The Junto
August 7, 2002 9:28 PM   Subscribe

Ben Franklin was a member of a dinner club that evolved into a sort of secret society, think tank called The Junto. That group met every Friday from November, 1727 for several decades. Out of those meetings, the group invented the first subscription library in north america, the most advanced volunteer fire department of the time, the first public hospital in Pennsylvania, an insurance company, a constabulary, improved streetlights, paving and what became the University of Pennsylvania. Has anybody ever heard of this? Could something like this work today?
posted by willnot (21 comments total)
Franklin seems like a really interesting guy, and I'm fascinated by the idea that a lot of what he's credited with came out of a collaborative kind of group reporting/thinking arrangement. It sort of seems like an early day MetaFilter what with sending it's members out to sort out the best of what's worth talking about from places like Boing Boing (yeah, yeah, sorry) and brining it in here .

By the way, does anybody have any pointers to a quality Franklin biography?
posted by willnot at 9:40 PM on August 7, 2002

I think the best Franklin biography is his "Autobiography", although it only covers his early years. He's something of a hero of mine, and I once compared MetaFilter to the Junto. Albeit a rather lightweight Junto at times.
posted by evanizer at 9:54 PM on August 7, 2002

David McCullough's John Adams offers a fascinating but far less flattering picture of Franklin -- from McCullough's perspective of Adams' perspective, of course. The high school American History class version of the fraternity of the Founding Fathers (epitomized by Franklin's own words, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately") -- well, it ain't necessarily so.
posted by Alylex at 10:31 PM on August 7, 2002

Don't know about "The Junto."
Do know about The Hellfire Club.
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:33 PM on August 7, 2002

(The Hellfire stuff is poorly documented and disputed by scholars. It's been described as a bunch of middle-aged men sitting around in a cave getting drunk with prostitutes. If that.)

I don't believe there's a place for The Junto today. Its accomplishments were partly due to the tabula rasa of a continent heavily settled for barely a century, and the fresh perspective of those creating a new society far from the one they'd left behind. American individualism and distrust of elites had yet to become the settled trait it was by de Tocqueville's time, and the Junto is nothing if not an elitist project.
posted by dhartung at 10:48 PM on August 7, 2002

Carl Van Doren's 1938 biography doesn't exactly dig up the skeletons, but I think it's a better read for that. Ben Franklin is my choice as an idol. I don't really believe he was as perfect as most records imply him to be - but it inspires me to think that he was.

(For balance, I've been on the lookout for a less than positive account of Franklin, so perhaps its time to read the John Adams biog. Adams as President had all the mark of a dangerous would-be tyrant in all the literature I've read so far, but maybe I'm just reading the Jeffersonian/Franklinite view)

posted by ntk at 11:04 PM on August 7, 2002

I think something like this absolutely can work today. Even Metafilter is similar in ways to such a club, except that it is geared toward discussion rather than action. I wonder how the Web could be used in creating a community of, for lack of a better word, thinkers that had as its stated goal some sort of activity. I imagine a kind of self-modifying forum setup, where the discussion on the forum can lead to changes in the way the site operates, and members are committed, on some level, to the implementation of those changes and actions which the group decides are useful. Perhaps this is not the most efficient way to pursue discoveries on the leading edges of modern technology and science, but certainly something like this could be effective in advocacy or the propagation of ideas. While dhartung points out correctly that the continent is a lot more crowded now than it was in Franklin's time, I think that the Web as a communication mechanism provides the huge advantage of making the geographical location of participants irrelevant. This could allow the group to operate within a much larger society.
posted by yoz420 at 11:59 PM on August 7, 2002

Lots of things like this exist in the world today. Ever heard of a "think tank"? Not exactly the same thing, but there are lots of organizations and groups that could be considered in part analogs to the Junto
posted by delmoi at 12:07 AM on August 8, 2002

I think Thomas Alva Edison was probably Franklin's equal or superior when it came to putting a team together and brainstorming ideas, and surely his contributions, while not in the area of public services, had more effect on the advancement of society. They were both one of a kind superpeep.
posted by Mack Twain at 12:50 AM on August 8, 2002

I gotta tell you: I'd be *scared* of a self-appointed group that tried this.

And if you think the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission make good boogiemen for the canned-food-and-M16 set, imagine how a neo-Junto would go over.

