Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences

The Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences (1816–1838) was a literary and science institution in Washington, D.C., founded by Dr. Edward Cutbush (1772–1843), a naval surgeon.[2] Thomas Law had earlier suggested of such a society "at the seat of government."[2] It was the first "learned society" established in Washington and was organized on June 28, 1816,[3] sixteen years after the city was occupied, and less than two years after the invasion by the British troops.[2] The second article of its constitution states: "The Institute shall consist of mathematical, physical, moral and political sciences, general literature and fine arts."[3]

Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences
MottoFavent astra
Be favorable to star[1]
FormationJune 28, 1816
PurposePromotion of arts and sciences
HeadquartersWashington, D.C., United States
Dr. Edward Cutbush
Main organ


It is believed that the formation of the Columbian Institute was a product of the idealism and dreams of the early leaders in Washington, including presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams, who envisioned the city as a "cultural capital spreading enlightenment to the nation by roads, canals, and rivers."[4]

The true origin of the Columbian Institute began on June 15, 1816, with the formation of an association called the Metropolitan Society. The group, totaling 89 residents of the city of Washington, signed a plan to create a living museum of sorts containing "specimens of grains, grasses, fruits, dye-stuffs, medicinal plants and minerals." The group was impressed with the importance of collecting and distributing various vegetable productions of not only America, but other countries. They had an idea to apply to Congress for "the appropriation of about 200 acres of ground, called "the Mall," which was designed in the original plan of the city for a public garden."[5] They also planned to cultivate and plant the seeds and as they multiplied, to distribute them throughout the country and world.[5]

The original subscribers of the Metropolitan Society included Samuel Harrison Smith, Thomas Law, Dr. Alexander McWilliams, Dr. Andrew Hunter and Dr. Edward Cutbush. The members "framed" a constitution, "the draft of which was submitted and unanimously agreed to on August 8, 1816."[5] At that time, the name was changed to the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences.


The society was chartered by Congress twenty months later on April 20, 1818,[3] during the 1st Session of the Fifteenth Congress[6] for a term of twenty years.[2] Edward Cutbush was the first president of the institution; however, by 1825, John Quincy Adams held that title.[7]

At the time the society was formed, the population in Washington was a little more than 10,000 citizens and the construction of the public buildings was still in the "initial stage."[8]

The wording of the charter follows:

That the said corporation, by purchase or otherwise, a suitable building for the sittings of the said institution, and for the preservation and safe-keeping of a library and museum; and, also, a tract or parcel of land, for a botanic garden, not exceeding five acres; Provided, That the amount of real and personal property to be held by the said corporation shall not exceed one hundred thousand dollars.[5]

The first four years, the focus of the institution was "wholly of a utilitarian nature, such as government has from time to time assumed and made the basis of work of several scientific bureaus.[8] Four years later, by 1826; however, an organization was adopted which gave to the institute the latitude of a comprehensive learned society.[8]

Scientific Work for the United States

Among all the activities planned, "only a few in any way conspicuously carried out, in default of the necessary support, the most important and material of these being the establishment of a botanic garden and a museum."[8]

Meetings were held in a variety of temporary offices, including a committee room in the capitol building that Congress granted use of on December 20, 1828.[9] Although the membership roster of the Institution included many distinguished citizens and several presidents, they were unable to raise money for the greenhouse and lecture hall required for the garden and museum.[10]

The advice of the Institute was sought and obtained "in the matter of formulating instructions for the scientific work" of the United States Exploring Expedition that took place from 1828-1842. Advice was also requested in the preparation of a National Pharmacopoeia.[5]

The society also became closely associated, mainly through two of its prominent members, William Lambert and William Elliot, "with the problems of determining the meridian of Washington, of establishing a national astronomical observatory, and of fixing upon a system of weights and measures."[5]


The museum started with a cabinet of minerals which remained predominant in the collection and soon developed into a small museum containing specimens of zoology, botany, ethnology, archeology, fossils, etc. It was transferred to the National Institute for the Promotion of Science in 1841. By 1918, some of the original collection were readily distinguishable in the United States National Museum,[2] now known as the Smithsonian Institution.

