U.S. Science Policy
During the early 19th century, when the federal government needed advice from the scientific community, it would turn to the existing learned societies: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Franklin Institute. Committees within these societies were constituted in response to specific problems for which expertise did not exist within the government. By the mid-19th century, the federal government had established more permanent boards and the number of federal scientific bureaus increased, as the government recognized that some technological/scientific problems were permanent, or at least long-term. Ad hoc boards continued to be formed, but members were drawn from the increased pool of federal and private-sector scientists in Washington. In addition, the government could turn to, or receive unsolicited advice from, committees of the two national scientific societies: the American Association for the Advancement of Science and, after 1863, the National Academy of Sciences. From the 1840s through the 1870s, the name of one individual, Joseph Henry, appears repeatedly as a member of ad hoc and more permanent committees, as an advisor to the government, and as a liaison between the various scientific communities (academic, federal, state, and private) and the executive and legislative leadership. He was the principal lobbyist for the American scientific community.1
When Joseph Henry (17971878), professor of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), accepted the position as Secretary of the Smithsonian on December 7, 1846, his life changed forever. At the time, Henry was acknowledged as the leading experimental physicist in the United States. He had published on a wide variety of subjects, including optics, acoustics, astrophysics, molecular forces, and terrestrial magnetism, but his reputation was built primarily on his work in basic and applied electromagnetism.
To be Secretary of the Smithsonian meant new priorities. Although Henry never ceased thinking of himself as a research scientist and educator, thereafter his chief roles were those of science administrator and de facto advisor to both the executive and legislative branches of government on all aspects of science and technology. He served as president of both AAAS and the National Academy of Sciences. As his correspondence demonstrates, the careers of individual scientists, the livelihoods of inventors, and the future of certain government scientific activities came to depend at least in part upon his support and his ability to sway Members of Congress, Cabinet members, or the President. In short, from 1846 to 1878 Henry served as the representative of the national scientific community in Washington.2
To understand how Henry achieved this position, it is first necessary to understand the status of the Smithsonian Institution and its Secretary in 19th-century America.3
Perhaps the major difference between the Smithsonian and other scientific bureaus in Washington was that the former was free from direct executive and congressional oversight. It was not dependent, at least initially, on congressional appropriations. Even after the Smithsonian began accepting federal funding on its own terms, that support was a small portion of its budget. Congress did not vote on Henry's budget, nor did the President or any of the Department heads have direct control over the Institution's activities. The Secretary was elected by the Board of Regents, not appointed by the President, and was not subject to confirmation by the Senate. He was not an employee of the federal government. All other Smithsonian staff were appointed and fired by the Secretary. As a charitable trust of the country, the Smithsonian was not purely part of the private sector, but neither was it part of the federal government.
Another characteristic of the early Smithsonian was its relative insulation from partisan politics, despite the potential for partisan bickering due to the make-up of the governing board. The 15 regents came from all 3 branches of government (and both political parties). They included the Vice President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, three Members of the House of Representatives, and three Members of the Senate. The mayor of the city of Washington was there to protect local interests. There were four citizens at large, and two more who had to be members of the National Institute, a Washington scientific society. There were controversies among the regents over the programs of the Smithsonianspecifically, the balance between the museum, library, education, and research functions. But the regents worked very hard to divorce the political debates on the Hill from the activities of the Smithsonian. The report of the committee on organization of the Board of Regents had recommended that no Smithsonian lecture or publication should deal with "party politics." It went on to state that
they [the members of the committee of organization] would deeply regret to see party tests and party wranglings obtrude themselves on the neutral ground of science and education; jeoparding [sic], as such intrusions surely would, the tranquility of the Institution, disturbing the even tenor of its action, perhaps assaulting its welfare, certainly contracting the sphere of its usefulness.4
Despite their differences in political affiliation, congressional Smithsonian regents almost inevitably became strong supporters of the Smithsonian, its programs, and its independence from the political wars.
