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Mark Hopkins, Famed Educator and the Longest Serving President of Williams College, Preparing to Lecture at the Smithsonian Institute
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“What they may turn out to be I cannot say, but should like the liberty of choice when the time comes…”

MARK HOPKINS. Autograph Letter Signed, as President of Williams College, [perhaps to Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian], November 13, 1851. 1 p., 5 x 6 ¼ in.

Inventory #21553.08       Price: $450

Mark Hopkins (1802-1887) graduated from Williams College in 1824, and from the Berkshire Medical College in 1829. He returned to Williams College as professor of Moral Philosophy and Rhetoric, and was licensed to preach by the Congregationalists in 1833. He became president of the college in 1836, serving until 1872. President James Garfield, who attended Williams College in the 1850s, said in 1871 that his idea of an ideal college would be Mark Hopkins and a student together in a log cabin. Hopkins delivered three lectures at the Smithsonian on the evenings of January 5, 7, and 9, 1852, on “Method,” “Method applied to investigation,” and “Subject concluded, viz: Method.”

Complete Transcript

                                                                        Williams College Nov 13th 1851

Dear Sir,

            I am just now writing some lectures for the Smithsonian Institute. What they may turn out to be I cannot say, but should like the liberty of choice when the time comes to give you one of them or another, and as I presume the announcement of the subject cannot be of much importance, I will, if you please leave it indefinite for the present.

                                                                        Very Respectfully yours,

                                                                        M. Hopkins

Historic Background

With a bequest from the nephew of British scientist James Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846. The Smithsonian not only collected artifacts and specimens, but was also generally committed to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” To accomplish this mandate, the institution published books and pamphlets and hosted lectures on a variety of subjects.

Earlier in 1851, Senator Stephen A. Douglas had criticized the Smithsonian Institution for wasting its funds on theoretical research such as studying the moon. In June 1852, Douglas renewed his attack on research with “no practical bearing,” such as studies of “sea weeds and such trash.” Joseph Henry, who served from 1846 to 1878 as the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, reportedly responded angrily, declaring that “All knowledge was practical, how abstruse so ever it might to the uninitiated appear, and in good time would always vindicate itself in subserving the practical wants and necessities of mankind.” Henry and Douglas later apologized, and in 1854 Douglas became a Smithsonian Regent.

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