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An establishment for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”

On 10 August 1846, Congress passed the Act that established the Smithsonian Institution.

If you’ve visited Washington, DC, in addition to admiring cherry trees or exploring the monuments to Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson, you probably visited one of the Smithsonian Institution museums.

At 176 years of age (10 August 1846), the Smithsonian is the “world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, with 21 museums, the National Zoo and nine research facilities.”

It owes its existence to an “illegitimate child of a wealthy Englishman” (“a highborn bastard“) who died in Italy and never set foot in North America.

James Smithson (1765-1829) was an English scientist; his mother, Elizabeth Keate Macie, “a lineal descendant of Henry VII.” At only 22 years of age, one year after graduating from Oxford, he was elected to the Royal Society. (The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge is the oldest national scientific society in the world (28 November 1660).)

James Smithson
James Smithson (1765-1829). Artist: Hattie Elizabeth Burdette. Smithsonian Institution.

Smithson traveled throughout Europe and “was the first to distinguish between zinc carbonate and zinc silicate… Since 1832, zinc carbonate has been known as smithsonite.”

He never married.

Eventually he inherited a good deal of money, mainly from his mother, and decided to leave it all to his illegitimate 20-year-old nephew — but with a remarkable stipulation attached. If the nephew died childless, the fortune would go toward “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” Not in England. Not at all. Smithson was not about to do that. The money was to go to the United States of America.

Why America?

Some have suggested that his bequest was motivated, in part, by revenge against the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father’s name. Others have suggested it reflected his interest in the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and universal education.

Smithson died in Genoa, Italy on 27 June 1829.

The Times of London printed a copy of his will. When “the exceptional potential windfall for the United States caught the eye of an American editor,” The New York American re-printed it.

His nephew, Henry James Hungerford, died six years later. He had no children.

President Andrew Jackson advised a “stunned” Congress of the bequest. Congress eventually agreed to accept it. That took two years.

The bequest included 104,960 gold sovereign coins, worth more than $500,000 when deposited in September 1838. For context:

The sum was nearly equivalent to the then-endowment of Harvard University, an institution that had existed for 200 years by that time and was not the product of one donation, but many. We can also think about the gift in relation to the U.S. government budget. In 1838, federal spending was $38 million, so the gift represented 1/25th of that; in 2022, 1/25th of the $6 trillion federal budget would be $2.4 billion!

What should it be? Where?

For the next eight years, Congress debated what to do with the windfall.

On 10 August 1846, President James K. Polk signed legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian. Congress rejected creating a national university or observatory. Instead, Congress directed the Board to create “a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.”

When completed in 1855, the Smithsonian Institution Building, known colloquially as “the Castle,” was situated on “an isolated piece of land cut off from downtown Washington, DC, by a canal.” (In 1872, the canal was filled in.)

At the time, it was simply called the “National Museum.”

Smithsonian Institution Building
Smithsonian Institution Building.

President George Washington had commissioned Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the capital city.

L’Enfant’s plan shows the “Presidential Palace” and the “Congress House” on two high pieces of ground connected by a broad boulevard, what would become Pennsylvania Avenue. A mile-long Grand Avenue would run west from the Congress House — a great open space lined by the ministries and houses of statesmen, with expanses of plantings and gardens. The central garden of this area, now known as the Mall, would contain a water feature and be bordered by dense groves of trees.

That vision still languished in 1846, but the Smithsonian helped move it forward.

Today, L’Enfant’s vision of a “public walk” is what we know as the National Mall. It is a “wide, straight strip of grass and trees that stretches for two miles, from Capitol Hill to the Potomac River.”

The Smithsonian Institution set “the precedent for public educational and cultural institutions on the Mall.” Both sides of the mall feature Smithsonian museums.The Mall also includes monuments to Presidents Jefferson, Lincoln Washington as well as government buildings.

By the numbers

Board of Regents

The Board includes the chief justice and the vice president of the United States; three senators and three House members; and nine citizens who are nominated by the board and approved by Congress under a joint resolution signed by the president.

The current members:

#scitech, #science, #society (202/365)
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Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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