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Many individuals have become entitled to gratitude for gifts to a community or services to their country, but few have acquired distinction as the benefactors of mankind. The desire for posthumous fame has induced some to erect monuments to themselves by founding libraries, others by endowing schools of learning or charitable establishments; but very few have succeeded in devising a plan by which their names should not only acquire world-wide renown, but their benefactions be of universal application.
To James Smithson belongs the rare and proud distinction that his bequest is for no particular locality and confined to no limited period. His aim is to benefit all men, and is never-ending in its action.
Smithson selected the United States of America to carry into effect his noble design, believing that to confer a benefit on all mankind he could confide in a nation composed of representatives of all races, where no narrow interpretation would be given to his words, or selfish limitation be placed on his charity. Turning from the unstable monarchies and decaying empires of Europe, he sought for perpetuity of his ideas in the rising power and wonderful progress of the young republic.
Smithson's life was devoted to original research, as all his writings show, and accustomed to the use of the precise language of scientific investigators, he made the words of his will brief, but as explicit as his intention was clear to his own mind. Nevertheless his idea was in advance of popular intelligence in this country, and a discussion took place which rendered it impossible for eight years for Congress to adopt a plan to carry out his beneficent intention.
Legacies too often prove more fruitful of wasteful litigation or disputation than of immediate or general benefit, and the history of the Smithson bequest should prevent other philanthropists from giving occasion to similar controversies. Notwithstanding the delay in establishing the Institution, and the difficulty in deciding on the best plan of organization, after more than thirty years of its active and useful existence, it is gratifying to know that the fund left by James Smithson not only remains unimpaired, but has been very largely increased.
There can be no doubt that Smithson's world-wide renown is due not only to his own acts, but to the enlightened, pure, and able administration of the trust, and that, with the name of the founder, will always be held in admiration and esteem that of the first Secretary of the Institution, Professor Joseph Henry. Of the many plans proposed for realizing the purposes of Smithson scarcely any would have carried his name beyond local reputation. Much larger bequests or gifts have been made by others to found libraries, and yet the names and foundations of such persons are scarcely known to the world. The Smithsonian library in Washington would have been no more to mankind than the Rush library in Philadelphia, the Lenox in New York, or the Newberry in Chicago, each of which has a foundation of more than a million of dollars.
That the collecting and publication of the materials composing this volume should have been so long delayed has been a matter of regret to all who wished to study the history of the Institution or or to become acquainted with the life and character of its founder. The fire in the Smithsonian building, in 1865, unfortunately destroyed the manuscripts of Smithson which had come into the possession of the Institution; a careful examination of these would have probably thrown additional light on his character and purposes. The present volume has been prepared by special direction of the Board of Regents to supply the want long felt by them and others. It is only to be regarded as a mine or store-house of material from which the history of the Institution can be hereafter prepared, and from which illustrations may be drawn of the enlarged or contracted views of our legislators, and the wise or visionary theories and schemes of literary and scientific men.
After a copy of the “ Will” of Smithson, the whole of the correspondence resulting from it is given; the announcement of the bequest made to the Department of State by Mr. Vail, our Charge d'Affaires at London ; the appointment of Hon. Richard Rush as special agent of the United States to obtain the money, and all his letters while engaged in this business, in 1836, 1837, 1838; the opinions of the English solicitors; the decision of the Court of Chancery; the bill of costs of the suit; a schedule of the personal effects of Smithson, and an account of Mr. Rush's financial transactions.
The particulars are then given of the residuary legacy, or that part of the bequest left in England by Mr. Rush as the principal of an annuity to the mother of the nephew of Smithson; the steps taken by the Institution to procure this money in 1863, and how it was disposed of by act of Congress in 1867.
Then follows a reprint from the Congressional Globe and Record of all the legislation relative to the bequest or to the Smithsonian Institution from 1835 to 1878, the proceedings in the Senate and in the House of Representatives being given in order from the 24th to the 44th Congress. The parts of this section of the work of most general interest will be the debate on the propriety of the Government accepting the bequest and the discussions and reports on the various plans proposed for organizing the Institution.
The memorials and plans presented to Congress are printed in full so that a better understanding can be had of what our legislators had before them in considering the subject.
The history of the investment of the fund by order of Congress in State stocks, and of the financial management required in consequence, forms a large part of the volume, and is given in detail for the first time.
The account of the controversy which arose as to the management of the Institution, the appointment of a committee of investigation by the House of Representatives, the two reports of that committee, the debates in Congress and the final disposition of the matter, occupy considerable space.
For convenient reference the resolutions relative to the election of Regents and the printing of the annual reports are given. It has also been thought proper to insert the debates in regard to appropriations for the preservation of the collections of the Government placed in charge of the Smithsonian Institution.
Copious extracts are made from the diary of Hon. John Quincyx Adams, which give the private history of the motives of action by committees, members of Congress, and public men, in regard to the early legislation respecting the bequest.
The proceedings in Congress present a great many plans and schemes proposed for the disposition of the bequest, and seem to embrace almost every possible suggestion, but as complete a col. lection as possible has also been made of the views of literary and scientific men not directly presented to Congress. These papers, while of unequal merit, have a value as illustrations of the thought of the time, and show not only how much attention was paid to securing a wise disposition of the Smithson fund, but to the wider subject of the general promotion of knowledge.
Following the programme of organization proposed by Professor Henry and adopted by the Board of Regents, are the opinions expressed by more than fifty of the most eminent literary and scientific men of the day.
This plan has stood the test of experience of more than thirty years and been found admirably adapted to the purpose intended; it has triumphed over all opposition, and is now universally regarded as wise, comprehensive, and satisfactory.
The Smithsonian is not a Government Institution, as is often supposed, but is a private foundation, originating entirely in the bequest of an individual. The management of the establishment, however, is entrusted to the Congress of the United States, and hence it is in more or less communication with that body. Even the printing of its annual reports occasions discussion, and a larger or smaller number of copies are ordered according to the varying mood or liberality of the legislators. As the national collections in natural history have been placed in charge of