The 2,125th Meeting of the Society

January 5, 2001 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Retiring President's Lecture

John Wesley Powell Didn’t Throw in the Towel

Phil Cantelon

President, Cosmos Club

About the Lecture

Every two weeks in the fall and in the spring — since 1878 — The Philosophical Society of Washington meets in the John Wesley Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. Who was this college professor who earned the Ute nickname Ka-Purats, “Arm Off” during his many travels to the west during the 19th century?
John Wesley Powell was a consummate organizer, who became one of the leaders of the scientific world, helping to establish social and technical societies such as the National Geographic Society, the Washington Academy of Sciences and, in 1878, founded the Cosmos Club, first real home of the Philosophical Society of Washington, established earlier, in 1871.

The community of scientists and intellectuals in Washington grew rapidly in the 1870’s serving in various government agencies — some to explore, survey and understand the geography and resources of the United States — others to expand its intellectual and cultural foundations — to build its economic, social, medical, and industrial prowess — or to set forth on expeditions to learn the world’s secrets. Powell and his colleagues were at the heart of these efforts, and they had an agenda for changes that needed to be made: in land management, environmental management, Government policies and practices with the Indians, water use, etc.

Powell’s recommendations, reports, surveys, etc. were often ignored…at first. But his persistence ultimately paid off. He didn’t throw in the towel — which set up the basis for the 122 year relationship of the Cosmos Club and the PSW.

This talk will focus on the changing intent Powell had in establishing these various learned organizations, how successful this may have been, and if the Powell tradition of learned societies is still viable in our society. We will look at the Cosmos Club and its relationship to the learned societies of the 19th century, where we are today, and where the changing demographics in Washington may take us in the next decade or so.

About the Speaker

Philip J. Cantelon is a graduate of Dartmouth College and holds advanced degrees in history from the University of Michigan and Indiana University. He taught contemporary American history and oral history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, from 1968 to 1977, where he established and directed the College’s oral history project. He served as Fullbright Professor of American Civilization in Japan at Kyushu National University and Seinan Gakuin University on 1978-79.
Since 1979, he has been a historical consultant and president and chief executive officer of History Associates Incorporated, a professional historical archival, and records management services company based in Rockville, Maryland. He is the co-author of a history of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, Crisis Contained, a text book on U.S. nuclear policy, The American Atom, and the histories of three major American corporations, MCI Communications Corporation, CNF Transportation, Inc. and Roadway Services, Inc. With Arnita A. Jones, he co-edited Corporate Archives and History: Making the Past Work. He was a founder and first executive secretary of the Society for History in the Federal Government and later served as that organization’s president. He was also a founder and first executive director of the National Council on Public History and served on the Board of Editors of its journal, The Public Historian.

He is the past chair of the Organization of American Historians’ Committee on Research and Access to Historical Documentation. He retired this year after seventeen years as a board member and president of Peerless Rockville Historic Preservation, LTD, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving the built environment and cultural resources of Rockville, Maryland. He also served eight years as a member of the Board and president of the Montgomery County Historical Society and for seven years a commissioner and chair of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. He is currently president and a member of the Board of Management of the Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C.


It is a pleasure to be here this evening to meet with the members of the distinguished Philosophical Society of Washington. As a historian of the United States, since graduate school I have been impressed with drive, foresight, and ambition of those men who organized professional societies in the last half of the 19th Century. One of the specialized professional groups which formed at this time was the Philosophical Society of Washington and the Cosmos Club.

But tonight might not have happened. Last year Roger Bruns of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, came out with a series of what-ifs of history, called "Almost History". In a section called “Forks In the Road,” he looked at the paths taken...and those not taken. On July 6, 1869, nine men led by Major John Wesley Powell plunged into an unknown stretch of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was a harrowing adventure marked by terrifying rapids, giant whirlpools, smashed boats, and lost supplies. On August 27 three members of the party argued that the river ahead looked so treacherous, that passage would be impossible. They wanted to stop above the giant roaring falls that lay ahead, climb to the top of the Grand Canyon, and head to the nearest Mormon settlement. Powell, however, wanted to stay the course. The end of the rough part of the river, he figured, was not far. The men talked it over. Five stayed with Powell. The remaining three took some documents, provisions, guns and ammunition and headed out of the canyon. Three days later, on August 30, Powell and his band emerged down river, their grand expedition complete. A couple of days later Powell learned that the other men had made it to the top of the canyon to a forested plateau and got no farther. They were found stripped and filled with arrows, “victims of an Indian misunderstanding and of their own miscalculation of the algebra of chance.” [Stegner]

So the fact that Powell didn't throw in the towel is the what-if that brings us together, not only tonight, but for the last 120 plus years.

