The historical society is a great friend and resource to all those with a passion for history; from the amateur history buff to the distinguished, critically-acclaimed researcher. They provide primary sources for research, professional guidance, host public events, and sponsor educational and professional development for students and educators. Historical societies have become permanent fixtures in states and cities across the world.
In 1791, the Reverend Jeremy Belknap and several others donated their personal papers, letters, and books to form what would become the Massachusetts Historical Society; the first ever historical society in North America. These founders believed that the diligent research and practical application of history was central to society and groups like historical societies would greatly benefit society. Sponsoring education initiatives, collecting documents of notable figures, and encouraging historical research were all part of the society's goal. The Reverend Jeremy Belknap and the other nine founders immediately sparked an intellectual fire that spread across the country for years.
The Reverend Jeremy Belknap (photo courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society)
The next location for a historical society was New York, with the establishment of the New-York Historical Society in 1804. Along with maintaining collections of historical documents and artifacts, the society also operates a museum with an impressive art collection. The founder, John Pintard, lobbied heavily with many New York politicians and eventually in 1804, the Mayor of New York organized the society. From the beginning, the society faced a multitude of problems; overwhelming debt and frequently moving collections burdened the organization. However, through public endowments and private philanthropy, the society was able to secure its future and become a model historical research organization.
John Pintard (photo courtesy of the New-York Historical Society)
Both of these organizations were dedicated to historical study, but in the early 19th century, their practice was largely limited to the state or region. The shift from local to national focus occurred with the founding of the American Antiquarian Society in 1812. The oldest society that was focused on the nation as a whole, it was spearheaded by Isaiah Thomas (who you might remember as the public reader of the Declaration of Independence and reported first-hand accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord). Thomas donated a substantial portion of his own library, letters, and newspapers for the initial collection and encouraged others to do likewise. As the collections grew, so did the society's focus on education, professional development, historiography, and public engagement on historical topics. In modern times, the society's list of notable members has grown exponentially; including those such as John Adams, Ken Burns, Bill Clinton, Henry Louis Gates, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, David McCullough, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.
Isaiah Thomas (photo courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society)
These three organizations were just the beginning in what would become institutions in every U.S state and spread across the globe. As they preserve history, they strive to educate and train the public in how they can be a part of that goal. Everyone can learn about their community, country, and nation and its past; the societies are here to help!