The Institute obtained its meeting places and accommodations for the museum "mainly through the favor successively of the executive departments, the municipal government and Congress." The museum was first located in Blodgett's Hotel, containing the General Post Office and the Patent Office, followed by the Treasury Department and the City Hall. A permanent home was finally assigned in 1824 in the western addition of the Capitol building, which had recently been completed.[5]

Botanic Garden

One of the greatest accomplishments of the society was the creation of a botanic garden in 1821.[8] The tract, which was swamp land,[11] was situated a mere eighty feet from the steps of the Capitol building.[12] The land was located between First and Third streets and Pennsylvania and Maryland avenues[13] on the west side of the Capitol building.[5]

"By the end of 1823 the tract of land granted by Congress had been drained and leveled, an elliptical pond with an island at its center constructed, and four graveled walks laid out. Trees and shrubs were planted, and the garden was maintained as well as scanty funds would permit until the institute expired in 1837, one year before the termination of its charter."[14]

On May 26, 1824, the grounds were extended and in 1825, they were enclosed. "There seems to be no record of what improvements or plantings were made by the Columbian Institute. The institute had expended $1,500 on the grounds for walks and plantings and had asked Congress to be reimbursed, but this request was not granted."[5]

The Institute quickly launched an enthusiastic effort to collect plants and seeds.[10] In 1826, a committee was appointed to meet with heads of government departments to help solicit "all subjects of natural history that may be deemed interesting" from foreign representatives. The following year, Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Rush, was also involved in the solicitation by circulating a letter to foreign dignitaries."[10] In the letter he stated that President John Quincy Adams was "desirous of causing to be introduced into the United States all such trees and plants from other countries not heretofore known in the United States, as may give promise, under proper cultivation, of flourishing and becoming useful...."[10]

The publicity was extremely successful. Plants and seeds made their way to the Institute from as far away as China and Brazil. Some came from areas nearby, such as Montgomery County in Maryland. In 1824, a List of Plants in the Botanic Garden of the Columbian Institute was prepared by William Elliot. The pamphlet mentioned more than 458 plants[13] growing at that time.[10]

Sixteen years passed and by 1836, no further improvements had been made on the property. "The tract was a stagnant and malarial swamp and Congress was prevailed upon to make an appropriation of $5,000 for improvements."[15] The funds were used to drain the site and erect a fountain.[16]

Financial woes continued to plague the Institute, and there was "never enough money from contributions for proper maintenance of the garden and plant collections."[10] The facility ceased to operate in 1837 when the society stopped holding meetings. However it was re-instituted in 1842 when the Wilkes expedition of the South Seas brought back a collection of plants.[17]

In 1850, thirteen years after the demise of the Columbian Institute, the garden was reopened as the United States Botanical Garden. The garden had begun as 5 acres (20,000 m2) of swamp land and had gradually expanded to 13 acres (53,000 m2).

Institute loses charter

There was only one meeting held in 1837, the minutes indicate no unusual action took place, but it proved to be the last. The Institute "virtually dissolved without formality" the year before the termination of its charter. The records show only 85 communications by 26 people presented during the entire life of the society, "over one-half of which related to astronomy and mathematics."[5]

It appears, largely, that a lack of funds prevented the publication of transactions of the institute, "which would have gone far toward perpetuating the name of the society."[5]

"However unfortunate in the realization of its ambitions, the Columbian Institute nevertheless occupied an enviable position among the earlier associations of this country for the breadth and importance of its objects."[5]

The Columbian Institute's charter expired in 1838 and, in 1841, it was absorbed by the National Institute for the Promotion of Science.[18] The Institute's founders had hoped that this group would become the Washington counterpart to Philadelphia's American Philosophical Society, but as early as 1826, the institute was dying, and along with it the botanical garden.[19]

It has been discussed that "early efforts provided little ground for optimism" because the federal scientific agencies of the "early republic" did not owe their existence to "any commitment to science as such."[4] William Stanton has observed that, "until the 1840s, Washingtonians had founded a dreary train of institutions."[4] It can be argued, however, that the institution received very little funding from the Federal government and it was in "default of the necessary support."[5]


Under the original constitution of the society written in 1816 only two classes of members were recognized; resident and honorary, however in 1820 a corresponding member was added. Additionally, a position was provided for the President of the United States so that, with his permission, he could "be considered the patron of the Columbian Institute."[5] James Monroe, who was president at the time, was the only president who ever accepted the title.[5]

