General History

James Smithson Portrait by Henri Johns, 1816
James Smithson Portrait by Henri Johns, 1816
Cover of Sheet Music for the "Smithsonian Polka"
Smithsonian Castle, 1855
Aerial View of Smithsonian Buildings, 1933
Aerial View of Smithsonian Buildings, 1933

Smithsonian Castle

Establishment

James Smithson Engraving On August 10, 1846, the United States Congress passed the legislation (9 Stat. 102) founding the Smithsonian Institution as an establishment dedicated to the "increase and diffusion of knowledge," and President James K. Polk signed it into law the same day. This legislation was the culmination of over a decade of debate within the Congress, and among the general public, over an unusual bequest. When the English chemist and mineralogist, James Smithson, died in 1829, he left a will stating that if his nephew and sole heir died without heirs, his estate should go to the United States “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

Congressional Debates

Andrew Jackson's Letter to Congress Regarding the Smithson Bequest After Smithson’s nephew died in 1835, the United States was notified of this bequest. President Andrew Jackson asked the US Congress for authorization to pursue the bequest, sparking a controversy between federalists and advocates of states' rights. Senators John C. Calhoun and William Campbell Preston argued that there was no constitutional authority to create a national institution. However, led by John Quincy Adams, the federalists prevailed, and in 1836, Richard Rush traveled to England to file a claim for the Smithson estate in the British Court of Chancery, then eight hundred cases in arrears. In just two years, Rush won a judgment for the United States, disposed of Smithson's properties, and converted the proceeds to gold sovereigns. When the estate was delivered to the US Mint in Philadelphia in September 1838, it totaled $508,318.46.

Another decade of debate passed, however, before the Smithsonian was actually established. Congressmen, educators, researchers, social reformers, and the general public all voiced opinions as to what they believed Smithson had meant by “the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Initially most Americans assumed that Smithson intended to found a university, so the debates centered on what type of school. Gradually other ideas were introduced—an observatory, a scientific research institute, a national library, a publishing house, or a museum. The Smithsonian’s enabling act was a compromise among these ideas, leaving out only the university.

Act of Organization

Facsimle of the Act to Establish Smithsonian Institution The Smithsonian Institution was created as a federal establishment, not part of the three branches of government, managed by a self-perpetuating Board of Regents. The Smithsonian Regents had to decide how to carry out Smithson's vague mandate and the broad legislation. Their first act was to build a home for the Institution, a Norman "Castle" designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., located on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Smithsonian Secretaries

The Secretary of the Smithsonian is its chief executive officer. There have been 13 secretaries who have led the Smithsonian since 1846. 

Joseph Henry (1797–1878), served 1846 to 1878

Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823–1887), served 1878 to 1887

Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834–1906), served 1887 to 1906

Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850–1927), served 1907 to 1927

Charles Greeley Abbot (1872-1973), served 1928 to 1944

Alexander Wetmore (1886–1978), served 1944 to 1952

Leonard Carmichael (1898–1973), served 1953 to 1964

S. Dillon Ripley (1913–2001), served 1964 to 1984

Robert McCormick Adams (1926– ), served 1984 to 1993

I. Michael Heyman (1930–2011), served 1993 to 1999

Lawrence M. Small (1941–), served 2000 to 2007

G. Wayne Clough (1941–  ), served 2008 to 2014

David Skorton (1949-), serving since 2015

Further Resources

Today in Smithsonian History

Freer Gallery of Art Groundbreaking

September 23, 1916

At the groundbreaking for the Freer Gallery of Art, Acting Secretary Richard Rathbun gives a brief address and turns the first shovel full of earth to start the construction of the new Museum.More