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How the Smithsonian Institution Works

The Decade of Debate

Not everyone in the United States was overjoyed with the unexpected windfall, to the point where some questioned whether the money should even be accepted in the first place. Dissenters said Congress didn't have the authority to accept the gift; a few questioned the constitutionality of consenting; and others maintained that such an action would tarnish the nation's dignity.

But on July 1, 1836, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill that signaled the United States' intent to receive the legacy. The claim made its way through British courts and in the summer of 1838, Smithson's fortune finally arrived in America. Congress now faced the much larger question of what the money would be used for -- a subject that would occupy them for the next eight years.

Suggestions poured in from all quarters, ranging from libraries and laboratories to museums and universities. Congressman and former President John Quincy Adams was a forceful advocate in the matter of the bequest, and he championed the cause until the final bill was hammered out. It was signed into law on Aug. 10, 1846, and loosely encompassed many of those early proposals, although the details were largely left up to the newly established Board of Regents. It also reclaimed the fortune (which had been largely squandered on a bad investment in defaulted state bonds) and awarded the Institution the amount that the legacy would have made in interest during the eight-year interim.

The 17-member Board of Regents consists of the sitting chief justice and vice president of the United States, along with three members of the House of Representatives, three members of the Senate, and nine private citizens. The Smithsonian's secretary (basically, its CEO) is appointed by the regents but isn't a voting member of the board.