We’re Back On!

Ok…same book, new date.  We’re back on for The Stranger and the Statesman on Tuesday, September 6 at 7:00 pm in the Small Meeting Room on the 1st Floor at the Main Library.  I hope to see you then.  If you have any questions for me or for our author Nina Burleigh – email me at khiltwein@cityofeanston.org.

See you Tuesday!

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The Strange Career of the Smithsonian Institution

By Joshua D. Rothman – August 10, 2015 for We’re History

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Construction continues on the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo credit: John Sonderman flickr CC

On August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed into law an act creating the Smithsonian Institution. Designated originally as an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” the Smithsonian has grown in the nearly 160 years since its founding into the largest museum and research complex in the world. Comprising nineteen museums and galleries, nine research centers, and the National Zoo, the Smithsonian holds 138 million items in its collections, hosts thirty million visitors every year, and is widely acknowledged as one of America’s greatest public treasures and a steward of the historical and scientific legacy of the United States.

But the Smithsonian almost never came into being at all. Involving an unprecedented bequest, a lengthy public debate, and ten years of Congressional bungling and infighting, the origin story of the Smithsonian is a weird and wild one. If it demonstrates that government officials sometimes accomplish important things despite themselves, it also reveals their ability over the long term to craft institutions serving the public good that define who we are as a nation.

When British scientist James Smithson died in 1829, he left the bulk of his substantial estate to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. But Smithson’s will also provided that should Hungerford himself die without children, the entirety of the estate would transfer to the United States for the purpose of establishing an entity to be known as the Smithsonian Institution. The will attracted notice immediately as a curiosity and it became a major news item six years later when Hungerford died childless, putting the contingency clause of Smithson’s will into operation.

President Andrew Jackson received Congressional authorization in 1836 to accept the bequest on behalf of the federal government, and the Smithsonian Institution might have been founded in short order thereafter but for three things. For starters, getting Smithson’s money across the Atlantic and securely setting it aside for its intended purpose entailed overcoming bureaucratic complications, the logistics of nineteenth-century international finance, and inept investment strategies. Soon after formally accepting Smithson’s bequest, President Jackson sent veteran diplomat Richard Rush to England to collect it. But it took Rush two years of legal wrangling to get the British Court of Chancery to recognize the American claim on Smithson’s estate. Rush then sold the properties composing the estate, converted the proceeds of the sales into gold, and sailed back to the United States in 1838 with eleven large boxes containing more than 100,000 sovereign coins, all of which the Treasury melted down.

The entire process finally yielded more than half a million dollars in gold. This was no small sum, roughly approximating the amount then residing in the endowment of Harvard University. But Congress inexplicably instructed the Treasury to invest it all, during the depression that followed the Panic of 1837, in bonds issued by several western states where irresponsible land speculation had helped lead to the depression in the first place. When, perhaps predictably, the state of Arkansas defaulted on its bonds in 1841, most of Smithson’s money disappeared.

A second obstacle to the establishment of the Smithsonian was the peculiar nature of the bequest itself. Smithson’s gift was a befuddling one, and not only because Smithson had never set foot in the United States or even met an American. The challenge presented in administering the terms of Smithson’s will lay in its broad and vague mandate to build an organization that would discover and disseminate human knowledge. In a young country with few national institutions to serve as models for such an undertaking, no one had any idea precisely what that meant. But nearly everyone had an idea about what it ought to mean, which in turn yielded a protracted public conversation over how to carry out Smithson’s vision.

Academics, scientists, politicians, and average citizens alike argued for nearly ten years about the ideal Smithsonian Institution. Some made the case for creating a national university. Others suggested a national museum. Still others floated ideas for a center for scientific research, a national library, or an astronomical observatory. The dispute continued well into the 1840s, and proposals for bills outlining various mandates for the Smithsonian poured into Congress for years.

Still a third impediment to creating the Smithsonian lay in the politics of sovereignty. The fact of Smithson’s British citizenship provoked intense anti-English sentiment from some Americans, but xenophobia was hardly the only issue at play. Battles over the appropriate powers of the federal government were constants in the life of the early republic, and the 1830s was an especially fraught decade for such fights. Even Andrew Jackson, whose devotion to federal supremacy had led him to threaten an invasion of South Carolina when it tried to nullify federal law, insisted that Congress explicitly sanction his receipt of Smithson’s bequest, and for those politicians most devout in their dedication to states’ rights the idea of the Smithsonian was dubious at best. John Calhoun, for example, argued that Congress simply lacked clear constitutional permission to take Smithson’s money.

Calhoun and others also made the case that it called the honor of the nation into question to accept a gift from a private individual at all. It seemed undignified, these politicians claimed, for the United States to receive funds as if it needed to be the object of charity. Moreover, they alluded to the fears that nearly always lingered behind warnings about the federal government aggrandizing its authority. If Congress could take money for the purposes laid out in Smithson’s will, could it then take private money for any purpose? Could it, for example, accept funds designated by a private individual to pay for the costs associated with the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C.? Once Congress opened the door to private individuals using their wealth to influence federal policy, Calhoun and others worried, it could never be closed.

