News from the Field

Smithsonian Director Emeritus Brent Glass on science and democracy

Editor’s note: Last month, funders from across the country gathered at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia for our annual Media Impact Forum, a daylong symposium aimed at helping philanthropy focus on the role of science in our current political and social landscape. The day before, a smaller group of funders attended a special meeting to address the particular challenges associated with communicating science. Below is the full text of the remarks given by Brent Glass, director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the world’s largest museum devoted to telling the story of America.

The American Philosophical Society was established in 1743 in Philadelphia; a century later, in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution was founded in Washington, D.C. The story of these two institutions centers on two men: Benjamin Franklin and James Smithson with a cameo appearance by Joseph Priestley. It is the story of the link between science and democracy in the founding of America and the essential role of science in the formative decades of the new nation.

There are two other narratives that define this century. First, the line between science and humanities was not as distinct as it is today. We talk about STEM education, sometimes STEAM to include the arts. I propose we expand that effort to include the humanities, something like SHTEAM would be appropriate. The second narrative is that America was admired in its formative years for its political freedom and scientific accomplishments, not for its military power or its great wealth.

Benjamin Franklin’s story is well-known and his presence is visible throughout the city of Philadelphia. He was a self-made man, so successful as a printer that he retired from business at the age of 42 and devoted himself to science, politics, diplomacy and civic life. He was instrumental in founding a hospital, a library, a university, an insurance company, a prison reform society, and a society to promote the abolition of slavery. He was a famous inventor credited with inventing bifocals, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod and the concept of Daylight Saving Time. He served as a diplomat to England and France and co-authored the Declaration of Independence.

More than any American, Franklin reflected the values and ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, a period spanning most of the 18th century that promoted human reason, religious tolerance, invention and individual liberty. One of his many initiatives was the creation of the American Philosophical Society in 1743. He wrote, “The first drudgery of settling new colonies is now pretty well over and there are many in every province in circumstances that set them at ease, and afford leisure to cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge.” The Society’s purpose was to pursue “all philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.”

In the 18th century, natural philosophy, or the study of nature, comprised the kinds of investigations now considered scientific and technological. Members of the Society encouraged America’s economic independence by improving agriculture, manufacturing and transportation.

Early Members included doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and merchants interested in science, and also many businessmen like Franklin. Many founders of the republic were Members including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Rush, James Madison, and John Marshall; as were many distinguished foreigners: Lafayette, von Steuben, Kosciusko and Joseph Priestley.

By the time of American Revolution, the Society had achieved international recognition for the scholarly accomplishments of its members. After the Revolution, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted a charter guaranteeing that the APS might correspond with learned individuals and institutions “of any nation or country whether in peace or war.” The state also deeded to the Society a portion of Independence Square, on which it built Philosophical Hall (1785-1789). The liberal terms of the Society’s charter and the location of Philosophical Hall next to the seat of government clearly illustrate how closely the new nation linked learning and freedom.

Through the early 19th century the APS, though a private organization, fulfilled many functions of a national academy of science, a national library and museum, and even a patent office. Cabinet officers and presidents often consulted the Society. Meriwether Lewis conducted research at the Society concerning the scientific, linguistic, and anthropological aspects of the Louisiana Territory as he and William Clark prepared for their famous expedition from 1803 to 1806.

Science and democracy were linked in the founder’s minds.

Jefferson said that liberty was “the great parent of science and of virtue; and that a nation will be great in both, always in proportion as it is free.” In his farewell address, Washington said, “Promote, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion, as the structure of government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” Article One of the U.S. Constitution stated that Congress has the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

The connection between the promotion of liberty and freedom and the development of scientific inquiry and its applications made a deep impression on intellectuals and scholars in England and other European countries.  One of the most influential and accomplished of these men was Joseph Priestley. He provides the intellectual—and personal—link between Benjamin Franklin and James Smithson. Priestley was a prominent English scientist, theologian and political activist. Among his many achievements, he invented carbonated water, founded the Unitarian Church, and discovered oxygen. He also conducted experiments with electricity and wrote a 700-page history of electricity that included a detailed description of Franklin’s discovery of electricity in lightning. In fact, without Priestley’s publication in 1767, the world might not have learned about Franklin’s pioneering work in this field. When Franklin represented the American colonies in England just before the Revolution, he and Priestley became friends.

