Smithson's Bequest: Its Objects and Issues

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  • After a lengthy preamble concerning his view that civilization has been modified at times by lucky accidents, the unidentified author writes of James Smithson and his bequest to the United States to found in Washington, under the name of Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men. After the $515,169 bequest was deposited in the U. S. Treasury on September 1, 1836, Congressional deliberations regarding the Smithsonian's establishment began with House and Senate committees appointed to study the matter. Asher Robbins of Rhode Island chaired the Senate committee and introduced a plan for a national university or institute of education, while his House counterpart, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, advised that the fund should be used to first provide for an astronomical observatory and then progress to related scientific endeavors.
  • This disparity in views continued for a number of years and the matter was not taken up again by Congress until 1844. Negotiations resumed and after many modifications legislation was approved to organize the Smithsonian in August 1846, ten years after the bequest had been accepted. In that interim, the money had been lent to the states of Arkansas and Illinois; when it was ascertained that neither could pay back the money, Congress approved a loan to the U. S. Treasury in the amount of the principal, and $242,169 in accrued interest was given to the Smithsonian's Board of Regents for buildings and other incidental expenses. The writer then goes on to consider various definitions for "increase" and "diffusion" of knowledge, and discusses the wide range of suggestions that had been proposed to set the scope of the Smithsonian's purpose.
  • He outlines the wording of the statute providing for its establishment and governance, reports on his pleasure that its library was thriving and its North American specimen collections, under the supervision of Professor Spencer F. Baird (second Smithsonian Secretary), were considered among the best in the nation. The author touches on other aspects of the Smithsonian, such as its art collection and lectures, and describes its plan of operations to guide it in carrying out Smithson's directives. The SI's publication of scientific research and its system of international scientific and literary exchanges are viewed as successful efforts to diffuse knowledge, and Secretary Joseph Henry is praised for his work. The writer concludes by commenting on actions taken by the Board of Regents, with input from some members of the U.S. Congress, to resolve a conflict involving Secretary Henry and the Smithsonian's librarian.


  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Adams, John Quincy 1767-1848
  • Robbins, Asher 1761-1845
  • United States Congress
  • Board of Regents


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Article can be found online in the "Making of America" digital library collection.

Contained within

Southern Literary Messenger Vol. XXI, No. 8 (Journal)

Contact information

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


August 1855


  • Smithson Bequest
  • Secretaries
  • Act to establish the "Smithsonian Institution," for the Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge Among Men
  • SI, Early History
  • Libraries
  • Gifts

Physical description

Number of pages: 15 Page numbers: 457-471

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