Smithsonian Institution Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The creation of Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution marked the birth of a major repository of the most revered artifacts of U.S. history—a museum that would continue to grow into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

Popularly regarded as the storehouse of its nation’s treasures, the Smithsonian Institution is one of the most universally appealing attractions of Washington, D.C. Its buildings—more than one dozen—and zoological garden serve casual visitors as well as scholars. The institution has clearly lived up to the highest hopes of its founder, James Smithson. Smithsonian Institution Washington, D.C.;Smithsonian Institution Museums;Smithsonian [kw]Smithsonian Institution Is Founded (Aug. 10, 1846) [kw]Institution Is Founded, Smithsonian (Aug. 10, 1846) [kw]Founded, Smithsonian Institution Is (Aug. 10, 1846) Smithsonian Institution Washington, D.C.;Smithsonian Institution Museums;Smithsonian [g]United States;Aug. 10, 1846: Smithsonian Institution Is Founded[2450] [c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 10, 1846: Smithsonian Institution Is Founded[2450] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Aug. 10, 1846: Smithsonian Institution Is Founded[2450] [c]Education;Aug. 10, 1846: Smithsonian Institution Is Founded[2450] Smithson, James Henry, Joseph Baird, Spencer Fullerton

Although no one knows precisely what prompted the noted English chemist and mineralogist’s generosity to a country he had never seen, there is speculation that the circumstances of Smithson’s birth gave him an emotional link to a nation dedicated to equality. Smithson was the illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer, Hugh Smithson, who later became duke of Northumberland. Smithson never acknowledged the existence of his son James. Thus, it was as “James Lewis Macie, Gentleman Commoner” that the young man entered Oxford University in 1782. In 1787, a year after graduation, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society Royal Society;and James Smithson[Smithson] of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. His first scientific paper, presented in 1791, was signed with the surname Macie; his second, delivered November 18, 1802, bore the name James Smithson, Esquire.

Fortunately for the young scientist, his mother was wealthy. On her death, he inherited a sizable fortune, which financed his scientific work and allowed him to live comfortably. A few years before his own death, Smithson drew up an unusual will leaving his money to his nephew with the proviso that, should the nephew die childless, the entire estate was to go “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.” Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829. His nephew died without heirs in 1835, and in September of 1837, the U.S. government inherited $508,318.46.

The Smithson estate’s funds arrived in the United States in 1838, triggering a prolonged and at times impassioned congressional debate about its acceptance and also about the alternatives for increasing and diffusing knowledge. Senator John C. Calhoun Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;and Smithsonian Institution[Smithsonian Institution] of South Carolina vigorously opposed acceptance, on grounds that it was demeaning for the government to act as executor for a citizen. Massachusetts representative John Quincy Adams Adams, John Quincy [p]Adams, John Quincy;and Smithsonian Institution[Smithsonian Institution] , the former president, made the acceptance and wise use of the fund a personal crusade. Indeed, Adams truthfully may be considered the U.S. founder of the Smithsonian. On August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk Polk, James K. [p]Polk, James K.;and Smithsonian Institution[Smithsonian Institution] signed the bill creating the Smithsonian Institution and authorizing it, in effect, to serve as the national museum, a chemical laboratory, a library, an art gallery, and a site for public lectures. Among the institution’s most important early possessions were Smithson’s magnificent mineral collection, manuscripts, and other personal property.

The Smithsonian’s activities are not limited simply to preserving mementos of the past; the institution also gathers scientific data at installations such as the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Smithsonian teams have worked in the United States and overseas, sending back reams of scientific information and many specimens as a part of the institution’s effort to widen knowledge of humans and their environment.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in the former Panama Canal Zone Panama Canal Zone , operated by the Smithsonian Institution on Barro Colorado Island, is the only tropical research station of its type in the Western Hemisphere. The Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology Anthropology;and Smithsonian Institution[Smithsonian Institution] , founded during the 1870’s, has studied American Indian life in North and South America and the West Indies; it has collected and published information on tribal customs and conditions, excavated burial mounds and preserved their contents, and recorded indigenous songs and stories. Others of the many divisions in the Smithsonian’s vast complex include Washington’s National Zoological Park; the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, also in Washington, D.C.; and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in New York City.

After Polk’s bill establishing the Smithsonian, Congress provided money to construct a building “without necessary ornament” to house the institution’s offices and activities. In 1847, James Renwick Renwick, James Architecture;Smithsonian Institution , the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, designed the distinctive Smithsonian building, a red-brown freestone structure strongly resembling a Norman castle complete with crenelated towers, spires, and arched windows.