Priestley was a staunch supporter of the American Revolution and the French Revolution and his beliefs attracted fierce opposition. In 1791, a mob burned his home in Birmingham and his family fled to America. He spent some time in Philadelphia (some of his papers and books are at APS) before settling in what was then the frontier of Pennsylvania on the banks of the Susquehanna River. His home and laboratory are preserved today as a state museum. After his emigration to the U.S., his colleagues in England wrote to him: “Be cheerful, dear Sir, you are going to a happier world, the world of Washington and Franklin. The attention of the whole scientific people (in England) is bent to multiplying the means and instruments of destruction. . . but you are going to a country where science is turned to better use.”

When Priestley left England for the U.S., James Smithson was not yet 30 years old. The illegitimate son of an English nobleman, his wealth was largely inherited from his mother.  Children born out of wedlock in England had limited opportunities. So Smithson spent much of his life in France and Italy and pursued a career as independent scholar and scientist. Like Franklin, he was interested in almost everything. He studied a wide range of natural phenomena: the venom of snakes, the chemistry of volcanoes, the constituent parts of a lady’s tear, and the fundamental nature of electricity. He published 27 papers in his lifetime, ranging from an improved method of making coffee, to an analysis of the mineral calamine, critical in the manufacture of brass—which led to the mineral being named smithsonite in his honor.

Smithson came of age in the last decades of the Age of Enlightenment and during the formative years of the United States. He never visited America and there is no evidence that he ever met an American. However, he was influenced by the English and European scientists who admired America and by the example of some, like Joseph Priestley who had emigrated to the new country.

It is not clear why Smithson made his extraordinary gift to the U.S.—an unprecedented act of philanthropy—that led to the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution. He may have been impressed by the publicity surrounding America’s golden anniversary in 1826; the deaths on July 4, 1826, of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the tour of America by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824-25. In 1828, having never married and with no children, he wrote his will that left his fortune to his nephew; however, he wrote, if his nephew died without heirs:

“I then bequeath the whole of my 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.”

Smithson died in 1829 and his nephew died in 1835 without heirs.  After a protracted legal battle, a ship called the Mediator, packed with more than one hundred bags of gold coins sailed into New York harbor.  It took another decade before the U.S. Congress could agree on whether to accept a gift—valued today at around $11 million—from a foreign donor and what exactly to do with the money. Finally, through the leadership of former President John Quincy Adams, now a congressman from Massachusetts, Smithson’s gift was accepted. In his report to Congress recommending the acceptance of Smithson’s gift, Adams wrote: “To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is … the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind. It prolongs life itself and enlarges the sphere of existence.” In Adams’s words we can hear the echoes of Franklin, Washington and Jefferson.

The institution that bears Smithson’s name now consists of 19 museums plus the National Zoo, nine research facilities around the world, a magazine, a cable TV network, a traveling exhibition program and more than 200 affiliate institutions. The Smithsonian is also a model for dozens of major museums in the U.S. that promote citizen science. In Philadelphia, the Academy of Natural Sciences, now a part of Drexel University, embodies this tradition. And to demonstrate that this legacy extends from coast to coast, I will close with a quote from a document produced by the San Diego Natural History Museum describing their Strategic Roadmap for the future:

“We will be more actively engaged with the community including everyone from children to policy makers and be the trusted, go-to resource for credible science information.”

“We will be more proactive about communicating our science and recruiting citizen scientists to help everyone be better informed.”

“We will be vocal about and stand up for important environment issues affecting our region.  We will provide the scientific data to help inform decisions and contribute to solutions.”

These goals are directly connected to the founding principles that created the APS and the early American republic. Thank you.