Its founding members were drawn from the commonwealth's elite: public officials, clergymen, merchants, educators, and physicians. Like the American Philosophical Society, the AAAS was a learned society with wide-ranging interests that encompassed astronomy, mathematics, natural philosophy, geology, geography, and history. It began publishing its Memoirs in 1785. The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences received a state charter in 1799 and proceeded along similar lines. Among other general interest organizations were the Literary and Philosophical Society of South Carolina (1814) and the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York (1814).

Institutions dedicated to more specific ends were also organized in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Agricultural societies, in particular, were prominent in an economy based on commercial farming. The Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture (1785), the Agricultural Society of South Carolina (1785), New York's Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures (1791), and the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture (1792) disseminated information about improvements in crops, livestock, and cultivation to their members and the larger public. The Berkshire Agricultural Society (1811) organized the first agricultural fair in the United States and served as a model for other regional and county associations. Groups concentrating on the natural sciences included Philadelphia's Chemical Society (1797), Columbian Chemical Society (1811), and the Academy of Natural Sciences (1812); Boston's Linnean Society (1814) and Society of Natural History (1830); New York's American Mineralogical Society (1798) and Lyceum of Natural History (1817); the American Geological Society (1819) in New Haven, Connecticut; the Delaware Chemical and Geological Society (1821) in Wilmington; and the Maryland Academy of Science and Literature (1826) in Baltimore. Studying and collecting the sources of America's history—national, local, and natural—were the goals of the Massachusetts Historical Society (1791) in Boston; the New-York Historical Society (1804); the American Antiquarian Society (1812) in Worcester, Massachusetts; and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (1824) in Philadelphia.

Like their colonial predecessors and their European contemporaries, the members of these groups were dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of useful knowledge and to the betterment of society and the state. They delivered and listened to papers, published proceedings, corresponded with peers, collected curiosities, and awarded premiums to foster invention and improvements in the practical and the fine arts. Learned societies in the new United States combined a cosmopolitan Enlightenment ethos of progress with provincial emphases on economic development and nationalist pride in America's achievements and prospects. They were among the most important cultural and scientific institutions in the new Republic.

See alsoAmerican Philosophical Society; Magazines; Museums and Historical Societies; Natural History; Professions .


Baatz, Simon. "Venerate the Plough": A History of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, 1785–1985. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, 1985.

——. Knowledge, Culture, and Science in the Metropolis: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1817–1970. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1990.

McClellan, James E., III. Science Reorganized: Scientific Societies in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Oleson, Alexandra, and Sanborn C. Brown. The Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early American Republic: American Scientific and Learned Societies from Colonial Times to the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

University of Waterloo Library. Scholarly Societies Project. Available at

Martin J. Burke