It appears about 150 persons qualified for the Institution as residents of Washington, "not over one-half that number were ever in good standing at any time, the proportion being generally smaller and the total number becoming greatly reduced during the final years.[5] The total number elected to corresponding membership was 122 and honorary membership, total of 7. "The resident membership was representative of the best element in Washington, while the corresponding and honorary memberships included some of the best known men in science, literature and the arts, both in this country and abroad."[5]

The honorary members included three presidents who were still alive during the 1820s; John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as well as Marquis Lafayette and Baron Cuvier, however, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were both resident members.[5]

The membership of the institute included many prominent men of the day, including well-known representatives of the military, government service, medical, law and other professions. At least 11 of the men held the office of Mayor of Washington:[5]


  1. "Curious Seal". Indian Journal. Eufaula, Oklahoma. August 13, 1885.
  2. Science - The Columbian Institute. New York, The Science Press, p.508, 1917. Retrieved 2010-06-08.
  3. "Thomas Law, a bibliographical sketch". Allen G. Clark, Washington, D.C. (1900). Retrieved 2010-06-10.
  4. Messias Carbonell, Bettina. Museum studies: an anthology of contexts. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004. Retrieved 2010-06-20.
  5. Rathbun, Richard. The Columbian institute for the promotion of arts and sciences: A Washington Society of 1816-1838. Bulletin of the United States National Museum, October 18, 1917. Retrieved 2010-06-20.
  6. "Titles of Acts". Ohio Repository. Canton, Ohio. May 30, 1818.
  7. "The Columbian Institute". New York Spectator. New York, New York. January 14, 1825.
  8. "Laid Foundation For Great Work - First Scientific Society Organized Early in Nineteenth Century". New York Spectator. New York, New York. January 11, 1918.
  9. "Congressional". The Torch Light And Public Advertiser. Hagerstown, Maryland. December 25, 1828.
  10. Fallen, Anne-Catherine. "The United States Botanic Garden, Establishing a Plant Collection". U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-10-20. Retrieved 2010-06-18.
  11. Haskin, Frederic J. (April 3, 1940). "Q and A, University of the Masses". The Arizona Republic. Phoenix, Arizona.
  12. "Our Nation's Greenhouse: The Mall, Washington, D.C." (PDF). Trumpet Vine, 2008. Retrieved 2010-06-07.
  13. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Volume 8. Washington Academy of Sciences - The Waverly Press, 1918, p. 491. Retrieved 2010-06-20.
  14. "Greene: American Science in the Age of Jefferson". Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1984. Retrieved 2010-06-10.
  15. "Famous Botanic Garden". Oxford Leader. Oxford, Iowa. March 31, 1932.
  16. Haskin, Frederic J. (January 1, 1932). "The Haskin Letter (Washington, D.C.) - The New Botanic Gardens". Billings Gazette. Billings, Montana.
  17. Sherman, John Dickinson (August 10, 1922). "Botanic Garden Must Be Moved - Congress Discusses It's New Site". Haskell News. Haskell, Oklahoma.
  18. "Columbian Institute's Records 1816-1841". Smithsonian Institution Archives, February 3, 2003. Retrieved 2010-06-09.
  19. Guthean, Frederic. Worthy of the nation: Washington, DC, from L'Enfant to the National Capital. United States. National Capital Planning Commission - Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Retrieved 2010-06-19.
  20. McCallum, Jack Edward. Military medicine: from ancient times to the 21st century. ABC-CLIO, 2008. Retrieved 2010-06-08.
  21. Nuermberger, Ruth Ketring (July 1947). "Asbury Dickins (1780-1861): A Career in Government Service". The North Carolina Historical Review. North Carolina Office of Archives and History. 24 (3): 281–314. JSTOR 23515626.
  22. "History of the Chaplaincy, Office of the Chaplain". Retrieved 2008-09-14.
  23. "Ministers 1821-1827" (PDF). All Souls Org., 1998. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-06-12. Retrieved 2010-06-18.
  24. "Josiah Meigs, Public Official & Educator". Arlington National Cemetery, 2006. Retrieved 2010-06-20.
  25. "Newspaper Extracts - The Evening Star". Newspaper Abstracts. Retrieved 2010-06-25.
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