Ultimately, public excitement and political interest in the Smithsonian overwhelmed financial and ideological controversies alike. Massachusetts Representative and former President John Quincy Adams played an especially prominent role in lobbying his colleagues on the Smithsonian’s behalf. Personally dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement, Adams spent years pushing for the Smithsonian, urging Congress to accept Smithson’s bequest and to restore the funds, with interest, that had been lost in the Arkansas bonds debacle. When the Smithsonian finally became a reality, it was crafted as a national trust, with the specifics of its charge determined by a Secretary and a Board of Regents. The majesty of its buildings, the marvels of its collections, and the products of its research have more than fulfilled the promise of Smithson’s gift. And we the people are its beneficiaries.

How Arkansas Almost Killed the Smithsonian

Any traveler with an afternoon to spend in Washington, D.C., knows where to go—to the Capitol Mall, of course, with its monuments flanked by a collection of the nation’s best museums. These museums are part of the Smithsonian Institution, a vast organization comprising nine research centers and 19 museums covering everything from natural history to American history, air and space to modern art. The Smithsonian is also responsible for the National Zoo, where D.C.’s second-most famous family, the giant pandas, reside amid bamboo and camera clicks. The Smithsonian is a critical organization to our national life, founded for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” With more than 137 million objects in its collection, the Smithsonian serves as a kind of “nation’s attic.” These artifacts, including thousands of photographs and sound recordings, document all aspects of American life—the good, the bad, the amazing and the mundane.

All this and the Smithsonian nearly failed to start because of Arkansas.

It started with the curious will of a British scientist named James Smithson. Smithson, despite never having been to the United States, left his fortune for the founding of an educational organization in Washington, D.C., to be called the Smithsonian Institution. Congress accepted the bequest in 1836, seven years after Smithson’s death. Andrew Jackson sent a diplomat to Britain to accept the gift. The diplomat returned to the U.S. in 1838 with 105 sacks of gold coins estimated to be worth nearly $20 million in today’s terms, nearly equal to the entire endowment of Harvard at the time. After a lot of wrangling among members of Congress on what to do with the money, they invested it in U.S. Treasury bonds issued by Arkansas, Illinois and Michigan. Arkansas, then not even a teenager of a state, did what one would expect of a youngster handed several million dollars: The state spent the money and never paid it back. The default nearly crippled the Smithsonian Institution before it started. Thanks to the efforts of former President John Quincy Adams, who was serving as a representative from Massachusetts, Congress replaced the funds lost by Arkansas. The Smithsonian finally became an institution with James Polk’s signature in 1846.

No one seems to know what happened with those bonds, but all indications are that Arkansas never did repay their defaults, at least with money. Soon after the Smithsonian fiasco came the Civil War and other matters to which the state had to attend. But over the decades, bit by bit, Arkansas has been figuratively paying back its debts through contributions to the institution’s collections—cultural, geological and historical. Here are just a handful of the items from Arkansas in the Smithsonian’s collection.

Paintings

Malvern native Natalie Smith Henry was one of the many artists hired in the New Deal to create public art. “Local Industries,” which hangs in the American Art Museum, is an oil painting Henry completed in preparation for a mural in the Springdale post office. Henry interviewed families in the Springdale area while composing the painting to ensure it was an accurate representation of the local economy.

Quilts

Several Arkansas quilts from the mid-1800s are in the collection of the American History Museum. One of the most interesting among them is a quilt called “Whig’s Defeat” that was meant to mark the 1844 victory of James Polk over Henry Clay. Who would have known quilts could serve as political symbols?

Native pottery

Arkansas’ pre-Columbus past is rich, as the displays at the American Indian Museums in both New York and Washington, D.C clearly show. At both centers of exhibition, several clay vessels dating to the Late Mississippian period (A.D. 1200-1500) found in eastern Arkansas are on display. Formed in the shape of human bodies and heads, these pots serve as a good indication of what early Arkansas settlers might have looked like.

Rocks

Arkansas is known for its rich and varied geology, and the Smithsonian’s collection has hundreds of samples of Arkansas rocks and minerals, ranging from bauxite to diamonds. Visitors to the Natural History Museum can see a couple of native Arkansas stones on exhibit in the museum’s rock and gem halls. The most notable of these is a sample of pulaskite, a rock formed by a volcano and collected in … you guessed it: Little Rock.

Presidents

No “nation’s attic” would be complete without presidential memorabilia, including, of course, mementos from Arkansas’ only president. The Smithsonian has Hillary Clinton’s first inaugural gown in its collection, as well as several other items from her husband’s presidency. Clinton himself was a familiar person to Smithsonian staff. Pamela Hinson, director of institutional history at the Smithsonian, says that “[President Clinton] would jog down the National Mall most mornings with his Secret Service detail and wave hello to us as we were on our way to work.”

Birds

The Natural History Museum has one of the largest collections of bird specimens in the world, including many collected in Arkansas. There are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and Bachman’s Warblers—both now extinct or nearly so from habitat loss—collected more than a century ago. In one exhibit hall, you can see what it might have looked like to see parakeets in the trees along the Arkansas River. North America’s only native parakeet, the Carolina Parakeet, was hunted to extinction for making hats that have long since gone out of style.