Finding Aids to Personal Papers and Special Collections in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 7058
Records, 1839-1863 and undated
The National Institute (1840-1862) was first organized as the National Institution for the Promotion of Science at Washington, D.C., in 1840 as a voluntary society interested in promoting study of diverse subjects, particularly natural history and the physical sciences. In 1842 Congress granted the body a federal charter, and it was known as the National Institute for the Promotion of Science thereafter until its dissolution in 1862. In fact, the National Institute could trace its origins to two earlier organizations. The Columbian Institute, founded in 1816, lost its federal charter in 1838 and joined the Institute in 1841, and the American Historical Society, created in 1835, attached itself to the Institute in 1840.
The National Institute was probably formed with a view to gaining control of the bequest of James Smithson, and it certainly pursued that goal until the Smithsonian Institution was created in 1846. However, despite its chronic lack of funds, the Institute did not wait for the Smithson legacy before pursuing its interest in science and the arts. An active program of collecting specimens of natural history and of corresponding with scholars and societies at home and abroad was begun immediately and soon created problems.
Joel Poinsett, the Institute's first president, arranged in 1841 for his organization to act as custodian for the advance collections of the Wilkes Expedition, and many other items were also received. To deal with this flood of specimens, the Institute had only a small space--in the Patent Office--and even less money for preservation, since it could not obtain government appropriations. The government's lack of interest in the Institute was further displayed when, in 1842, custody of the collections of the Wilkes Expedition was transferred from the Navy Department to the Joint Library Committee, which had no sympathy for the Institute's ambitions.
The Institute tried to improve its deteriorating position in 1844 by promoting a gathering of the country's leading men of science at Washington. From the gathering the Institute hoped to obtain resolutions of support which would influence the government to offer it financial aid. The meeting was held and a memorial adopted urging the Institute's claims upon Congress. The Congress remained unmoved and the Institute continued its decline, hastened in good part by the indifference of prominent scientists like Joseph Henry. Even though the Institute was responsible for organizing the American contribution to the Great Exhibition of 1851, its revival was short-lived. Finally, in 1862 the Institute transferred its remaining collections to the Smithsonian Institution and quietly expired.
This collection consists of records, mostly 1840-1844, concerning the founding and operation of the National Institute by Joel Roberts Poinsett, Peter Force, John James Abert, Francis Markoe, Jr., and others, particularly efforts to obtain federal subsidies, to collect specimens of natural history and manufactures, to provide space for housing its collections, and to gather support for its programs from the general scientific community at a special meeting in 1844; correspondence among officers of the Institute about administration of its affairs; much incoming correspondence from members; minutes of meetings and committee reports; records dealing with a part of the collections of the U. S. Exploring Expedition; bills and accounts; and publications of the Institute.
These records display some operational confusion, due in part to John Varden, who worked, often simultaneously, for the National Institute, for Captain Charles Wilkes in the Exploring Expedition collections, and for Henry Leavitt Ellsworth in the National Gallery of the Patent Office, often keeping his records on these different jobs together.
Researchers should consult the Peter Force Papers in the Library of Congress, especially for information on the Institute's share in the Executive Committee, which organized American participation in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Poinsett, Joel Roberts, 1779-1851
- Force, Peter, 1790-1868
- Abert, John James, 1788-1863
- Markoe, Francis, Jr.
- National Institute
- National Institution for the Promotion of Science (U.S.)
- Smithsonian Institution
- United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842)
- Great Exhibition (1851 : London, England)
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7058, National Institute, Records