Mack - I was just recently reading how most of the accomplishments attributed to "Thomas Alva Edison" were very much collective endeavors. I'll try to find a link.
posted by adamgreenfield at 1:09 AM on August 8, 2002

Ben's great achievement was recognizing that there was both a private and a public sphere. Thus, for an example, it would be great to own your own very expensive car (private) but it would be sort of useless if the roads it needed were terribible (public). One fine example: though often thought of as a money grubber, he gave patent to the general public (free) for his still-used Franklin stove.
and boy did he love the women!
posted by Postroad at 3:55 AM on August 8, 2002

It's all about the Templars, baby.
posted by Dagobert at 5:56 AM on August 8, 2002

You'd think that a group of weisenheimers like us could at least form up into some sort of ill-advised Star Chamber....?

::glances meaningfully around the room::
posted by UncleFes at 6:59 AM on August 8, 2002

Although there are certainly elitist overtones associated with the group, the Junto began as a way to share information--a sort of informal book club. As the initial group grew too large each member was responsible for starting his own section and reporting about its development to the main group. This practice allowed them to grow without limit.

Essentially a large men's club, the society was used to share books and information, collect ideas, and generally influence the public. I was amazed at Franklin's ability to use Junto to sway public opinion and create a need for his newest ideas before they were ever presented to the public. This is how he garnered public support for the fire department, hospital, etc.

The parallels with Metafilter are striking and one can't help but to think what Franklin himself would have accomplished with the Internet.
posted by ajr at 7:07 AM on August 8, 2002

Here's a question for all the MeFi's out there--do you have a similar arrangement in your own community. In other words, do you know of any *community based* organizations like the Junto in your neighborhood?

From what I can see, this is one type of organization (I can do without the secretive tilt, however) that is sorely lacking today. A chance for those people with the ideas and the initiative to get together at the community level and to create a response to an issue.

Lobbyists need not apply...
posted by tgrundke at 7:39 AM on August 8, 2002

"do you have a similar arrangement in your own community?" The only thing I can think of are a few private foundations that identify and fund projects. The Ford Foundation, as example.
posted by Mack Twain at 9:16 AM on August 8, 2002

Not exactly on topic, but I would think anyone interested in Ben Franklin and 18th-century American public opinion would be as fascinated as I was by Richard Rosenfeld's American Aurora. It's a thick book consisting mostly of excerpts from the radical anti-Federalist newspaper founded by Franklin's grandson Benjamin Bache (apparently pronounced "Beach") and continued after Bache's death by William Duane, along with linking commentary to provide historical context. This commentary is written as if in the posthumous voice of Duane, which may annoy some readers more than it did me, and the entire book is unapologetically slanted towards the Jeffersonian/Republican point of view in its most extreme form: Adams wants to be king, Washington is a fool and a lousy general to boot, the British and all their works are evil. Not to be relied on as one's only source for the period, obviously, but I've read nothing else that so vividly puts you in the 1790s and makes you feel what it was like to take part in the debates that came close to tearing the new country apart. Oh, and the Alien and Sedition Acts were in part an attempt to silence the gadfly voice of this newspaper; whatever your feelings about the paper's politics, it's a tremendous rush when the editor's sentence is overturned -- that's the history we (in the U.S.) can be proud of!
posted by languagehat at 10:09 AM on August 8, 2002

oh this sort of thing is alive and well, and doing just fine.

but the first rule is, i can't talk about it...
posted by jcterminal at 10:30 AM on August 8, 2002

A related idea is Mutual Aid Societies, e.g.
posted by richcasto at 10:34 AM on August 8, 2002

Howsabout the Global Business Network - members include Brian Eno, Bill Joy, John Perry Barlow, Walter Parkes. Here's a good but long Wired article on the subject: "The Global Business Network was founded in 1988 as a think tank to shape the future of the world. It's succeeding." And here's a self-link if you want something more concise.
posted by D at 10:51 AM on August 8, 2002

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, (2000) by H.W. Brands, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and is worth recommending. It occasionally gets bogged down in unnecessary details (particularly the French-Indian wars), and Brands gives Native Americans a pretty unfavorable treatment, but the book is exhaustive, and, due in no small part to its subject, interesting. The book also does a really nice job of sketching out other characters in Franklin's life, from his birth in Boston through his death after the revolution.
posted by conquistador at 12:38 PM on August 8, 2002

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