Sunday, April 10, 2011

Can You Believe The Federal Government Turning Down Money?

It is hard to believe that there could have ever been a fight about the Federal Government accepting a gift of money, but here is a story of one of those times. Of course in the end they did take it, and anyone who has ever gone to Washington has benefited from it.

A British chemist died in 1835 and willed his fortune to the United States government to "increase the knowledge among men." This estate came from James Smithson, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland. Smithson's legacy was about a half million dollars, the equivalent of more than ten million dollars today.

President Andrew Jackson and many other American politicians were not in favor of accepting a gift from the son of a British nobleman. It was less than twenty years since the British army had burned Washington D.C. during the War of 1812. The Star Spangled Banner war. Senator John Calhoun spoke for many when he said is was "beneath the dignity of the United States to receive presents of this kind."

However, there was one very prominent American statesman who stood up to advocate acceptance of the gift. Former President John Quincy Adams, son of second President John Adams. He was currently serving as a Congressman from Massachusetts. Through much of his career, Adams had advocated government support of the arts and sciences. He said the country had "an imperious and indispensable obligation" to put Smithson's money to good use. Adams eventually convinced a reluctant Congress to accept the grant, and spent years making sure it was put to good purpose.

After the money was accepted it there was a nearly ten year battle over how to spend it. During that time the government invested it in a shady Arkansas land deal, much of the money was lost, but Adams forced the Congress to replace the fund, thus preserving Smithson's request.

John Quincy Adams may have been the most prepared man to ever fill a post in the government. For those who say that the founders didn't believe in career politics, even looking past that every one of the founders continued in the service of government most of the rest of their lives, no one more so than John Quincy Adams. he started his career in public service at 14 when he was his father's secretary in Paris, then again in Holland. From Holland he was hired away from his father by the Ambassador of Russia and became his secretary. Of course he was the first son of a former president to follow in his father's footstep into the White House. He later came back as a Congressman until he fell to a stroke on the floor of the House. But maybe his greatest legacy is his stewarding of James Smithson's gift, The Smithsonian. You can see James Smithson's tomb today inside the Castle of the Smithsonian on the National Mall.

No comments:

Post a Comment