Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Circle of Philadelphes in Saint Domingue

Le Cercle des Philadelphes (1784-1793)

The Cercle des Philadelphes, was in its day a famous colonial academy in the old French colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti). The Cercle simultaneously embodied royalist and patriotic tendencies until the impact of the French and subsequently the Haitian revolutions smashed this delicate political balance.

Founded in Cap François, Saint Domingue (Haiti) in August 1785, the Cercle des Philadelphes was one of the most important learned societies of the Ancien Regime based in France's overseas colonies. During its brief existence, (it operated for only seven year), the Cercle promoted improvements in agriculture, manufacturing, the arts and the sciences, especially the health sciences. It published five volumes, and established communication with individuals with similar interests in the American Philosophical Society and other enlightenment societies of the time. The membership of the Cercle des Philadelphes included Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush.

In the 1780s, Cap François (Now Cap Haitien) was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Americas, and was the cultural capital of Saint Domingue (now Haiti). Having a lush climate and made wealthy by the use of slave labor, Saint Domingue was the wealthiest American colony during the later eighteenth century.  In 1784, a group of residents of Cap François established a model to improve the culture of their colony so as to match its financial success. Insisting that society could not exist "without the assistance of the sciences and arts," they founded the Cercle des Philadelphes.

The Cercle was motivated by a mixture of both Royalist and patriotic impulses among the colonial elite. Devoted to "bonheur commun," and motivated by "l'amour fraternal," the members of the Cercle studied the physical conditions, natural history, and medicine of what was soon to become Haiti — their goal was to promote agriculture, manufacturing, sciences, and the arts. Louis Narcisse Baudry de Lozières, the president, emphasized the social benefits of intelligence and the responsibility of gentlemen to support intellectual reciprocity and mutual assistance.

The Cercle was well received. It had official recognition and financial encouragement from the crown by 1786, and in1789, they were granted royal letters patent, and were the last to receive this before the Revolution. The Cercle also quickly established official ties with the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris, with the American Philosophical Society, and many other societies, academies, and museums.

Lead by a group of impressive talent, including the lawyer, Baudry de Lozières, by the Royal Physician Charles Arthaud, and the famous writer M. F. E. Moreau de Saint Méry, the  Cercle reached 160 members by the late 1780s, including members from a broad spectrum of the upper classes in Saint Domingue. Physicians, judges and lawyers, planters and merchants, as well as public officials were all found among its membership, and the Cercle added carefully chosen foreign members, including Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush. It did not last, though. Damaged by the Revolution in France, the Cercle finally collapsed as a result of the revolution in Saint Domingue in 1792.

While the Cercle des Philadelphes was not essentially a Masonic organization, it shared the basic motivations found among the enlightenment Freemasonry of its day. Further, the vast majority of its membership, including esteemed North American members such as Benjamin Franklin, were Freemasons. This connection can readily be seen in its logo which prominently includes a beehive and bees, a well known Masonic symbol. It should also be kept in mind that a number of Masonic lodges in France at the time bore the name Philadelphe, including the military lodge into which Napoleon Bonaparte was initiated a few years later, in 1798.

No comments: