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The Junto was a club for mutual improvement established in 1727 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. Also known as the Leather Apron Club, its purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy, and to exchange knowledge of business affairs. They also were a charitable organization who made a subscription public library of their own books.
Franklin organized a group of friends to provide a structured form of mutual improvement. The group, initially composed of twelve members, called itself the Junto (the word is a mistaken use of the masculine singular Spanish adjective "joined", mistaken for the feminine singular noun "junta", "a meeting". Both derive from Latin "iunct-", past participle of "iungere", "to join"). The members of the Junto were drawn from diverse occupations and backgrounds, but they all shared a spirit of inquiry and a desire to improve themselves, their community, and to help others. Among the original members were printers, surveyors, a cabinetmaker, a clerk, and a bartender. Although most of the members were older than Franklin, he was clearly their leader.
At just 21, he oversaw five men, including Hugh Meredith, Stephen Potts, and George Webb, who were soon to form the core of the Junto. Franklin was an outgoing, social individual and had become acquainted with these businessmen. This gathering included prominent merchants who met informally to drink and discuss the business of the day. Franklin’s congenial ways attracted many unique and learned individuals, and from these, he selected the members for the Junto.
All members lived in Philadelphia and came from diverse areas of interest and business. Along with Meredith, Potts, and Webb, they included Joseph Breintnall, merchant and scrivener, who also loved poetry and natural history. Thomas Godfrey was a glazier, mathematician, and inventor; and Nicholas Scull and William Parsons were both surveyors. Scull was also a bibliophile and Parsons a cobbler and astrologer. William Maugridge was a cabinetmaker, William Coleman a merchant’s clerk, and Robert Grace a gentleman. Grace’s wealth meant he did not have to work, but apparently he brought an intellectual element to the group and a fine library. The twelfth member of the Junto remained a mystery until 2007, when Professor George Boudreau of Penn State discovered a long-forgotten account of the club's refreshments, and verified that shoemaker John Jones, Jr. was an original member. Jones was a Philadelphia Quaker, a neighbor of Franklin's, and later a founding member of the Library Company of Philadelphia. The club met Friday nights, first in a tavern and later in a house, to discuss moral, political, and scientific topics of the day.
Franklin describes the formation and purpose of the Junto in his autobiography:
I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year,  I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.
Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.
The Junto's Friday evening meetings were organized around a series of questions that Franklin devised, covering a range of intellectual, personal, business, and community topics. These questions were used as a springboard for discussion and community action. In fact, through the Junto, Franklin promoted such concepts as volunteer fire-fighting clubs, improved security (night watchmen), and a public hospital.
List of questions
This is the list of questions Franklin devised to guide the discussions at Junto meetings (from Franklin's papers, dated 1728, and included in some editions of his autobiography):
- Have you met with any thing in the author you last read, remarkable, or suitable to be communicated to the Junto? particularly in history, morality, poetry, physics, travels, mechanic arts, or other parts of knowledge?
- What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?
- Has any citizen in your knowledge failed in his business lately, and what have you heard of the cause?
- Have you lately heard of any citizen’s thriving well, and by what means?
- Have you lately heard how any present rich man, here or elsewhere, got his estate?
- Do you know of any fellow citizen, who has lately done a worthy action, deserving praise and imitation? or who has committed an error proper for us to be warned against and avoid?
- What unhappy effects of intemperance have you lately observed or heard? of imprudence? of passion? or of any other vice or folly?
- What happy effects of temperance? of prudence? of moderation? or of any other virtue?
- Have you or any of your acquaintance been lately sick or wounded? If so, what remedies were used, and what were their effects?
- Who do you know that are shortly going [on] voyages or journeys, if one should have occasion to send by them?
- Do you think of any thing at present, in which the Junto may be serviceable to mankind? to their country, to their friends, or to themselves?
- Hath any deserving stranger arrived in town since last meeting, that you heard of? and what have you heard or observed of his character or merits? and whether think you, it lies in the power of the Junto to oblige him, or encourage him as he deserves?
- Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?
- Have you lately observed any defect in the laws, of which it would be proper to move the legislature an amendment? Or do you know of any beneficial law that is wanting?
- Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?
- Hath any body attacked your reputation lately? and what can the Junto do towards securing it?
- Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto, or any of them, can procure for you?
- Have you lately heard any member’s character attacked, and how have you defended it?
- Hath any man injured you, from whom it is in the power of the Junto to procure redress?
- In what manner can the Junto, or any of them, assist you in any of your honourable designs?
- Have you any weighty affair in hand, in which you think the advice of the Junto may be of service?
- What benefits have you lately received from any man not present?
- Is there any difficulty in matters of opinion, of justice, and injustice, which you would gladly have discussed at this time?
- Do you see any thing amiss in the present customs or proceedings of the Junto, which might be amended?
Any person to be qualified as a member was to stand up, lay his hand upon his chest, over his heart, and be asked the following questions, viz.
- Have you any particular disrespect to any present members? Answer. I have not.
- Do you sincerely declare that you love mankind in general, of what profession or religion soever? Answer. I do.
- Do you think any person ought to be harmed in his body, name, or goods, for mere speculative opinions, or his external way of worship? Answer. No.
- Do you love truth for truth's sake, and will you endeavor impartially to find and receive it yourself, and communicate it to others? Answer. Yes.
There are several modern-day Juntos modeled on Franklin's original meeting operating today:
- Hedge fund manager Victor Niederhoffer has been running the New York City Junto since 1985. Meeting monthly, the New York Junto focuses on libertarianism, Objectivism (the philosophy of Ayn Rand), and investing. A Junto meets in Philadelphia and is focussed on the original concept of "for profit, for good" business practices and an interest in civic improvement and investment. There are regular dinners and a yearly retreat. The London Junto meets monthly at the Lansdowne Club, where Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris with Lord Shelburne. Nicholas Vardy has been running the London Junto since 2005.
- A Junto based in Washington, DC, was ran by Nancy Reagan in the 1980's. It has been rumored that her famous "Just Say No" Campaign was suggested by a fellow member who wished to remain anonymous.
- A Denver, Colorado Junto group was formed in 1995. It has become the Small Business Chamber of Commerce which cooperates with local chambers of commerce to form similar groups.
- A Syracuse, NY Junto holds monthly dinner meetings at local restaurants to discuss the issues of the day, offer tips & lifehacks, and share their good humor. Candidates are nominated by the members, and take the 4-question oath used by Franklin's Junto. New members receive a fountain pen in confirmation of the event. Every member is "President" when present, eliminating the need to vote or elect officers.
- An Eau Claire, WI Junto holds meetings every Tuesday at a local tavern. The group is semi-exclusive; membership requires approval from a majority of current members, though anybody is welcome to join in their discussions. The group consists mostly of students seeking mutual improvement through a blend of the original Junto principles and the Wisconsin Idea.
- Benjamin Franklin, Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces, ed. Benjamin Vaughan, (London, 1779), pp. 533-6 http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=1&page=255a
- The New York City Junto
- The London Junto
- History of the American Philosophical Society and the Junto
- Benjamin Franklin: A Documentary History -- J.A. Leo Lemay
- Philadelphia's Junto