Wilcomb Washburn, in his history of the Cosmos Club, explains how Powell, in founding the Club, moved quickly to prevent its establishment from creating a major conflict with the Philosophical Society. He arranged to invite any member of the Philosophical Society to become a member of the Cosmos Club. “This brilliant tactical move,” Washburn wrote, “prevented the potential conflict and cemented the interlocking relationship that has existed ever since between the two groups.”

The late 19th Century was marked by the establishment of nearly every professional organization in science and the humanities. For example, by the 1870s almost anyone could — and did — enter the medical profession. There were doctors and quacks of all stripes — allopaths, homeopaths, and other eclectics offering bottled cures and wondrous nostrums for most every pain and suffering. The discoveries of specific disease causing micro-organisms by Koch and Pasteur in 1876 began to change the medical profession in Europe and eventually in the U.S., leading to the professionalization and growth of the American Medical Association.

The upshot is that all the professions became more professional — and more specialized. Historian Robert Wiebe's In Search Of Order argues that the professional organizations were established to bring a sense of order and professionalism to their particular occupations, even to the point (horrible as it may seem) of creating new vocabularies so that only the professional insiders could understand the subject. This was particularly true of the law, when lawyers decided that only professional lawyers could interpret the Constitution and quickly mystified the law with impenetrable prose. Economists, political scientists, philosophers, statisticians, and others did the same. Not historians, of course. Which is why it its the only profession to have buffs. Anyone can be a historian. Naked history is history in the buff.

A reaction to all this specialization was the formation of the Philosophical Society and Cosmos Club. We are the legacy of what occurred some 125 years ago. Tonight we are continuing the tradition established by the founders of the PSW and the Cosmos Club, to encourage informed discourse on a variety of topics among individuals who would contribute and comprehend and stimulate the life of the mind beyond a particular specialty. I would like to think that both the Society and the Cosmos operate as supra-faculty clubs, offering a bubbling mix of ideas to discuss and debate, and, occasionally, inspire.

When Bill Spargo asked me to speak to you, I must admit I was pretty intimidated by what I imagined to be a group of deep thinking, grim, serious scholars looking for a breakthrough idea at their big annual event. So I did what any historian would do. I read up on your history. I read Francois Frenkiel's article on the origin and early days of the society, which listed all the grand historical milestones that had been presented to the group — Elisha Gray's first telephone in 1876, followed by Alexander Graham Bell's telephone the next year. Or Dr. A.F.A. King presenting the role of mosquitoes in the transmission of malaria by placing illuminated traps on the Washington Monument. Or any number of very important scientific and technical discoveries. It seems to me that, in the absence of a national university in Washington, the PSW substituted for a faculty forum or symposium.

With your rich history in mind, I realize how much farther out of place I am in such an august gathering. Or, perhaps Bill Spargo was at his wit's end for a speaker and his wit ended before he got me.

So I don't have a great scientific break through for you tonight. Not even a bundle of philosophical ideas on which you can chew for the next month or so.

But I do want to delve into the close relationship between the Philosophical Society of Washington and the Cosmos Club. As you probably know, all the members of the first board of management of the Cosmos Club in 1878 were also members of the Philosophical Society and all but one, I believe, served as president of both organizations.

Joseph Henry, the founder of the Philosophical Society had a reputation as a serious scholar who brooked little levity at the formal presentations of the Society. Your history quotes C.E. Dutton, who described the society meetings which were “held for the sole purpose of reading formal papers. There were no collateral attractions in the shape of refreshments, ladies were not invited, and the members were expected to limit invitations to non-resident visitors who had, if not distinction, at least a recognized standing, as devotees of science or philosophy.” Of course, the participants wore evening dress because it symbolized the Society's concern with establishing the dignity of science. [Since this tradition lingers on, I trust it will also preserve my dignity.] The Society's formal papers and carefully considered commentaries constituted the main business of its meetings. There were no refreshments until the scholarly proceedings ended. The formality of the event was, no doubt, the reason for the popularity of the “adjourned meetings” held around beer, pretzels, and oysters at a tavern at Tenth and D Streets.

