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Smithsonian Perspectives

James Smithson's initial bequest to the United States led to a unique partnership between the public and private sectors for the benefit of all

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In this year of our 150th-birthday celebration, I thought it would be enlightening for both me and my readers to visit chapters in the Institution's history that are meaningful to today's opportunities and problems. I plan to do this for 12 months unless a contemporary topic is so relevant as to justify a departure. Here is the first installment.

Although we will be celebrating this year the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Smithsonian and its Board of Regents by Congress in August 1846, it is interesting to remember how the story of the Smithsonian in the United States began more than a decade earlier. In July 1835 President Andrew Jackson was no doubt surprised to receive from the Secretary of State a copy of a letter from a firm of solicitors in London. It stated that James Smithson, who had died in 1829, had bequeathed (subject to a condition now fulfilled) his entire fortune of 100,000 pounds sterling to the United States as trustee to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an "Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

By December, the President had decided to send the correspondence to Congress, stating that the Executive had "no authority to take any steps for accepting the trust and obtaining the funds." In January 1836 bills were introduced in both Houses to accept the bequest and provide $10,000 from public funds to defray the expenses of an agent to represent the United States in the Court of Chancery in London. In the Senate debate, one member opposed the bill, stating that he would "not have Congress pander to the paltry vanity of an individual," and that "it was not consistent with the dignity of the Country to accept even the grant of a man of noble birth or lineage" — but the measure passed 31 to 7.

In the House Select Committee report on the bill, the chairman, John Quincy Adams (the former President who was then a Representative from Massachusetts), wrote: "To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind. It prolongs life itself, and enlarges the sphere of existence." And he predicted, "it is no extravagance of anticipation to declare that [Smithson's] name will be hereafter enrolled among the eminent benefactors of mankind." He added to the Senate bill a paragraph that pledged "the faith of the United States" to the execution of Smithson's trust "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." The legislation was thus enacted and signed by the President on July 1, 1836.

This unique combination of a privately endowed institution and the continuing support of the Government of the United States as trustee, in generous fulfillment of its pledge of faith, has made possible the remarkable achievements of the Institution. It has engendered contributions from private donors that were inconceivable in 1836. The great national collections now available to the public consist largely of private gifts; and continuing donations from private citizens to the Smithsonian's trust funds have maintained the Institution's central resources for independent initiatives. Congress, on its part, has responded with the very substantial federal support that has been essential to the growth of the Institution and to many of its far-reaching services to the public for nearly a century and a half.

The peculiar nature of the Smithsonian, arising from its origin in a private bequest to the United States, as trustee, has been a mystery to many, and doubting voices have occasionally been raised questioning its unique status among federal establishments. But throughout its 150 years there has been a broad consensus in Congress that has respected both the letter and the spirit of James Smithson's bequest and has maintained the integrity and independence of the Institution's trust purposes for the benefit of all mankind. In the course of its development, which has paralleled the growth of the nation, the Institution has achieved a great many things that even John Quincy Adams could only have guessed at.

By I. Michael Heyman

 

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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