When Congress Looked James Smithson’s Gift Horse in the Mouth

In 1835, the U.S. government debated what to do with the generous bequest coming from across the pond

Portrait of James Smithson © Corbis

As the 1663 saying goes, "He ne’er consider'd it, as loth, To look a Gift-horse in the mouth," that is, never question the value of a gift. When James Smithson’s bequest to the people of the United States was announced in 1835, many prominent Americans ignored that advice and questioned the wisdom of accepting his gift, horse or not. Why? 

James Smithson (1765-1829) was a well-to-do English scientist who had never visited the United States. In his 1826 will, he left his estate to his nephew. But he ended his will with an odd clause that said if that nephew died without heirs, legitimate or illegitimate, the estate would go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”  When Smithson’s nephew died without heirs in 1835, the peculiar clause went into effect. On July 28, 1835, Smithson’s solicitors notified the United States government of the bequest. An 1835 article in the National Intelligencer told the public that a “gentleman of Paris” had left a bequest to the United States, for the purpose of endowing a National University.

Secretary of State John Forsyth notified President Andrew Jackson who promptly sent the matter to Congress because he believed the Constitution did not give him the authority to pursue the bequest. The reaction in the Congress was quite mixed. John C. Calhoun, Senator from South Carolina, thundered on the Senate floor in February 1836, “We accept a fund from a foreigner, and would … enlarge our grant of power derived from the States of this Union …. Can you show me a word that goes to invest us with such a power?" He objected to a democracy accepting charity from a foreigner – made worse when they realized Smithson was an Englishman. Twenty years before, the British had burned the Capitol, and anti-British sentiment was still quite high.  Calhoun also believed it violated the constitutional principle of states’ rights, that is, that the Constitution provided that rights and powers were held by the individual states rather than the national government. Creating a national institution was a dangerous precedent.

Senator William Campbell Preston, also of South Carolina, shared Calhoun’s view and also objected to naming a national institution after an individual. He argued that if the Smithsonian Institution was created, "[E]very whippersnapper vagabond … might think it proper to have his name distinguished in the same way." (Campbell later changed his mind and became a supporter of the Smithsonian.) The debate in Congress continued, to “appear as a suitor in an English Court of Chancery to assert its title to the legacy in question; and that to become the object of private charity was not compatible with national honor nor the fitness of things. Such a bequest as this was a bounty, and the acceptance of it would be a degradation; and, if we had any regard to our own dignity, we should not descend to the humiliation of receiving it."

The Committee on the Judiciary, however, ruled that the Constitution did not prohibit accepting the gift, if it acted as parens patriae for the District of Columbia. And former President John Quincy Adams, now in the House of Representatives, took on the cause of Smithson’s bequest. In January 1836, he argued, “If then, the Smithsonian Institution, under the smile of an approving Providence, and by the faithful and permanent application of the means furnished by its founder, … should contribute essentially to the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men, to what higher or nobler object could this generous and splendid donation have been devoted?” Adams’ views ultimately prevailed so on July 1, 1836, Congress passed an act authorizing the President to appoint an agent to prosecute the claim of the United States to the legacy bequeathed by James Smithson (V Stat. 64), and the rest is history.

Article courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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