It was an amazing gift — $508,318.46 — at a time when the yearly budget of the United States was only about $34,000.
Even before the gold eagles were minted, all sorts of people had ideas about what to do with them. The Secretary of the Treasury, Levi Woodbury, won out. He decided to invest the lot in high-return bonds being offered by two new states, one-year-old Michigan and two-year-old Arkansas. No sooner did the eagles arrive in Washington than the equivalent amount was laid out for thousand-dollar, 6 percent bonds — 500 for Arkansas and 8 for Michigan. Both states quickly defaulted.
Many Congressmen were just as glad. This was a time when refinement, wealth and, particularly, imported culture were politically incorrect. When Andrew Jackson became President in 1829, he inspired a rush to the nation's capital of tobacco-chewing, gallus-snapping rustics from the southern and western frontiers. Book learning was not high on their list of national priorities, and they figured the gift might be a sign that the Brits were patronizing us.
Such growlers and naysayers ran headlong into former President John Quincy Adams, "Old Man Eloquent," the son of a President and a President himself just before Jackson. After leaving the White House, he returned to Congress as a Massachusetts Representative "accountable to no one but the Nation." He was past 70 when Smithson's gold arrived, but he rallied behind Smithson's "noble and most munificent donation." It must not, he declared, "be filtered to nothing and wasted upon hungry and worthless political jackals."
Adams succeeded in forcing Congress to vote for full replacement of the money lost by Woodbury's bad investments. Once the money was in hand, battles began again about exactly what sort of institution Smithson's gift should be put to. Adams wanted a national observatory. Other Congressmen favored shoring up the capital's Columbian College (now George Washington University), creating an agricultural college, a lyceum for uplifting lectures or, perhaps inevitably, a greatly expanded national library.
Indiana's Robert Owen doubted that there were "a hundred thousand volumes in the world worth reading" and pushed for a teachers college. Adams replied that he would rather throw all the money "into the Potomac" than vote for such a thing.
The year 1846 was in all sorts of ways a fateful moment in America's history (Smithsonian, April 1996). But for the Smithsonian Institution, the year's most crucial event occurred on August 10, when President James K. Polk at last signed the Smithsonian Institution bill into law. Congress had still not given firm orders on what kind of place it would be. But it was agreed that a building would go up on what is now the Mall with suitable rooms for "objects of natural history, a chemical laboratory. . . a gallery of art." A Board of Regents was established, charged with selecting the Institution's first Secretary. Let him worry about how to increase and diffuse knowledge. Princeton's Joseph Henry, a world-famous scientist, got the nod, though not too cheerfully. "Save the great National Institution from the hands of charlatans!" one of the first regents begged him, and he did, moving his family into the Castle, a pinkish neo-Norman pile then just rising on the Mall. Gradually the Institution took shape around it, evolving and expanding over the years until it fulfilled James Smithson's vague wish. His sovereigns had bought something after all.
By Edwards Park