Graphical timeline from Smithson to Smithsonian
From Smithson to Smithsonian - The Birth of an InstitutionAll-American Compromise

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

Laying the Foundations:
If Not a National University…?
Debates, 1838-1846

"[Inquire of] persons versed in science, and familiar with the subject of public education, for their views as to the mode of disposing of the fund best calculated to meet the intentions of the testator and prove most beneficial to mankind."
—Letter from U.S. President Martin Van Buren to Secretary of State John Forsyth, July 1838

Debates over what to do with the Smithson bequest eventually broadened to include more than the notion of a national university.

A National Museum?

Senator Joel R. Poinsett
Rep. Joel R. Poinsett

In 1840 a group of politicians led by Representative Joel R. Poinsett (South Carolina) formed an advocacy group called The National Institute for the Promotion of Science. Poinsett and his followers wanted to use the Smithson bequest for a national museum to showcase relics of the young country and its leaders, to celebrate American technology, and to document the natural resources of the North American continent.

A Plea for A National Museum ...
A Plea for A National Museum…


Ultimately National Institute proponents were defeated by opposition from within the scientific community, which felt that scientists, not men of affairs, should control the direction of American science.

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