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"The Benefit of Benevolence"

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About ten years ago, as every body will remember, Stephen Girard died in Philadelphia, bequeathing two millions of dollars for the founding of a college to educate orphans.1

About four years ago, the munificent sum of five hundred thousand dollars was paid to the order of the United States government, by the trustees of a deceased Englishman, to be expended on an institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."2

What has become of these moneys?

The Girard fund, some how or other, became entrusted to the functionaries of the United States Bank—swindlers whose selfishness and meanness have made them a by word of shame from Maine to Mississippi. These wretched scoundrels, (whom little children should be taught to execrate,) basely made way with the principal part of the funds—as they made way with every thing else entrusted to their despicable hands. Whether Pennsylvania will ever be able, therefore, to build her "Girard College," remains very doubtful.

With regard to the other matter, Congress, we suppose, are too busily engaged in President making, to give it their attention at present. If the Smithsonian moneys are deposited in bank vaults, as they very probably are—and if they are left there a few months longer, it is pretty certain that the same disposal of them will ensue as has been the case with the Girard legacy.3

Have we not a glorious set of fellows to manage affairs in this country?


1. Stephen Girard (1750–1831) was a businessman and merchant originally from France. He obtained his wealth through selling goods to American revolutionaries as well as investing in ships and other sea trades. Girard was publicly seen as both a successful merchant and a hero for caring for those in Philadelphia stricken with yellow fever (Henry Atlee Ingram, The Life and Character of Stephen Girard: Mariner and Merchant [Philadelphia, 1886], 67). [back]

2. This refers to James Smithson (1765–1829), an English scientist, whose donation helped found the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Upon Smithson's death, the majority of his wealth passed to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. The estate then passed to the United States government upon Hungerford's death in 1835. Whitman's quotation was taken directly from Smithson's last will and testament. [back]

3. After the death of Smithson's nephew in 1835, the U.S. government accepted the bequest and the money was delivered to the U.S. Mint in 1838. Debates ensued in Congress over the next several years about what best to do with the money. Whitman was right to suspect that the funds may not be safe in the hands of the government, as some of the money was poorly invested in securities issued by the state of Arkansas and nearly lost. Former president John Quincy Adams, an early supporter of Smithson's vision, petitioned Congress and the Department of the Treasury in 1841 to restore the funds so that they could be used as Smithson intended. After further debate the Treasury restored the funds, with interest, and the Smithsonian Instituion was finally established by order of President James K. Polk in August 1846. For more on the complicated history of the original Smithsonian funds, see Leonard Carmichael and J. C. Long, James Smithson and the Smithsonian Story (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1965), 149–156. [back]

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