Legal History


The Smithsonian Institution is a “trust instrumentality” of the United States—an organization established by the U.S. government as a public trust.  Created by the US Congress on August 10, 1846, through 9 Stat. 102, the Institution carries out the bequest of James Smithson (1765-1829) to create an establishment “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Since 1846, public laws, judicial decisions, court cases, procedures of the Board of Regents, executive orders, and government reports have shaped the Institution’s legal structure. The resources on this site will allow you to explore the legal documents that have shaped the Institution since its founding in 1846.

The Bequest

Handwritten Draft of James Smithson Will, Pages 1 and 3 and 2 and 4
The Smithsonian Institution was created by the bequest of James Smithson (1765-1829), in which he left his residual estate to the United States to create in the city of Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

Act of Establishment

Facsimle of the Act to Establish Smithsonian Institution
In 1846, the US Congress passed 9 Stat. 102 creating the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States. A compromise among the many ideas proposed for the new Institution, the enabling act set forth a variety of functions for the Smithsonian, including a museum, scientific research laboratories, an observatory, and a library and copyright depository. The law established a Board of Regents which is responsible for the governance of the Institution.

Public Laws

Cover to 1862 Statutes at Large, 1862, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2011-2253.
In addition to annual appropriations to the Smithsonian starting in 1858, the US Congress has passed a variety of laws establishing new museums, research centers, and programs at the Smithsonian; appointing citizen regents; and amending the Smithsonian’s enabling act.

Congressional Resolutions

Resolution on the U.S. Exploring Expedition
The US Congress has passed almost two hundred resolutions relating to the Smithsonian, appointing regents, and instructing the Institution to participate in international expositions, and to produce reports.

Judicial Opinions

Opinion of Attorney General on National Museum
Starting in 1857, when Attorney General Judge Jeremiah S. Black ruled that the Smithsonian was the National Museum and could receive federal appropriations to care for the National Collections, judicial opinions have shaped the Institution’s course.

Court Cases

Gellately vs. United States
The Institution has been party to a variety of court cases, from disputes over estates left to the Smithsonian, to a challenge to whether the museums could present exhibits on evolution. Legal precedents in recent years have affirmed the unique legal status of the Smithsonian, ruling that it is not an Executive Branch agency.

Executive Orders

Executive Order 12635, 1988, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2011-2255, SIA2011-2256.
Executive orders have also shaped the Institution’s activities in such areas as Smithsonian programs in the Republic of Panama.

Special Reports

First page of Phillip S. Hughes' Study of the Relationship...A variety of special reports on the legal history of the Smithsonian, such as the Hughes Report of 1977, provide a window onto the complex legal issues the Institution faces.

Smithsonian Legal Documents Database

The Smithsonian Legal Documents database is a source of citations to legal documents related to the history of the Smithsonian. It contains all Smithsonian-related US Statutes at Large, selected wills, reports, decisions of attorneys general, executive orders, memoranda of understanding, court cases, minutes of the Board of Regents, and other materials.

The database can be searched through the History of the Smithsonian catalog in the Smithsonian Institution Research Information Center. Enter your search terms and limit your search to the Smithsonian Legal Documents database.