In 1727, just 21 years old and cut off from his own family, Ben Franklin began his first experiment in voluntary association, thereby helping deepen America’s most distinctive characteristic. He called together a circle of 12 “Leather-Apron Men” into what he later described as “a club of mutual improvement.” One member was an affluent gentleman, but the rest like Franklin worked with their hands in such trades as glazier, cobbler, bartender, clerk, and cabinetmaker. Called “Junto,” after the Spanish word for “meeting,” the club “was distinguished by its novel blend of self-help and civic aims, and by the relatively humble status of its members,” observes historian Kathleen McCarthy. Historian Gordon Wood notes that the Junto refuted the then-common notion that “servile” men could not engage in public service.
Meeting Friday evenings for dinner and discussion, the Junto followed rules drawn up by Franklin that required discussion of academic questions but also practical topics, such as how they could assist each other’s success, and what could be done to help the community at large. The group proved fertile in both dimensions. It lent Franklin, for instance, the money he needed to set up as editor of the Gazette. It also gave birth to such community projects as the Library Company of Philadelphia, one of America’s first public book collections (see 1737 entry on list of achievements in Education philanthropy). It spawned the colonies’ first learned group, the American Philosophical Society (see 1743 entry). It produced the city’s first volunteer fire brigade.
The Junto met for more than three decades. Instead of enlarging its original circle Franklin urged each member to start his own group. This bequeathed a template for building in Philadelphia and other parts of America the communal linkages and trust that enable individuals to work together in ways that help both themselves and the larger society. After the Junto set up its fire company, Franklin similarly encouraged others to copy the effort and bring it to new places. He also birthed the first tax incentive for philanthropy when he persuaded town officials to offer property tax abatement to persons who participated in volunteer fire companies.
- Benjamin Franklin entry in Philanthropy Hall of Fame, philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/great_men_and_women/hall_of_fame/benjamin_franklin
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, (Harvard Classics, 1909), etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Fra2Aut.html