Joseph Henry Spars with Stephen A. Douglas over Mission of the Smithsonian




Date: June 24-25, 1852


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At a meeting of the United States Agricultural Society held at the Smithsonian, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois attacks the Smithsonian for a lack of "practical results" and claims it "is not what it was designed to be by its founder." According to a local press account, Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry countered that he would rather blow up the Smithsonian and send the funds back to England than turn it into an agricultural society, as Douglas had suggested. It was reported that Henry went on to argue that "Smithson intended not the diffusion of useful knowledge merely, but the increase of knowledge," and "that agriculture is to be more advanced by the microscope than by the plough and harrow." Douglas and Henry would later apologize to each other, and Douglas would become a Smithsonian Regent in 1854, remaining on the board until his death in 1861.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Douglas, Stephen Arnold
  • Senator
  • United States Agricultural Society
  • Regents Smithsonian Institution


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • Portrait of Stephen Arnold Douglas by Leopold Grozelier, 1854, National Portrait Gallery, negative number NPG.82.75.D.
  • Rothenberg, Marc, et al, eds. The Papers of Joseph Henry, Vol. 8. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998, pp. 344-45, 351-52.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


June 24-25, 1852


  • Legislators
  • Debates and Debating
  • Act to establish the "Smithsonian Institution," for the Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge Among Men
  • United States Congress, Relations with SI


United States

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