Charles Darwin’s paternal grandfather Erasmus Darwin was a friend of Benjamin Franklin. The American Philosophical Society has three letters from Erasmus Darwin to Franklin discussing experiments. The letter featured here discusses a neighbor’s experiments, and concludes with a comment that he has heard that someone has invented a speaking machine: “…pray was there any Truth in any such Reports?”
Darwin’s maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, was an active member of Britain’s Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade at the same time as Franklin was president of the Abolition Society in America. The two met through the Lunar Society and had much in common. Wedgwood created the popular anti-slavery medallions featuring a man kneeling in chains with the phrase “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” which the Committee adopted as its motto in 1787.
3. Wedgwood, Josiah to Benjamin Franklin, 1788 February 29. Benjamin Franklin Papers.
Wedgwood sent several of the medallions to Benjamin Franklin in February 1788: “…a few Cameos on a subject which I am happy to acquaint you is daily more and more taking possession of men’s minds on this side the Atlantic as well as with you.”
Franklin believed that the medallions could be as effective as pamphlets to persuade people that slavery should be abolished. In his reply to Wedgwood, he wrote that when he distributed the medallions to his friends he saw in their faces such a reaction after contemplating the figure in chains “that I am persuaded it may have an effect equal to that of the best written pamphlet in procuring honour to those oppressed people.” The American Philosophical Society holds one of these original medallions, currently on loan to the Anacostia Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Charles Darwin shared his maternal grandfather’s distaste for slavery, "that monstrous stain on our boasted liberty…I have seen enough of Slavery & the dispositions of the negros, to be thoroughly disgusted with the lies & nonsense one hears on the subject in England.”
4. Darwin, Robert to Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1785. Benjamin Franklin Papers.
The family was well acquainted with Franklin and in later years shared stories of Franklin’s wit and wisdom. Charles’ father Robert particularly enjoyed relating the story of his dinner with Franklin during a trip to France in 1785, the dinner for which he thanks him in this letter.
The close association between the Wedgwood and Darwin families led to Josiah’s eldest daughter Susannah marrying Erasmus’s son Robert. Their son, Charles Darwin, then married one of Josiah’s other grandchildren, Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin. The double inheritance of Wedgwood money gave Charles Darwin the freedom to pursue his interests and develop his theory of evolution.
Darwin's first direct contact with the Society may have been in 1839, 31 years prior to his 1870 election, when he wrote this letter as secretary of the Royal Geological Society of London to Franklin Bache, president of the American Philosophical Society (and great-grandson of Franklin), thanking him for publications sent.
6. Longacre, James Wood. Portrait of Joseph Leidy (reproduction), Fine Arts Collection.
7. Darwin, Charles to Joseph Leidy, 1860 March 4. Charles Darwin Papers, transcription of original letter at Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.
We would like to say that the American Philosophical Society recognized the significance of the Origin of Species at its 1859 publication and that they chose Darwin a member at the next election, but they did not. Its Philadelphia neighbor, the Academy of Natural Sciences did name Darwin a correspondent on March 27, 1860, sponsored by University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Joseph Leidy, an early and enthusiastic American supporter. Although they only met once, in 1848, they exhibited warm mutual respect, as is evident in Darwin’s letter to Leidy.
9. Minute Book, 1866-1874, entry for 1869 October 15. APS Archives.
10. Darwin, Charles to APS, 1870 February 5. APS Archives.
Darwin was at last nominated for membership in the American Philosophical Society on May 14, 1869, perhaps by Leidy or by Charles Lyell and was elected on October 16, 1869. He acknowledged his election in a letter of February 5, 1870 (11) but never visited the United States.