History, History Column

The Diffusion of Knowledge

Robert Dale Owen, circa 1840
Robert Dale Owen, circa 1840

In 1824 utopian secularist Robert Owen departed Scotland to meet Virginia’s Presidential dynasty; the Marquis de Lafayette arrived from France to begin his triumphal tour, and Congress passed the Tariff Act. Indiana passed a progressive Fugitive Slave law; English chemist and mineralogist James Smithson published on fluorine, and the U.S. House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams President. John Quincy Adams, who defeated Andrew Jackson, would later meet social reformer Robert Owen in The White House.

Frances “Fanny” Wright, the Marquis’ Scottish traveling companion, responded well to introductions, especially her introduction to former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Like the Marquis, Wright abhorred slavery. Unlike Lafayette, she promoted “A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States without Danger or Loss to the Citizens of the South.”

“The magnitude of this evil…is so deeply felt…that no merit could be greater than that of devising a satisfactory remedy for it,” Montpelier’s James Madison wrote of Wright’s Plan. “Unfortunately the task…is vastly augmented by the physical peculiarities of those held in bondage, which preclude their incorporation with the white population; and by the blank in the general field of labour to be occasioned by their exile; a blank into which there would not be an influx of white labourers, successively taking the place of the exiles, and which, without such an influx, would have an effect distressing in prospect to the proprietors of the soil.”

“The remedy for the evil which you have planned is certainly recommended,” Madison concluded, “in that ‘experimental establishments’ contemplate the removal of those emancipated, either to a foreign or distant region….” Like Fanny Wright James Madison favored the experiment farm, preferably colonization.

When Lafayette’s American tour ended in 1825, Wright remained. She found a home in Robert Owen’s New Harmony, Indiana; a communal or “United labors” experiment. Owen’s work experiment fizzled, but neither Wright nor colleague Robert Dale Owen, Robert Owen’s son, gave up on social reform. They temporarily moved to New York and philosophized: in the Free Enquirer expounding on emancipation, public education and republican government.

In Indiana partner William Maclure’s educational and scientific “firsts” continued. New Harmony for example became “the first headquarters” of the U.S. Geological Survey, from 1839 until 1856. Maclure, who arrived in 1826, was a teacher and founder of New Harmony’s Workingmen’s Institute; the father of American geology and the man for whom Yosemite National Park’s Maclure Glacier was named.

R.D. Owen returned to New Harmony in 1832 and in 1842 was elected, as a Democrat, to the U.S. House of Representatives.   He served successfully until March 3, 1847. The Smithsonian Institution is but one of Congressman Owen’s successes.

In 1829 James Smithson, a “liberal and enlightened donor,” died. In his will he bequeathed “the whole of” his property “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” Great Britain informed President Andrew Jackson of the gift in 1835.

Once advised, a grateful Congress responded. U.S. Representative, former President John Quincy Adams [NR-MA] chaired a select House Committee which recommended acceptance. Smithson’s bequest, received in 1838, equaled 100,000 gold sovereigns or more than $500,000, approximately 1/66 of the country’s federal budget.

South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun objected to the inflow. He felt Smithson’s endowment, the lack of legislative “limitations and restrictions” violated states’ rights. A nullifier, the regional pressures were many. Banks were failing, but the South’s investment in slavery determinedly continued.

“Mr. C. was not friendly to the Smithsonian Institution but was very friendly to me personally,” Joseph Henry, the first Smithsonian Secretary later wrote. “He thought the money should not have been accepted. I made several appointments to discuss with him the subject of the Institution but we always got on some other subject.”

After years of contentious debate U.S. Representative Robert Dale Owen let his legacy speak. Educated in natural science and medicine, Owen introduced the hand-written Act which established the Smithsonian Institution. President James K. Polk signed the law on the day it passed, August 10, 1846. Owen was then appointed to the founding Board of Regents.

The Act [9 Stat. 102] specified a Chancellor, Board of Regents and Secretary; “a suitable building of plain and durable materials and structure, without the necessary ornament, and of sufficient size, and with suitable rooms and halls, for the reception and arrangement, upon a liberal scale, of objects of natural history, including a geological and mineralogical cabinet; also a chemical laboratory, a library, a gallery of art and the necessary lecture rooms.”

It “further enacted that…all objects of art and of foreign and curious research, and all objects of natural history, plants, and geological and mineralogical specimens…shall be delivered…and arranged in such order and so classed, as to best facilitate the examination and study of them, in the building to be erected for the institution….”

Owen, who spent his life advocating for universal public education, communicated his foresight through architecture. His vision: “a Romanesque castle” that would “occasion such awful grandeur and sublime sensation” as to “astonish” the “mind of the beholder.” Architect James Renwick, Jr. supported Owen’s notion. Secretary Joseph Henry did not.

Joseph Henry was a research physicist and his knowledge of applied science exceeded most. He presented his first paper on electromagnetism in 1827, was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1835, and served as a science advisor to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. An enlightened Presbyterian, he championed “the compatibility of reason and revelation.”

“The design and construction process was a hard-fought battle between extremes,” a Smithsonian archivist wrote. “In the end the combined efforts of [Owen and Henry] created a tried and tested building that has carried the mission of the Institution into the present day.” Regent Robert Dale Owen, in his 1849 book, Hints on Public Architecture, Containing, Among Other Illustrations, Views and Plans of the Smithsonian Institution, made a “deeply personal contribution to…cultural heritage.”

On February 24, 1847 the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents authorized the creation of a seal of the newly established Smithsonian Institution. Robert Dale Owen designed the seal and Edward Stabler, a noted manufacturer of seals, was hired to engrave it. Maryland-born Edward Stabler of Harewood was Alexandria apothecary and Quaker minister Edward Stabler’s nephew.

Stabler’s talent as a seal-maker was first discovered when, as a seven-year apothecary apprentice, he engraved the copper plates used to make the paper money issued by the Alexandria post office during the War of 1812. Other Stabler seals include the Seal of the President, Departments of State and Treasury, Patent Office and the United States Supreme Court.

Today the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex. It has 19 museums, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities. Admission to most, especially the Smithsonian’s District of Columbia museums and National Zoo are free. Museum Day Live! is celebrated annually and participating museums such as Alexandria’s Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum are free the Day of.

The Smithsonian Institution published its first book, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, in 1848; its first guidebook in 1857. Benefactor James Smithson was interred in the Castle in 1905.

Written by: Sarah Becker, © 2014
Columnist’s Note: It is with genuine sadness that I note the September 9th death of former Mount Vernon Director Jim Rees. He succumbed to a degenerative brain disease at age 62. I will always be grateful for his repeated expressions of confidence; our email debates and his love of history. Jim’s standards were high: I know because I served as guest curator for Mount Vernon’s Gardening Days from 1996 until 2004. “Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all…until I sleep with my Fathers,” George Washington wrote the Marquis de Lafayette in 1784.
Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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