Politics

08.10.12

The Smithsonian, John Calhoun, and His Heirs

Today, said Garrison Keillor on NPR, is the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution, and I'm just here to say what an amazingly great thing it is, for the city I live in especially, but for the country. The idea that I can go to 19 different museums and see some of the world's greatest art and contemplate great historical artifacts, and do it for free, just blows my mind.

The creation story is pretty fascinating. John Smithson never even set foot in America, yet he decreed (childless himself) that, in the event his lone heir, a nephew, died sans progeny, his entire estate should be given to the United States "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." 

Andrew Jackson shipped an aide over to London to negotiate the transfer of the Smithson estate. He literally brought back 11 boxes, how big I don't know, of gold sovereigns. When they were melted down, they came to a brick of gold worth $508,000, which in today's dollars doesn't seem like enough to start a museum ($10.4 million), but I guess the dollar bought more in those days. (Actually, it was invested--in bonds that defaulted. John Quincy Adams persuaded Congress to appropriate the lost money, with interest.)

Considerable debate ensued about what precisely that meant, and it took Congress a full decade settle on exactly what this institution would do. Some wanted a university. But they finally settled on a museum and research institute.

The more interesting debate, though, was about whether the United States should take the money at all. Leading the charge was that crafty old reactionary Calhoun, who opposed the gift on states' rights grounds--that the federal government accepting such a gift trampled the rights of the individual states. On February 25, 1836, he said this:

"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?"

Has a familiar odor to it, no? Tell you what, South Carolinians. How about you pay when you visit the mall? These people have a bane to this country for, well, forever, and if Calhoun, who lives and breathes today in the corporeal manifestation of Jim DeMint and so many others, had had his way, we'd never have had the Smithsonian. This is the same kind of road these ignorami are trying to lead us down now.

Could John Quincy Adams have won that appropriation battle today? I doubt it sincerely. Maybe, if he agreed that museums showcase man walking with dinosaur. Anyway, happy birthday to a great treasure.