On August 10, 1846, the act establishing the Smithsonian Institution was passed by Congress and immediately signed into law by President James K. Polk. In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of that event, this exhibition looks back at the America of 1846.

The year began with the threat of war with England over the Oregon boundary; by year's end, war with Mexico raged, and the ominous debate over the spread of slavery in the vast territory expected to be acquired began. Meanwhile, thousands were on the move west. Voices of reform were loud in the land; the spirirt of enterprise was everywhere to be seen; art and literature flourished; music was beloved; on stage Shakespeare was relished, as were the minstrel shows; interest in science was high, and fascination with pseudoscience pervasive. There was no holding back America in 1846; "go-ahead" was the watchword of the nation.

James Smithson
James Smithson
Henri-Joseph Johns
Tempera on paperboard, 1816
3 x 2 9/16 inches
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Division of Policital History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution (S/NPG.85.44)

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