Graphical timeline from Smithson to Smithsonian
From Smithson to Smithsonian - The Birth of an InstitutionAccepting Smithson's Gift

Who Was James Smithson?
Sccepting Smithson's Gift
All-American Compromise
The Smithsonian Building
An Institution Emerges
A National Collection
Smithson's Legacy

John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun

"Beneath [Our] Dignity"

"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?"
-Senator John C. Calhoun
(South Carolina), February 25, 1836

Senator John C. Calhoun opposed acceptance of the Smithson bequest, largely on the grounds that to do so on behalf of the entire nation would abridge states' rights. He maintained that Congress had no authority to accept the gift. He also asserted that it would be "beneath [U.S.] dignity to accept presents from anyone."

William Campbell Preston
William Campbell Preston

"[E]very whippersnapper vagabond might think it proper to have his name distinguished in the same way."
-Senator William Campbell Preston
(South Carolina) April 30, 1836

Senator William Campbell Preston for several years was part of a small but vocal minority who questioned the constitutionality of accepting Smithson's bequest. Ultimately, persuaded by advocates for a national university, he devoted himself to developing the newly established Smithsonian Institution.

Opponents of the bequest made their case in the popular press as well as in the halls of Congress.

Transcript National Intelligencer,
May 2, 1836

National Intelligencer
National Intelligencer


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