By virtue of the office, the president of the United States is chairperson of the Smithsonian Institution’s governing body; however, few presidents aside from Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and Smithsonian Institution[Smithsonian Institution] have been seriously concerned with the Smithsonian’s development. The actual daily direction is in the hands of the secretary, whose position is equivalent to that of head of an independent federal agency. In establishing the qualifications of the secretary, the first board of regents in 1846 declared that it must be a person of high character, “capable of advancing science and promoting letters by original research and effort.” To fill the post, they selected Joseph Henry Henry, Joseph of Princeton University, the foremost U.S. physicist of his day.


During a thirty-two-year tenure, Joseph Henry established the direction the Smithsonian Institution was to take. Under his leadership, scientific activities were emphasized, reflecting Henry’s professional bias. From some of the projects grew the U.S. Weather Bureau Weather Bureau, U.S. and the Geological Survey Geological Survey, U.S. . In another program, original scientific work was published and distributed to libraries in many countries. Despite continuous struggles with Congress for appropriations and a disastrous fire Fires;museums in 1865, which destroyed much of Smithson’s collection, the institution prospered.

After Henry’s death in 1878, the renowned naturalist Spencer Fullerton Baird Baird, Spencer Fullerton became the second secretary. Baird chose to emphasize work in the natural sciences. Smithsonian teams continued their exploratory activities, and Baird instituted a system to allow the exchange of scientific information among nations. He also organized the U.S. Fish Commission and served as its first commissioner. Such activities thus led to the establishment of the world-famous marine biological station, the Marine Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

The Smithsonian’s work has not been limited to scientific areas alone. In the 1920’s, both the National Collection of Fine Arts and the Freer Gallery of Oriental Art came under Smithsonian control. In 1937, Andrew Mellon gave the nation his amazing art collection and a $15 million gallery building; it became a bureau of the Smithsonian, although administered by its own board of trustees. The Smithsonian continues to enlarge the functions that James Smithson had presumably willed. This expansion has not come easily, because the returns on Smithson’s bequest have to be supplemented annually by congressional budgetary appropriations. Private endowments and gifts have also provided funding. It would seem that the hopes of its early champions are not in jeopardy, and that the Smithsonian Institution will continue to be a crucible of learning, discovery, and culture.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burleigh, Nina. The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian. New York: Morrow, 2003. Several chapters, including one on the “mystery” of Smithson himself, examine the Smithsonian’s history ever-changing history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carmichael, Leonard, and J. C. Long. James Smithson and the Smithsonian Story. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965. The opening chapters of this well-illustrated book were penned by the senior author, the seventh secretary of the Smithsonian. Shows how the vision of James Smithson was made real by the institution’s first secretary, Joseph Henry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hafertepe, Kenneth. America’s Castle: The Evolution of the Smithsonian Building and Its Institution, 1840-1878. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984. Focuses on the influence of the first secretary, Joseph Henry, on the early Smithsonian buildings’ architecture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henry, Joseph. January, 1844-December, 1846: The Princeton Years. Vol. 6 in The Papers of Joseph Henry, edited by Marc Rothenberg. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. Includes a heavily annotated exchange of correspondence among important individuals involved in the founding of the Smithsonian Institution and the appointment of Joseph Henry as its first secretary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Bessie Zaban. Lighthouse of the Skies. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1965. Discusses the creation of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lubar, Steven, and Kathleen M. Kendrick. Legacies: Collecting America’s History at the Smithsonian. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press and the National Museum of American History, 2001. A history of the collection of Americana and its preservation at the Smithsonian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oehser, Paul H. The Smithsonian Institution. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983. Appendix includes the text of the congressional law of August 10, 1846, that created the Smithsonian, and Secretary Joseph Henry’s initial program presented to the institution’s board of regents on December 13, 1847.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Painter, George. “James Smithson’s Bequest to the United States: The Smithsonian Institution.” American History Illustrated 17, no. 1 (March, 1982): 30-35. Discusses why the English scientist James Smithson willed his estate to a country that he had never seen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seidman, Rachel Filene. “Joseph Henry’s Smithsonian During the Civil War.” In An Uncommon Time: The Civil War and the Northern Home Front, edited by Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Millers. New York: Fordham University Press, 2002. Examines Henry’s tenure as secretary of the Smithsonian during the U.S. Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Washburn, Wilcomb E. “Joseph Henry’s Conception of the Purpose of the Smithsonian Institution.” In A Cabinet of Curiosities: Five Episodes in the Evolution of American Museums, edited by Walter Muir Whitehill. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967. Although challenged by later scholarship that considers the picture presented of Henry as too simplistic, this article offers what has become the standard interpretation of Henry’s attitude toward the Smithsonian and especially the role of a museum in the institution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watts, J. F. The Smithsonian. Introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This brief, illustrated work provides a simply written version of the Smithsonian Institution’s origins and evolution.

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Categories: History