So, since I have the floor, I'll dispense with formalities and move right to the adjourned meeting. Here's a toast to the Philosophical Society of Washington as it enters the third millennium and on the eve of its 130th anniversary.

In fact, when Powell and his friends founded the Cosmos Club some seven years after the Philosophical Society, he reversed priorities. Fellowship bolted ahead of scholarship, but, of course, did not replace it. Washburn suggests in his history of the Cosmos Club that the Club's founders were able to change the direction of the Club away from “grim seriousness” partly because of Henry's death early in 1878. Today, the Philosophical Society continues its more formal traditions within the walls of the more informal Cosmos Club. And that's the way it should be.

One of the critical facets of any organization that has existed for more than four generations is its ability to hold or adapt its founding principles and continue to meet the interests and needs of each generation. By demanding distinction as a prerequisite of membership, we also largely predetermine the age of membership. The average age of Cosmos Club members is more than 68. We must seek younger members, always younger members, if we are to stay financial viable and able to continue operations in the future.

Indeed, one of Powell's primary motives for founding the Club was to not only improve his own standing in Washington's bureaucratic political scene, but to nurture younger, promising bureaucrats, who would then go on to support Powell's projects and ideas. There is some debate over this view of Powell. Wallace Stegner's classic, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, wrote that Powell's founding of the Cosmos Club created “the closest thing to a social headquarters for Washington's intellectual elite.” Jim Flack, however, has pointed out in his marvelous study of intellectuals in Washington in the last part of the 19th Century, Desideratum in Washington, that Powell's establishment of the Club and his push to have more control over government surveys was only a coincidence. Powell was hardly so Machiavellian.

Whatever side you may choose, I think it is important to know that Powell was no innocent. He was very much a political animal. Surrounding himself with the intelligent movers and shakers of American science and science policy would certainly not harm his career or those who became members of the Club. The world still operates to a great extent on not only what you know, but who else knows what you know. And Powell sought to surround himself with the best and the brightest of his generation.

Powell's circle was also diverse. The group of sixty founders of the club — 48 were federal employees, mostly government scientists and military officers, and 12 civilians — including mathematicians, librarians, geologists, astronomers, ethnologists, surgeons zoologists, chemists, three college presidents, other academic educators, an ornithologist, biologist, paleontologist, a patent examiner, inventors, a banker, and a historian (Henry Adams, probably better known as a novelist). Washburn argued that Powell saw the Cosmos Club “as one way to reconcile the diversity and divisions rapidly emerging in the American scientific establishment.” In an era of increasingly narrow specialization, the Club could offer a place for the type of broad discussions so necessary to bring balance and perspective to the various fields of inquiry. Very similar to what the PSW accomplished with a faculty forum, the Cosmos Club produced a faculty club for a non-existent national university.

Now, you may ask, what's all this about Powell not throwing in the towel. Well, last year Jim and Sylvia Symington wrote a couple of songs to celebrate the birthday of the Cosmos Club. One was “John Wesley Powell.” It goes, and I won't let you suffer the indignity of my singing it to you:

John Wesley Powell didn't throw in the towel,

Till he set up a howl for a club.

Where writers and thinkers could take off their blinkers

And join other drinkers in the pub

Where subjects as cheery as the big bang theory,

And the claims of Admiral Peary are explored,

And where erudition as opposed to ambition

Is the key to admission by the board.

Where folks to be smart

À la Descartes

Give a part of their heart to the bar.

Where glasses clink and no spirits sink,

Cause when we drink

We are!

Symingtons' song is right on target. It captures the ala carte menu that constitutes the membership of those organizations close to the Cosmos Club or founded at it such as the National Geographic Society, the National Parks Association, the American Geophysical Union, the Wilderness Society, the National Nutrition Consortium, and the Hereditary Order of Descendants of Loyalists and Patriots of the American Revolution (apparently the Anderson House across the street was closed for repairs when this group organized). In addition to the PSW, the Authors' Club, the Westerners, and the Explorers Club have long traditions of meeting at the club.

All these organizations represent the thinking part of the Washington scene and it strikes me as critical that a place like the Cosmos Club continues to foster their activities. I worry that a combination of an aging membership and increased costs may bring to an end the kind of intellectual give and take on which most of these groups thrive.

