Washington – The Smithsonian Institution

Upon the Mall stands the Smithsonian Institution, of world-wide renown, one of the most interesting public structures in Washington, its turrets and towers rising above the trees. The origin of this famous scientific establishment was the bequest of an Englishman, James Smithson, a natural son of Hugh Smithson, Duke of Northumberland, born in 1765. Ile was known as Louis Macie at Oxford, graduating under that name ; early developed scientific tastes; was a Fellow of the Royal Society, the friend and associate of many of the most learned men of his time, and lived usually in Paris, where in the latter part of the last century he took the family name of his father. He died in Italy in 1829. In Washing-ton’s Farewell Address, issued in 1796, there occurs the phrase, ” An institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” and it was well known that the Father of his Country cherished a project for a national institution of learning in the new Federal City. This was evidently communicated to Smith-son ‘by one of his intimates in Paris, Joel Barlow, a noted American, who was familiar with Washing-ton’s plan, and in this way originated the residuary bequest, which was contained in the following clause of Smithson’s will: “I bequeath the whole of my property to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Upon the death of Smithson’s nephew, without heirs, in 1835, this bequest became operative, and the United States Legation in London was notified that the estate, then amounting in value to about £100,000, was held in possession of the Accountant-General of the Court of Chancery. This was something novel in America, and when the facts became public opposition arose in Congress to accepting the gift, eminent men, headed by John C. Calhoun, arguing that it was beneath the dignity of the United States to receive presents. Others, however, led by John Quincy Adams, ardently advocated acceptance. The latter carried the day; Richard Rush was sent to London, as agent, to prosecute the claim in the Court of Chancery, in the name of the President of the United States; and the legacy was obtained and delivered at the Mint in Philadelphia, September 1, 1838, in the sum of 104,-960 British sovereigns, and was immediately recoined into United States money, producing $508,318.46, the first installment of the legacy. There were subsequent additional installments, and the total sum in 1867 reached $650,000. This original sum was de-posited in the Federal Treasury in perpetuity, at six per cent. interest, and the income has been devoted to the erection of the buildings, and, with other subsequently added sums, to the support of the vast establishment which has grown from the original gift.

The Smithsonian Institution was formally created by Act of Congress, August 10, 1846, the corporation being composed of the President, Vice-President, members of the Cabinet and Chief Justice, who are constituted the ” establishment,” made responsible for the duty of ” the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The Institution is administered by a Board of Regents, including in addition three Senators, three members of the House, and six citizens appointed by Congress; the presiding officer, called the “Chancellor,” being usually the Chief Justice, and the secretary of the board is the Executive Officer. The late eminent Professor Joseph Henry was elected secretary in 1846, and he designed the plan and scope of the Institution, continuing as its executive head until his death in 1878. His statue stands in the grounds near the entrance. Two other secretaries followed him, Spencer F. Baird (who was twenty-seven years assistant secretary), and upon his death Samuel P. Langley, in 1888. The ornate building of red Seneca brownstone, a fine castellated structure in the Renaissance style, was designed in 1847 and finished in 1855. Its grand front stretches about four hundred and fifty feet, and its nine towers and turrets, rising from seventy-five to one hundred and fifty feet, stand up prettily behind the groves of trees. This original building contains a museum of natural history and anthropology. In connection with it there is another elaborate structure over three hundred feet square—the National Museum—containing numerous courts, surrounding a central rotunda, beneath which a fountain plashes. This is under the same management, and directly supported by the Government, the design being to perfect a collection much like the British Museum, but paying more attention to American antiquities and products. This adjunct museum began with the gifts by foreign Governments to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, most of them being still preserved there. The Smithsonian Trust Fund now approximates $1,000,000, and there are various other gifts and bequests held in the Treasury for various scientific purposes similarly administered.

Briefly stated, the plan of Professor Henry was to “increase knowledge ” by original investigations and study, either in science or literature, and to ” diffuse knowledge” not only through the United States, but everywhere, and especially by promoting an inter-change of thought among the learned in all nations, with no restriction in favor of any one branch of knowledge. A leading feature of his plan was “to assist men of science in making original researches, to publish them in a series of volumes, and to give a copy of them to every first-class library on the face of the earth.” There is said to be probably not a scientific observer of any standing in the United States to whom the Institution has not at some time ‘ extended a helping hand, and this aid also goes liberally across the Atlantic. As income grew, the scope has been’ enlarged. In the various museums there is a particularly good collection of American ethnology, and a most elaborate display of American fossils, minerals, animals, birds and antiquities. There are also shown by the Fish Commission specimens of the fishing implements and fishery methods of all nations, an exhibition which is unexcelled in these special departments. Many specifically interesting things are in the National Museum. The personal effects of Washington, Jackson and General Grant are there. Benjamin Franklin’s old printing-press is preserved in a somewhat dilapidated condition, and there is also the first railway engine sent from England to the United States, the original ” John Bull,” built by Stephenson & Son at Newcastle-on-Tyne in June, 1831, and sent out as “Engine No. 1 ” for the Camden and Amboy Railroad crossing New Jersey, now a part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It weighs ten tons, and has four driving-wheels of fifty-four inches diameter. This relic, after being used on the railroad for forty years, until improved machinery superseded it, has been given the Government as a national heirloom. Among the anthropological collections is a chronologically arranged series illustrating American history from the period of the discovery to the present day. This includes George Catlin’s famous collection of six hundred paintings, illustrating the manners and customs of the North American Indians. One of the most important features of the work of this most interesting establishment is its active participation in all the great International Expositions by the loan to them of valuable exhibits under Government direction and control.