...bequeathed to them by the last will and testament of Mr. JAMES SMITHSON, late of London, deceased, for the purpose of founding at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men; and to empower such agent or agents so appointed to receive and grant acquittances for all such sum or sums of money, or other funds, as may or shall be decreed or adjudged to the United States, for or on account of the said legacy. And to the end that the said claim may be prosecuted with effect, and necessary expenses in prosecuting the same defrayed, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to apply to that purpose any sum, not exceeding five thousand dollars, out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated. And the faith of the Government of the United States is hereby pledged, that any and all sums of money which shall be received for or on account of the said legacy shall be applied to the purpose of founding and endowing at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.
A discussion took place on the resolution, which was participated in by Mr. PRESTON, Mr. LEIGH, Mr. CLAYTON, Mr. CALHOUN, Mr. SOUTHARD, Mr. BUCHANAN, Mr. DAVIS, and Mr. WALKER.
The debate to which this resolution gave rise occupied nearly the whole day’s sitting. It was contended, on the one hand, that it was not competent to this Government, neither was it expedient and proper, that it should appear as a suitor in an English Court of Chancery to assert its title to the legacy in question; and that to become the object of private charity was not compatible with national honor nor the fitness of things. Such a bequest as this was a bounty, and the acceptance of it would be a degradation; and, if we had any regard to our own dignity, we should not descend to the humilation of receiving it. Whatever it was desirable to have done for the increase of the happiness, prosperity, and intelligence of the People, (supposing it not in violation of the Constitution,) we had the power and abundant means of doing. If, however, it was not desirable, not constitutional, not within the sphere of our competence, no individual could, by any act of his, make it so.
Whether Congress has the power of appropriating money from the public treasury for the purpose of establishing a national seminary of learning; had long been a vexed question: discussions of the question, however, had usually resulted in the negation of such power. How could the legacy of Mr. Smithson confer it?
If we had a right to receive and appropriate a legacy for the purposes mentioned in this will, then Congress could receive and apply money from private individuals for any purposes whatever-the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, for instance.
It was also a question of doubt and difficulty whether it would be within the competency of the Government of the United States to appropriate any portion of the general revenue in order to enable us to obtain the legacy.
The report of the Committee on the Judiciary advocates the right of Congress to assert its claim to this property as "parens patriae" of this District. In so doing it avoids the real question, and misconceives the facts. This District was divided into corporations, and if the legacy had been willed to either of these corporate bodies, Congress undoubtedly could execute its office of trustee, and direct and control the application of the charity. But this was a bequest to...