The first Secretary proved to be an expert in exploiting the unique opportunities of his position and his unique status in Washington. He successfully walked a tightrope, rigorously safeguarding the Smithsonian's independence, while actively involving the Smithsonian and himself in federal scientific activities.
Henry brought to the Smithsonian a long personal history of mutually beneficial relationships with politicians, going back to his youth in Albany. He felt comfortable with them, had friends among politicians on the local and national levels from both the Democratic and Whig (and later, Republican) parties, and discussed issues of scientific importance with them. Henry believed that politicians could be educated as to the importance of science and would respond positively to requests by the scientific community:
If the scientific men of the country will only be properly united they can do much for the advance of their persuits [sic] through assistance from Congress. Politicians as a class are timid except when they have an object which they know is worthy and in the advocating of which they are sure of being sustained by authority.5
Like the Board of Regents, Henry was deliberately nonpartisan. As his confidential secretary once put it: "He [Henry] belongs to the party that is in power, & can do most for the Institution."6
Henry's interactions with politicians were based on a number of principles. Perhaps the most important was that he understood that compromise was sometimes necessary when interacting with Congress. He grasped the fact that one obtained one's objectives step-by-step. "We must, however, be content, in the attainment of an object depending upon legislative enactment, with securing a part of what we wish, if we cannot obtain the whole."7
He was also attuned to the ways of Washington. Whether he dealt with Congress, the Cabinet, or the military, he recognized, even when his fellow scientists did not, that to get things done procedures had to be followed and egos had to be massaged. He recognized the seriousness of breaches of protocol. He understood that men who disliked each other personally could and would interact in official capacities. He knew that form, not substance, was paramount in Washington.
Henry influenced science policy through a number of mechanisms. He would use Smithsonian funds to fill gaps in federal support of science, or at least offer to do so in the event Congress or the Administration failed to fund a program. This would ensure continuing scientific progress during periods of congressional indecision. For example, to supplement the Navy Department's meager and unreliable support of James P. Espy's meteorological observation program, the Smithsonian established its own national observation network in cooperation with Espy. And the Smithsonian operated it until Henry convinced the U.S. Army Signal Office to take it over in 1874. This was the direct forerunner of the National Weather Service. Henry also worked to inject science into existing federal programs by offering small amounts of seed money, equipment, and/or training, with the government paying personnel costs.
Henry also intervened with the government on behalf of individual scientists and scientific projects. For example, after the Mexican War, several geologists and naturalists asked him to urge the government to add an investigation of the mineral resources of California to the federal surveys of the area. And when E. G. Squier decided he could extend his ethnological work into Central America by receiving a diplomatic appointment, Henry conferred with the Secretary of State about the importance of the research. He also wrote the Secretary of the Interior to urge continued support for Henry R. Schoolcraft's six-volume study of Native Americans.
What is interesting about the above incidents and many others I could list is that Henry's interaction was usually at the level of the Cabinet Secretary. Science policy decisionspersonnel and funding decisionswere most commonly made by Cabinet members, not the President or Congress. Although some Administrations were more friendly to science than others (the Fillmore Administration was particularly active scientifically), it was often the individual Secretary who decided the role of science in his area of responsibility. Cabinet members were the great patrons of American science in the mid-19th century.