Indeed, we all thrive. We still live in a world of specialization, arguably even more specialized than that world a hundred and twenty-five years ago. It seems to me that it is even more important to ensure that a vigorous mix of intellectual and social discourse is preserved.

While our membership may be aging, it is not old. Nonetheless, I have several members dinging me about the apparent indifference of the current generation to belonging to any group. Will these issues be critical to our survival, of the PSW or the Cosmos Club, over the next ten years as a new generation comes of age?

Let me look at age first. The average age of the Cosmos Club is about 68. Even granting that we live longer and retire later these days, sixty-eight as an average does put a certain urgency in the actuarial tables concerning how many more years of dues and activity can one expect. This has led to calls for younger members, though the definition of who is a younger member is left pretty vague. Many argue that these are people under the age of forty-five. Since I just turned sixty last year, I lean to the view that anyone younger than fifty-five should qualify.

Whatever the target for young, the second question becomes critical. Does the current generation of people entering their thirties and forties, those born between 1960 and 1970, those individuals who will be the basis for membership in elite professional groups over the next decade, have any interest at all in joining or belonging. Will organizations such as ours based on social and intellectual interchange be able to survive in a world in which more and more people who are potential candidates see themselves as overwhelmed by time pressures, caught up in urban sprawl and too far to meet easily or often, or satisfied by the intellectual exchange found on the internet?

A number of books have appeared over the past decade commenting on the decline of interest in groups. In 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe looked at the idea in Generations; they followed up their theory in 1997 with a book entitled The Fourth Turning. The latest that is generating a buzz is Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. Apparently, Groucho Marx's comment that he wouldn't belong to a club that would accept him as a member has become the gospel of this younger generational cohort. Active participation in groups, so these arguments go, is limited to older folks whose numbers are decreasing. Younger people are less interested in the time commitments required for active participation.

If these books prove accurate, are organizations that depend on active participation and stimulating discourse threatened? Is the age of the private scholar over? I'm not certain. I have watched the membership of the Cosmos Club change in response to where its membership worked. For example, the number of geologists declined after the Geological Survey moved out of Washington. The same can be said about the nuclear community, which, before the AEC and Department of Energy moved to Maryland, provided a large number of members to the club.

How do you reel people back to club activities? Well, you make them stimulating. You vary the topics. And you make the meetings affordable.

The Cosmos Club is exploring ways we can preserve Powell's original intent to make the clubhouse a social and intellectual haven for the discussion of ideas. We are establishing this year a Cosmos Dialogue, the first in what we hope will become an annual series of events here at the Club that investigates in breadth and depth a topic of immediacy and importance. Dialogues that will look at the specific issues from numerous perspectives. This year's kickoff of event will focus on biology and nano-technology and will include, among other fields, scientists, ethicists, economists, and government policy makers. The idea is to include in this dialogue contributions from a wide range of individuals of all ages in this dialogue. They do not have to be Club members. We think Powell would be pleased.

The Cosmos Dialogue is designed to welcome individuals, however, not to include other groups. Yet Powell founded the club as a place for affinity groups (to use a more modern descriptive phrase) to gather. I want to see our links with the PSW and other similar organizations to continue the rich tradition of meeting here. I would like to solicit ideas from you on ways the Cosmos Club to encourage groups to interact with each other. Can we take Powell one step further? To go beyond individual memberships to group exchanges. Is there value in this? Can we afford to do it? What are the possibilities? What is the potential? Can we all bowl together?

I have one proposal. In 2003 we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Cosmos Club and the 125th anniversary of the publication of Powell's classic, Report On the Lands of the Arid Regions. We are seeking ideas that will help us mark this occasion, including a symposium on Powell's writings and his impact on geology, ethnography, exploration, and the progress of science more generally. I believe this is an ideal opportunity to involve a wide range of individuals and perhaps organizations to expand the dialogue.

If John Wesley Powell didn't throw in the towel, neither should we. If the vitality of elite intellectual organizations is indeed threatened, to survive we need to be more creative than solely looking for younger members. Are there types of individuals that can add to our proposed dialogue that we should be including by have ignored in the past? Certain business executives, for instance, come to mind.

I would welcome ideas and suggestions from you that would enable the organizations that occupy the center of private intellectual life in Washington to maintain the traditions established more than a century ago by the PSW and John Wesley Powell's circle. We don't want to be the generation that either throws in the towel or takes the wrong fork in the road.

Thank you.

Created by Philip L. Cantelon