The Vanishing Board: Governance at the Smithsonian during Civil War

Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will be posting about the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. From the west, the north facade of the Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle) with paths on t Secretary Joseph Henry, 1862, by Titian Ramsey Peale, Card photograph, Smithsonian Institution Archi The Smithsonian Institution is governed by a Board of Regents as provided for in the Congressional act that created the Smithsonian in 1846. In the 1860s, the Board consisted of six citizens from across the nation, three representatives and three senators from the US Congress, the vice-president, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the mayor of the city of Washington. A quiet and stable group for the Institution’s first fifteen years, the outbreak of the Civil War led to an almost complete turnover of board members. During this time of great crisis, the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, was left to face serious challenges without the support of a strong board. And when the war ended in 1865, the board had a decidedly northern and midwestern character that would define it for decades. Regents Room in the Smithsonian Castle, c. 1856, by Roberts, Co., engraving, Smithsonian Institution Problems began in January of 1861, when six southern states seceded, and Congress was too preoccupied to pass the resolutions necessary to appoint three new regents to fill  existing vacancies. In March, Cornelius Felton, a citizen regent from Massachusetts who had served since 1856, was finally reappointed and could provide some continuity. William L. Dayton, a citizen regent from New Jersey, replaced Richard Rush of Philadelphia. (Rush, a major force in the creation of the Smithsonian, and  the attorney who prosecuted the United States’ claim to James Smithson’s estate in the British Court of Chancery, and had served actively on the board since the Institution’s founding in 1846. William B. Astor, a citizen from New York, replaced another original board member, Gideon Hawley, whose term was not renewed at his request. Both had been strong supporters of the Smithsonian and active members of the board. And with the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln on March 4th, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin (of Maine) replaced the outgoing Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge (of Kentucky). Richard Rush, Smithsonian regent, c. 1856, Painting, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9 As the war erupted in April 1861, the Board of Regents experienced a major upheaval, with more members leaving the Board over the course of the year. Several were expelled for their loyalty to the Confederacy, including Lucius Jeremiah Gartrell, a US Representative from Georgia, and James Murray Mason, a US Senator from Virginia. In June, the board lost another strong supporter when Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois died. Douglas had been appointed to the board in 1854 and had been an advocate for the Institution in the Congress. Senator Lyman Trumbull, also of Illinois, replaced him and would continue on the Board until 1873. Later that year, the mayor of Washington, DC, resigned, and two northern  congressional representatives did not continue. As the war wore on, yet another member was expelled for “giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the Government.” Other strong supporters were also lost, including Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, who had been a Smithsonian regent from 1847 to 1851, and was a close friend of Secretary Henry. Gideon Hawley, Smithsonian regent, c. 1840, Photographic print, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Re Over the next four years, Secretary Henry faced many crises, without the experienced Board support he had come to rely on. The Treasury paid the interest on Smithson’s endowment in devalued currency, not gold, and payments were often made late. The paper currency had far less purchasing power than gold, and Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird wrote that "all superfluous expenditures were to be lopped off, and the most rigid economy exercised."  When appropriations for the museum were cut, Henry threatened to close the museum’s doors.  Other cutbacks included the International Exchange Service which distributed scientific publications across the US and abroad.  Both the unsettled conditions and loss of funding made it difficult to maintain a shipping network of publications, especially to the American south.   At one point, Henry appealed to the Congress to take over the national museum, to reduce financial demands on the Smithsonian. Fortunately, that request fell on deaf ears. In coming months watch for subsequent posts in which we’ll trace the various challenges and crises the Smithsonian faced during the Civil War. For more information, visit our website on the Smithsonian and the Civil War.  

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