From Smithson to Smithsonian The Birth of an Institution

Follow the development of the Smithsonian from Englishman James Smithson's bequest to the founding of the Institution in 1846. 

Scroll to explore this topic

All-American Compromise

Laying the Foundations: Early Schools of Thought

Black text on white background, newspaper article

With few national institutions on which to model their thinking, many Americans built their plans for the Smithsonian around the notion of a national university.

Five story symmetrical college building with four chimneys, a cupola on top and a front year with a

The debate moved quickly from, Should we create a national university? to What kind of a national university should we create?

"An institution for liberal and professional purposes, and for the promotion of original investigations?" -Steven Chapin

Steven Chapin, the president of Washington's Columbian College (now The George Washington University), advocated an institute of higher learning that would complement--but not compete with--his struggling young college.

Thomas Cooper, M.D, by Durand, A. B, 1829, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 94-13356.

Better Living through Science?

Thomas Cooper, an English-born physician and president of South Carolina College who was known for his radical political views, advocated a school that could help to improve social conditions through practical advances in science.

"I object to all belles-lettres, and philosophical literature, as calculated only to make men pleasant talkers. I object to medicine. . . . I object to law. . . . Ethics and politics are as yet unsettled branches of knowledge. -Letter from Thomas Cooper, president of South Carolina College, to Secretary of State John Forsyth, July 20, 1838

Colored painting of a balding Robert Dale Owen, sitting, in a dark colored suit Drawing showing a town surrounded by a rectangular fence in the background, with trees in the foregr

 

A Teacher's Training Institute?

Representative Robert Dale Owen of Indiana, who was influenced by his father, Robert Owen, founder of the utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana, spoke out for free public education. Owen introduced a bill that provided for a school to train teachers in natural science and primary education and to promote agricultural and chemical research.

 

 

 

 

 

Drawing of the main lawn at the University of Virginia, looking toward the The Rotunda, buildings li

A Place to Teach Natural History?

A professor at the University of Virginia, Robley Dunglison, wanted the bequest to be used for a school of natural history that would advance sciences of the type that interested Smithson, such as chemistry, geology, and mineralogy.

Black and white engraving of Francis Wayland sitting, with glass pushed up on his forehead

Etching shows several stately four story buildings, one with columns framing the entry, with trees a  

 

 

 

A University for the Classics?

Believing that societies often misused science and technology for military and other destructive purposes, Francis Wayland, the president of Brown University, suggested an institution that would teach only the classics.   

Laying the Foundations: If Not a National University...? Debates, 1838-1846

"[Inquire of] persons versed in science, and familiar with the subject of public education, for their views as to the mode of disposing of the fund best calculated to meet the intentions of the testator and prove most beneficial to mankind." - Letter from U.S. President Martin Van Buren to Secretary of State John Forsyth, July 1838

Debates over what to do with the Smithson bequest eventually broadened to include more than the notion of a national university.

A National Museum?

Black and white engraving of upper body and head of Joel Poinsett, sitting facing right, wearing coa Black text on white background, title page of Darlington's pamphlet In 1840 a group of politicians led by Representative Joel R. Poinsett (South Carolina) formed an advocacy group called The National Institute for the Promotion of Science. Poinsett and his followers wanted to use the Smithson bequest for a national museum to showcase relics of the young country and its leaders, to celebrate American technology, and to document the natural resources of the North American continent.

Ultimately National Institute proponents were defeated by opposition from within the scientific community, which felt that scientists, not men of affairs, should control the direction of American science. 

A National Scientfic Institute?

Alexander Dallas Bache Dies, February 17, 1867, Smithsonian Archives - History Div. Many scientists argued that because Smithson had been a scientist, the institution that would bear his name should devote itself to promoting original scientific research and publishing results.

Alexander Dallas Bache, who was Benjamin Franklin's great grandson and Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, championed the use of the Smithson bequest to support basic scientific research. 

"I am most anxious that this fund should furnish means of scientific research in this country & that the institution should thus supply a want which all of us feel to exist unsupplied by our Colleges & Universities." —Smithsonian Regent, Alexander Dallas Bache, September 15, 1846

A National Observatory?

Black and white image of John Quincy Adams sitting in a chair, dressed in dark colored suit Front page of the newspaper, black text on white background, no images

Believing that Smithson's bequest posed a great opportunity to advance American science, John Quincy Adams introduced legislation to use the Smithson fund for a national observatory.

"There is no richer field of science opened to the exploration of man in search of knowledge than astronomical observation." -Representative John Quincy Adams (Massachusetts), March 5, 1840

A National Library?

Black and white image, Rufas Choate sitting in a chair wearing dark suit, with fireplace and mantel At a time when the Library of Congress consisted of a small collection of books housed in the U.S. Capitol, some scholars and legislators argued for a true national library. Senator Rufus Choate maintained that a national library would fulfill Smithson's mandate to diffuse knowledge more effectively than would a national university.

"Why should a German or an Englishman sit down to a repast of five hundred thousand books, and an American scholar, who loves the truth as well as he, be put on something less than half allowance?" —Senator Rufus Choate (Massachusetts), January 8, 1845

A National University, After All?

Color painting of upper body and head of Asher Robbins, wearing dark suit, facing the viewer Many people maintained their beliefs that the Smithson bequest should be applied toward a national university. Senator Asher Robbins, who had been a teacher, led a movement to consolidate several smaller colleges into a great national university.

"We have only to tread the path that led the Athenian to his glory, and to open that path to the youth of our country." —Senator Asher Robbins (Rhode Island), January 10, 1839

The Smithsonian Institution Is Created - August 10, 1846

tall piece of wooden furniture, much like a side table with four wooden trays on top, each tray gett This U.S. Senate bill hopper offers clear evidence of how few bills actually became law. The upper shelves—which represent the final phases of legislative consideration—were built to accommodate the fewest bills.

Etching showing men seated in the senate chamber and the upper gallery filled with spectators, also

Bill proposals concerning the Smithsonian came from legislators, educators, and citizens from various walks of life. The final legislation included many of the ideas suggested during the decade of debate.

The compromise dropped the original idea of a national university. It specified that the Institution be faithful to Smithson's mandate for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." The responsibility of interpreting and carrying out the legislation and Smithson's mandate fell to the Smithsonian's Secretary (or chief executive) and Board of Regents. 

Handwritten document, black text on white background

The bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution that President James K. Polk signed into law on August 10, 1846, represented ten years of negotiation and compromise.

Related Lesson Plans

  • Lesson Plan Three: Making the Connections - Students will explore the national debate surrounding the acceptance of Smithson's gift, identify the divergent views of members of Congress, and examine the role of compromise in the American legislative process.