The Stranger and the Statesman

An excerpt from Nina Burleigh’s book, The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum

Chapter 9

For the Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge

In the winter of 1842 John Quincy Adams was seventy-four years old. He had become gnomelike with age, his bald head and pale round face tinged the unhealthy pink of a man who would soon begin to suffer debilitating strokes. Only the black eyes with their steady, piercing look remained of the younger man's visage. From the study in his house on F Street in Washington or his rooms at the Adams farm in Quincy, the ex-president still habitually worked late into the night. Once the sun had set, the darkness outside was always complete, except for the light of the moon. In that premotorized era, night silence was disturbed only by the clip-clop of a passing horse and buggy or the isolated call of a bird. On clear nights, Adams could step outside and look at the stars in the black vacuum of space. In the waning years of his life, disappointed by politics and the moral weaknesses of his fellow officeholders, Adams looked skyward with an ever more wistful prayer. He still desperately wanted to see America enter what he called the "sublimest" science—astronomy.

Adams tried to record in his diary why he felt so passionately about the mechanical workings of the universe. Late in his life, the perceived movement of stars, moon, and sun had a spiritual relevance for him. "I saw the sun rise and set, clear, from Charles' house on the hill," he wrote in his diary. "The pleasure that I take in witnessing these magnificent phenomena of physical nature never tires; it is a part of my own nature, unintelligible to others…. The sensations which affect me at the rising and setting sun are first, adoration to the power and goodness of the Creator…mingled in the morning with thanksgiving…and in the evening with sadness…and with humble supplication for forgiveness of my own errors and infirmities."

He had hoped that with Smithson's money, he would "witness…the means of increasing and diffusing favorable knowledge among men, by a systematic and scientific series of observations on the phenomena of the numberless worlds suspended over our heads—the sublimest of the physical sciences." It was not to be.

Adams's obsession with a national observatory possibly did more damage to his political image than any other single thing, by giving his enemies a silly slogan to attach to his name (like "Governor Moonbeam"). Still, in the early 1840s Adams was more fixated than ever on building an American observatory, outfitted with great telescopes and staffed by learned men. He had almost single-handedly wrested Smithson's money away from the "mountebanks." With the money again available, Adams knew exactly what he wanted to do with it, and he was willing to brave persistent ridicule about his "lighthouses in the sky" to see it through.

Adams gave speech after speech on the subject. On the House floor in March 1840, he reminded his colleagues that astronomy was the primary pursuit in man's quest for knowledge, citing biblical origins. "In the first chapter of the Sacred Volume we are told that, in the process of Creation, ‘God said, let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens, to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.' By the special appointment then, of the Creator, they were made for…signs. Signs of what?"

In pleading with his congressional colleagues for an observatory, Adams even tried national pride as a goad. He asserted that the absence of an observatory on American soil was a stain on America's honor. Even Russia, "that land of serfs," had one, and no less scientific a group of men than the French were publishing the Russians' observations in French journals. "The journalist of a free country [France] applauding the exertions of a land of serfs to promote the progress of science avows that he should blush for his own country," Adams noted. "The Committee of the House…casting their eyes around over the breadth and length of their native land must blush to acknowledge" that there are no observatories to be found in America.

In 1842 Adams did finally witness the establishment of the Naval-Observatory in Washington, but it was an enterprise unrelated to the Smithson fund and much smaller than he had wished. Adams also lived to see something else approaching his dream. In 1843 he made a perilous winter journey over the icy Great Lakes to see the opening of a larger observatory in Cincinnati. He returned from that trip gravely ill, with a "grave yard cough" and, worse, for the first time in his life, memory problems. Afterward, he wrote, "my strength is prostrated beyond anything that I ever experienced before."

From Nina Burleigh's The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum (Harper Collins 2004)

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