Exactly 165 years ago today, legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution was passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President James K. Polk. From today’s perspective, it seems like a “no-brainer” to accept a generous bequest from a little-known Englishman named James Smithson and create an institution in his name. But from the perspective of that era, the founding of the Smithsonian was a very controversial step—one that reflected the battle over states’ rights versus a federal government that led in part to the Civil War.
English scientist James Smithson died in 1829 and left his estate to his nephew, with a curious clause stating that if his nephew died without heirs, the estate would go to the people of the United States to found in the City of Washington, under the name of Smithsonian Institution, an establishment “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson’s nephew died without heirs in 1835 so the clause went into effect, immediately engendering controversy.
[pullquote]We accept a fund from a foreigner, and would … enlarge our grant of power derived from the States of this Union…Can you show me a word that goes to invest us with such a power?
South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, February 25, 1836
Then-President Andrew Jackson did not think he had constitutional authority to accept the gift, so he referred it to the US Congress for action. The powerful South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun objected to acceptance of the bequest from the outset. Known for his thunderous oratory, on February 25, 1836, he argued, "We accept a fund from a foreigner, and would … enlarge our grant of power derived from the States of this Union…Can you show me a word that goes to invest us with such a power?" He continued, it was “beneath [US] dignity to accept presents from anyone." Calhoun and other southern legislators sought to limit the reach of the federal government. They believed there was no constitutional authority for a national organization and its creation would set a dangerous precedent.
Northern legislators, led by former President John Quincy Adams, now in the House of Representatives, favored a strong federal government and supported creating a national institution with Smithson’s bequest. Adams, chairman of the Congressional select committee to determine what to do about the bequest, maintained that the endowment could have far-reaching consequences for the young country and advocated applying the money toward scientific research, especially astronomy. The committee’s House Report 181 urged that the bequest be "faithfully carried into effect" so that the Congress would meet its moral obligations. Adams’ group prevailed, and on July 1, 1836, the Congress passed legislation authorizing the President to pursue the bequest.
Another decade would pass before the bequest wended its way through the British Court of Chancery and the US Congress decided what to do with it. Adams remained ever vigilant, believing that he must protect the bequest from charlatans, "as from a rattlesnake's fang, the fund and its income, forever from being wasted and dilapidated in bounties to feed the hunger or fatten the leaden idleness of mountebank projectors and shallow worthless pretenders to science." And some southern congressmen even converted to the Smithsonian camp during the debates. In 1836 South Carolina Senator William Campbell Preston argued in that if the US accepted Smithson’s bequest, it violated states’ rights and "every whippersnapper vagabond … might think it proper to have his name distinguished in the same way." But by the time the Institution was founded in 1846, he became a strong advocate for the Smithsonian and served on its Board of Regents from 1846 to 1852.
As we celebrate our 165th anniversary and commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it is important to realize that, in those contentious years, even the founding of the Smithsonian became an issue between the North and South.