The Smithsonian Institution
James Smithson. When the Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846, the nation’s “scientific capital” officially moved to Washington, D.C., the political capital. The money to establish the Smithsonian, oddly enough, was bequeathed to the U.S. government by an obscure British scientist named James Smithson, the illegitimate son of the duke of Northumberland. Smithson studied chemistry and mineralogy at Pembroke College, Oxford, and joined the Royal Society of London in 1787. He lived most of his adult life on the European continent, participated in geologic expeditions, and wrote more than two hundred scientific papers, twenty-seven of which were published.
An Unusual Bequest. James Smithson never achieved fame in life, but apparently he consciously planned to make a name for himself after his death, at one point writing: “My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands ... are extinct and forgotten.” Smithson harbored a lifelong resentment of a culture that denied him social standing because of the circumstances of his birth. He was thus predisposed to admire the ideals enshrined in American democracy, although he never visited the United States and was thus spared its contradictions. He died in 1829 in Genoa, leaving an estate equal to half a million dollars to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford. In the event that Hungerford died childless, Smithson’s will stipulated that the estate in its entirely go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” In 1835 Hungerford did indeed die childless, and a startled President Andrew Jackson and Congress found themselves responsible for a sum of money spectacular for the time, uncertain about both the constitutionality and the propriety of accepting it and puzzled as to how to interpret the phrase “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
Securing the Funds. The president and most members of Congress harbored little enthusiasm for the bequest or its stated object, but a champion arose in the form of Massachusetts representative (and former president) John Quincy Adams. Drawing upon his skill and connections, Adams succeeded in shepherding a bill through Congress accepting both the bequest and the conditions attached to it. President Jackson signed the bill into law on 1 July 1836. Congress sent Richard Rush, son of the famed physician Benjamin Rush, to see the bequest through the British courts. Two years later Rush accompanied eleven boxes of gold coins worth $508, 318.46 across the Atlantic.
The Institution Established. For the next eight years Congress debated the meaning of the bequest’s provisions and argued over countless proposals put forward for using the money. Finally on 10 August 1846 President James K. Polk signed the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution and stipulating that it would include a museum, a laboratory, an art gallery, and a library. The bill also established a board of regents to oversee the institution and hire a secretary to manage day-to-day operations. In the end the definition of what, exactly, the institution would do was left to the discretion of its managers, who were instructed to use the proceeds of the endowment
“as they deem best suited for the promotion of the purposes of James Smithson.”
Direction for the Future. The regents chose Joseph Henry, professor of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey, to head the new institution. That choice decisively shaped the direction that the Smithsonian would take. Henry disdained the idea of the institution as a repository of curiosities to entertain idle hours. In his “Programme of Organization” Henry pointed out that Smithson’s will contained two key words, increase and diffuse. Increasing knowledge meant promoting original research by making grants to conduct such research and by offering “suitable rewards” for publications detailing research that had resulted in “new truths.” By way of example he delineated areas that he believed were ripe for the discovery of new truths: meteorological studies, explorations and topographical surveys, “experimental problems” in the various natural sciences, “statistical inquiries” into “physical, moral, and political subjects,” and historical and ethnological research. To accomplish the purpose of “diffusing” the new knowledge acquired through such research, Henry instituted in 1848 a publication series titled Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. In addition to publishing, the Smithsonian Institution initiated in 1849 a system of international exchange of scholarly publications, especially in the sciences. The zealous oversight of John Quincy Adams in bringing the Smithsonian Institution into being, the wise decision to leave the actual activities of the institution to its regents rather than the political whims of Congress, and the selection of a dedicated man of science for the first secretary all helped to shape the future of a major public institution that has made significant contributions to the development of American science.
James Conaway, The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1995);
Paul H. Oehser, The Smithsonian Institution, second edition (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983).
"The Smithsonian Institution." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smithsonian-institution
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