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On June 27, 1829, English chemist James Smithson died, leaving a will stating that if his nephew and sole heir died without heirs his estate should go to the United States "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Although he had traveled extensively during his life, Smithson had never visited the United States and neither his will nor any of his known writings state why he chose to leave his estate to a nation he had never seen.
Soon after the United States was notified of Smithson's bequest after the death of Smithson's nephew in 1835, President Andrew Jackson asked Congress for authorization to pursue it, sparking a controversy between Federalists and advocates of states' rights. Senators John C. Calhoun and William Campbell Preston argued that there was no constitutional authority to create a national institution, but the Federalists, led by John Quincy Adams, prevailed, and on July 1, 1836, Congress accepted the bequest. That same year, Richard Rush traveled to England to file a claim for the Smithson estate in the British Court of Chancery, then eight hundred cases in arrears. In just two years, Rush won a judgment for the United States, disposed of Smithson's properties, and converted the proceeds to gold sovereigns. When the estate was delivered to the US Mint in Philadelphia in September 1838, it totaled $508,318.46.
Another decade of debate passed, however, before the Smithsonian was actually established. Congressmen, educators, researchers, social reformers, and the general public all voiced opinions as to what they believed Smithson had meant by "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Initially, most Americans assumed that Smithson intended to found a university. Gradually other ideas were introduced, including an observatory, a scientific research institute, a national library, a publishing house, or a museum. The Smithsonian's enabling act, signed into law by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, was a compromise encompassing all of those ideas, except for the university, and created the Smithsonian Institution as an establishment dedicated to the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." The same act defined the Institution as a federal establishment outside the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches and managed by a self-perpetuating Board of Regents.
The first act of the Smithsonian Board of Regents was to build a home for the Institution. That home, now known as "The Castle," was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., and was completed in 1855. The first objects donated to the Institution were scientific apparatus, the gift of Robert Hare of the University of Pennsylvania in 1848. The following year, the Institution purchased its first collection -- art, books, and other works collected by Regent George Perkins Marsh. Starting in 1858, Congress provided an annual appropriation to the Smithsonian for the care of the national collections. Today the Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest museum and research complex, comprising 19 museums, the National Zoo, and 9 research facilities.
The official website of the Smithsonian Institution is www.si.edu.
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This page was last updated on 10/04/2017.