Eventually, Henry found that his role as advisor was almost overwhelming. Initially, he had relished his power, bragging that one Secretary of the Interior had told him that "if the request wasbacked by myself that would be sufficient!"8 Soon, however, he began to ration his influence, or at least try to deflect requests for his assistance. He informed a former student, "I am so much applied to for recommendations for positions under government thatwere I to give one in every ten of those requested I would be bankrupt in conscience and influence."9 In one area, Henry refrained from using his influence. Although he noted in his diary that it was rumored the Patent Office consulted him "on special occasions" and that patentees were therefore "anxious to secure my good opinion," he officially refused to examine or endorse "the innumerable inventions by which the ingenious and enterprising seek to better their own condition and that of the public."10
Alexander Dallas Bache, director of the U.S. Coast Survey and head of the informal scientific group known as the Lazzaroni (of which Henry was a member), is commonly viewed in the historical literature as the leader of American science in the antebellum period and the formulator, to the extent there was one, of American science policy in the two decades before the Civil War.11 But the situation is more complex. Bache was the conceptualizer, the maker of plans. As such, he may be singled out as an early formulator of science policy. But Bache also spent much of his time defending his own appropriation from a variety of attacks, and himself from the well-deserved charges of favoritism. He was an employee of the federal government and a subordinate of the Secretary of the Treasury. His superiors occasionally reminded him that he was not a free agent. Bache's influence, which may have peaked in his campaign to secure the Secretaryship for Henry in 1846, was also lessened by his scientific partisanship, which made fierce enemies and divided the scientific community. In contrast, Henry was the implementer, the lobbyist, the man who sought reconciliation when possible. For example, it was Henry who bound up the wounds of the scientific community after Bache's heavy-handed establishment of the National Academy of Sciences, and Henry ensured that that organization would survive.
At Henry's memorial service, held in the Capitol on January 16, 1879, Congressional Regent James A. Garfield, responding to the complaint that Henry had wasted his scientific talents when he left academia and the laboratory for Washington, reminded his audience that "the Republic has the right to call on all her children for service. It was needful that the Government should have, here at its capital, a great, luminous-minded, pure-hearted man to serve as its counselor and friend in matters of science."12
Never again would one individual serve as counselor to the government in matters of science for an entire generation. During Henry's tenure in Washington, the American scientific community had grown too large and too complex for that to happen again. He was a singularity.
1. The standard history of science and the federal government is A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957). For the period I focus on, also see Robert Bruce, The Launching of Modern American Science, 18461876 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).
2. For Henry's life prior to his election as Secretary of the Smithsonian, see Albert E. Moyer, Joseph Henry: The Rise of an American Scientist (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997).
3. There is no recent scholarly account of Henry's years as Secretary. Moyer covers the three decades in a perfunctory few chapters. The best introduction to these years is in Marc Rothenberg, et al., eds. The Papers of Joseph Henry; see especially Volume 7: The Smithsonian Years, 18471849 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996) and Volume 8: The Smithsonian Years, 18501853 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998). The conclusions of this paper are based on my reading thousands of documents at the Joseph Henry Papers Project at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
4. Report of the Organization Committee of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC: Blair and Rives, 1847), p. 16.
5. Joseph Henry to Asa Gray, February 21, 1849, Papers of Joseph Henry, 7:480.
6. C. W. Hodge to Sarah Hodge, November 17, 1848, Charles Hodge Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Libraries, Princeton, NJ.
7. Annual Report of the Smithsonian Board of Regents for 1870 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1871), p. 14.
8. Joseph Henry to Alexander Dallas Bache, October 25, 1851, Papers of Joseph Henry, 8:2530.
9. Henry to John Miller, August 27, 1852, Papers of Joseph Henry, 8: 3840.Charles Roberts Autograph Letters Collection, Haverford College Library, Haverford, PA.
10. Annual Report of the Smithsonian Board of Regents for 1851 (Washington, DC: A. Boyd Hamilton), p. 10.
11. See, e.g., Bruce, esp. pp. 217224. The latest study of Bache is Hugh R. Slotten, Patronage, Practice, and the Culture of American Science: Alexander Dallas Bache and the U.S. Coast Survey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
12. A Memorial to Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), p. 94. Garfield, more than any other eulogist, emphasized Henry's role as government advisor.
Marc Rothenberg is editor of the Joseph Henry Papers at the Smithsonian Institution. This article is based on remarks delivered at the 23rd Annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy, held April 29May 1, 1998, in Washington, DC.