In the halls of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University you will occasionally hear it mentioned, in a slightly boastful way, that the Academy was an “original subscriber” to John James Audubon’s masterpiece The Birds of America. This statement is technically true, because the Academy became a subscriber shortly after the work was published, probably around 1831, but it is also disingenuous. In 1824, when Audubon came to the Academy in search of an engraver and/or publisher, he was turned away and later rejected for membership. As the story is told, Audubon drummed up some animosity with George Ord and engraver Alexander Lawson, who had worked with the late Alexander Wilson and were at the time financially invested in publishing a second edition of Wilson’s American Ornithology. It may be that Audubon’s extraordinary talent was perceived as threatening to the success of that venture, or perhaps his paintings were simply too difficult to engrave but Lawson was too proud to admit it—either way, Audubon met significant resistance to his plan.
Reuben Haines III, corresponding secretary of the Academy, took a liking to Audubon and invited him to his country estate called Wyck, which is now engulfed by urban development in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Audubon stayed at Wyck on July 25th, and the next day traveled to his teenage home Mill Grove, in Haines’s carriage. That evening they dined with the famous clockmaker Isaiah Lukens at Mill Grove, which was at that time under the ownership of Mr. Wetherill, who had bought the property from the Audubons many years prior.
At the next meeting of the Academy, on the evening of July 27, Audubon was nominated for corresponding membership by Haines, Lukens, and the French naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. But his nomination was “black-balled” (rejected) in a vote on August 31. In a recent facebook post, Academy archivist Jennifer Vess described the balloting procedure that was used:
“After the founders’ meeting, it was decreed that every new member must be nominated by two active members, his name read before the group and voted on at the next business meeting. A single black marble in the voting box meant the nominee had been rejected. It was presumed that the prospective member knew nothing of his nomination, so that the insult of being rejected would not be known by him. If black-balled, the nomination blank was destroyed to remove any record of the outcome of the election.”
It is curious that Audubon’s rejection was not destroyed as was the custom, and there is no evidence of any reason why—so cue the speculations. Two relevant facts are that Audubon was no longer in Philadelphia when the vote was cast, and that he was stressed about his failure to find support in America. In a recently discovered letter from Audubon to Haines dated December 25, 1825, the desperate ornithologist pleaded for help one last time:
“Now my dear Mr Haines I must change my subject.—I must touch the only thing that ever vibrated sorrow to my heart.—I must leave America.—And you, and a few more friends.—I must go and seek far from my few connections, a […] purse for my long labours with as little hope to obtain this abroad as I am sure never to possess it in this my beloved country.—I assure you I count every day that are to [elapse] between this and the awfull moment when the sails will be spread that will waft off the vessel bearing my hopes, much like he who consigned to unmerited punishment hopes and yet dreads that another world will not be better to him than the one he is about to leave for ever.—With an allmost despairing heart I shall leave America early this ensuing spring, and now bid you my farewell.—Yes it is my farewell indeed for unless a success scarce expected should take place, I never will review this happy continent, will have to abandon my long acquired habits of watching nature at work and will droop moreso amongst the dreg of the world as it is called.” (Halley 2015, ‘The Heart of Audubon‘)
Audubon later published a more subdued synopsis of the events, practically bereft of emotion, in Ornithological Biography (1831: xiv; bracketed names mine):
“America being my country, and the principal pleasures of my life having been obtained there, I prepared to leave it with deep sorrow, after in vain trying to publish my Illustrations in the United States. In Philadelphia, Wilson’s principal engraver [Lawson], amongst others [Ord], gave it as his opinion to my friends [Bonaparte, Haines, Lesueur], that my drawings could never be engraved. In New York, other difficulties presented themselves, which determined me to carry my collections to Europe.”
Years later, after The Birds of America was a sensational hit, on September 27, 1831, Audubon’s name was again moved to nomination for Academy membership, and this time the vote passed despite Ord’s continuing enmity. He became a corresponding member on October 25th, 1831, but sadly, his friend and confidante Reuben Haines missed the vote, having died of a laudanum overdose six days earlier…but that is another story.
Thanks to Jennifer Vess and the staff of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Bert Filemyr of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club for insightful comments that improved historical accuracy.