The Strange Career of the Smithsonian Institution

National Museum of African American History and CultureConstruction continues on Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo: johnsonderman flickr CC)

On August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed into law an act creating the Smithsonian Institution. Designated originally as an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” the Smithsonian has grown in the nearly 160 years since its founding into the largest museum and research complex in the world. Comprising nineteen museums and galleries, nine research centers, and the National Zoo, the Smithsonian holds 138 million items in its collections, hosts thirty million visitors every year, and is widely acknowledged as one of America’s greatest public treasures and a steward of the historical and scientific legacy of the United States.

But the Smithsonian almost never came into being at all. Involving an unprecedented bequest, a lengthy public debate, and ten years of Congressional bungling and infighting, the origin story of the Smithsonian is a weird and wild one. If it demonstrates that government officials sometimes accomplish important things despite themselves, it also reveals their ability over the long term to craft institutions serving the public good that define who we are as a nation.

When British scientist James Smithson died in 1829, he left the bulk of his substantial estate to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. But Smithson’s will also provided that should Hungerford himself die without children, the entirety of the estate would transfer to the United States for the purpose of establishing an entity to be known as the Smithsonian Institution. The will attracted notice immediately as a curiosity and it became a major news item six years later when Hungerford died childless, putting the contingency clause of Smithson’s will into operation.

President Andrew Jackson received Congressional authorization in 1836 to accept the bequest on behalf of the federal government, and the Smithsonian Institution might have been founded in short order thereafter but for three things. For starters, getting Smithson’s money across the Atlantic and securely setting it aside for its intended purpose entailed overcoming bureaucratic complications, the logistics of nineteenth-century international finance, and inept investment strategies. Soon after formally accepting Smithson’s bequest, President Jackson sent veteran diplomat Richard Rush to England to collect it. But it took Rush two years of legal wrangling to get the British Court of Chancery to recognize the American claim on Smithson’s estate. Rush then sold the properties composing the estate, converted the proceeds of the sales into gold, and sailed back to the United States in 1838 with eleven large boxes containing more than 100,000 sovereign coins, all of which the Treasury melted down.

The entire process finally yielded more than half a million dollars in gold. This was no small sum, roughly approximating the amount then residing in the endowment of Harvard University. But Congress inexplicably instructed the Treasury to invest it all, during the depression that followed the Panic of 1837, in bonds issued by several western states where irresponsible land speculation had helped lead to the depression in the first place. When, perhaps predictably, the state of Arkansas defaulted on its bonds in 1841, most of Smithson’s money disappeared.

A second obstacle to the establishment of the Smithsonian was the peculiar nature of the bequest itself. Smithson’s gift was a befuddling one, and not only because Smithson had never set foot in the United States or even met an American. The challenge presented in administering the terms of Smithson’s will lay in its broad and vague mandate to build an organization that would discover and disseminate human knowledge. In a young country with few national institutions to serve as models for such an undertaking, no one had any idea precisely what that meant. But nearly everyone had an idea about what it ought to mean, which in turn yielded a protracted public conversation over how to carry out Smithson’s vision.

Academics, scientists, politicians, and average citizens alike argued for nearly ten years about the ideal Smithsonian Institution. Some made the case for creating a national university. Others suggested a national museum. Still others floated ideas for a center for scientific research, a national library, or an astronomical observatory. The dispute continued well into the 1840s, and proposals for bills outlining various mandates for the Smithsonian poured into Congress for years.

Still a third impediment to creating the Smithsonian lay in the politics of sovereignty. The fact of Smithson’s British citizenship provoked intense anti-English sentiment from some Americans, but xenophobia was hardly the only issue at play. Battles over the appropriate powers of the federal government were constants in the life of the early republic, and the 1830s was an especially fraught decade for such fights. Even Andrew Jackson, whose devotion to federal supremacy had led him to threaten an invasion of South Carolina when it tried to nullify federal law, insisted that Congress explicitly sanction his receipt of Smithson’s bequest, and for those politicians most devout in their dedication to states’ rights the idea of the Smithsonian was dubious at best. John Calhoun, for example, argued that Congress simply lacked clear constitutional permission to take Smithson’s money.

Calhoun and others also made the case that it called the honor of the nation into question to accept a gift from a private individual at all. It seemed undignified, these politicians claimed, for the United States to receive funds as if it needed to be the object of charity. Moreover, they alluded to the fears that nearly always lingered behind warnings about the federal government aggrandizing its authority. If Congress could take money for the purposes laid out in Smithson’s will, could it then take private money for any purpose? Could it, for example, accept funds designated by a private individual to pay for the costs associated with the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C.? Once Congress opened the door to private individuals using their wealth to influence federal policy, Calhoun and others worried, it could never be closed.

Ultimately, public excitement and political interest in the Smithsonian overwhelmed financial and ideological controversies alike. Massachusetts Representative and former President John Quincy Adams played an especially prominent role in lobbying his colleagues on the Smithsonian’s behalf. Personally dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement, Adams spent years pushing for the Smithsonian, urging Congress to accept Smithson’s bequest and to restore the funds, with interest, that had been lost in the Arkansas bonds debacle. When the Smithsonian finally became a reality, it was crafted as a national trust, with the specifics of its charge determined by a Secretary and a Board of Regents. The majesty of its buildings, the marvels of its collections, and the products of its research have more than fulfilled the promise of Smithson’s gift. And we the people are its beneficiaries.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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    1. Very true, and not surprising. Few things requiring a lot of work got done in the district without using enslaved labor. Glad you liked the essay, and thanks for the link to yours!

  1. One of the statements in the article isn’t completely accurate according to my information. The treasury melted most, not all, of Smithson’s sovereigns. Check out the national collection.

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