Pennsylvania Weighs in on the Smithsonian

Apparently Pennsylvania politicians had mixed opinions on the Smithsonian Institution when it was first opened. I was looking at some early documents in Smithsonian history recently and happened across some cool quotes from two Pennsylvanians, George Dallas and Simon Cameron, both politicians that left their home state to work in Washington D.C. in the middle of the 1800s. In D.C., they both encountered the Smithsonian Institution, a brand new research organization that had been founded in 1847. Their reactions to the young Smithsonian were totally opposite and pretty interesting!

"George M. Dallas, Smithsonian Regent"
George Dallas, Smithsonian Regent. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Native Philadelphian George M. Dallas, vice-president of the United States during the Polk administration, was the first Chancellor of the Smithsonian Board of Regents. When ground was broken on the Smithsonian Castle in 1849, Dallas got to lay the building’s cornerstone and had this to say in an address:

“Already it has added to her social scene a fixed star whose beams pervade the scientific world; and ere long, this rising temple, consecrated to the highest of human pursuits, knowledge, will give fresh attraction and firmness to her destiny.”

si castle construction
This is one of the earliest images of the Smithsonian Castle, still under construction in 1850. Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The castle was completed a few years later in 1855. Dallas worked closely with Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian and helped the fledgling institution grow up into a world-caliber place of research and learning. Dallas used the Smithsonian as a scientific resource himself, as evidenced by this 1847 letter he wrote to Henry asking about the danger of lightning strikes on the Capitol building in D.C.

Simon Cameron. National Portrait Gallery.

However, not all Pennsylvanians were as keen about the Smithsonian as Dallas was. In 1861, Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron was a vocal opponent of continued federal support of the Smithsonian. Cameron, originally from Lancaster County, was opposed to large sums of federal money being spent on the Smithsonian. Pretty ironic, considering Cameron was as financially corrupt as policitians come (Thaddeus Stevens once said he would steal anything except a “red hot stove”).

Cameron believed that the Smithsonian only benefited those who worked for there and not the rest of the country saying “what do we care about stuffed snakes, alligators, and all such things.” At this time, the Smithsonian hadn’t developed into a system of museums like it is today, and didn’t have the space or resources to care for the thousands of specimens and artifacts that were being deposited there by military surveys, government organizations, and land surveys. “Few persons have an idea of the labor, constant care, and expense which attends the proper preservation of a series of objects of natural history,” Henry later wrote in a 1863 report to Congress.

Senator Cameron was adamant that no further money should be sent to the Smithsonian, citing that the treasury was practically empty and that there were many more important things to fund than the Smithsonian. This is my favorite part of his argument taken from the Congressional Record:

“I am tired of all this thing called science here. It was only the other day we made another appropriation in regard to the expedition which Captain Wilkes took out to the Pacific Ocean. We have paid $1,000 a volume for the book which he published. Who has ever seen that book outside of this Senate; and how many copies are there of it in this country? We have spend millions in that sort of thing for the last few years, and it is time it should be stopped. Now, the only way- and I say it in all sincerity- in which I think this Smithsonian Institution can use useful to the country, is by living within its means; that is shall not ask any aid of the Government at all’ that it shall not rely on patronage, but on the good it does, and the benefit it confers, to sustain it.”

si exhibit
Exhibits in the Smithsonian Castle, 1867. Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

A vote was taken right after the senator from Pennsylvania finished speaking and Congress voted 29-6 to increase their appropriation to the Smithsonian.

Cameron’s vocal call to stop supporting scientific research without immediate and obvious benefits fell on mostly deaf ears. Over the next few decades, Congress continued increasing its monetary support after lobbying by Henry and others. Lucky for us, because many of the research and collecting activities that the Smithsonian undertook in the 1800s are priceless today.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives has a great website where you can learn all about their early history. I highly recommend it!


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