The Columbian Institute, Washington’s first learned society, established a botanic garden on grounds west of the United States Capitol in 1820. The garden was short-lived, closing in 1837 due to a lack of funding, but it was an important forerunner of the U.S. Botanic Garden, founded in 1850, as it established its site at the eastern end of the National Mall.
Alternate Names: Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences
Site Dates: Botanic garden in operation 1820–1837
Site Owner(s): United States Government
Associated People: Dr. Edward Cutbush (1772–1843; founder and first president), Thomas Law (1756–1834; founder)
Location: Washington, DC
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As early as the 1790s, public figures such as George Washington (1732–1799) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) called for the establishment of a national botanic garden in Washington, DC, that would help to improve the new nation’s agricultural practices, foster scientific inquiry, and teach the visiting public principles of landscape art and botany. An 1808 proposal in the Washington Expositor advocated an “Experimental, Agricultural, and Botanical Society” that would “collect at the seat of the general government, the useful and ornamental vegetable productions; and, by experiment, ascertain the mode of culture for each, best adapted to the climates and circumstances of the United States; [and] . . . form a nursery and repository of seeds, from whence they may be easily disseminated through the United States.” These goals were not realized until 1820, when the Columbian Institute, Washington’s first learned society (1816–1838), established a botanic garden on public land located just to the west of the Capitol Grounds.
The Columbian Institute’s membership comprised many of the most notable political, scientific, artistic, and intellectual figures of the era, and the creation of a botanic garden was a major goal of the society from the time of its founding in 1816. Its constitution, as recorded by the society’s first secretary, the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820), asserted that the Columbian Institute would oversee a botanical garden to “collect, cultivate, and distribute the various vegetable productions of this and other countries, whether medicinal, esculent, or for the promotion of the arts and manufactures” (view text). In an 1817 lecture delivered to the Columbian Institute, its first president, Dr. Edward Cutbush (1772–1843), argued for the garden’s importance, claiming that “should we be so fortunate as to succeed in establishing a botanical garden, it may excite an emulation among the proprietors of the eminences around our city, by inducing them to cultivate and adorn those beautiful heights with gardens . . . to render them not only pleasing to the eye, but highly advantageous to this district” (view text). Therese O’Malley has argued that, as founding members of the Institute, Latrobe and John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), who served as Secretary of State (1817–1825) before becoming President of the United States (1825–1829), were likely instrumental in the creation of the botanic garden, noting that both men “were politically powerful figures with scientific acumen, aesthetic sophistication, and commitment to the development of the capital city.”
Despite its commitment to the project, the Columbian Institute had not yet secured a site for its proposed garden. In April 1818 the United States Congress passed an act permitting the society to procure “a tract or parcel of land, for a botanic garden, not exceeding five acres” (view text). The following January, the Columbian Institute requested that Congress grant it use of a tract of public land in Washington. The request was approved in May 1820, when Congress appropriated five acres of public land for the Columbian Institute’s botanical garden on the east end of the National Mall, a plot bounded by the Capitol Grounds to the east, Pennsylvania Avenue to the north, and Maryland Avenue to the south, as seen in this 1820 map [Fig. 1]. Latrobe, who had overseen various development projects in the city, including construction of the U.S. Capitol and Washington Canal, may have suggested the site. The location was both practical and ideologically significant for the young nation. According to O’Malley, “As members of Congress were all expected to send back native plants from each of their states and districts, the location at the foot of the Capitol provided a symbolic gathering from all parts of the United States.” Soon after the appropriation of the site for the Columbian Institute’s use, Josiah Meigs (1757–1822), commissioner of the General Land Office of the United States in Washington and then-president of the Columbian Institute, received from his son Henry Meigs (1782–1861), a congressman from New York, a watercolor sketch of a neoclassical building for the Columbian Institute, loosely modeled on the Maison Carée, that was likely intended to house the society’s meeting hall, library, and museum [Fig. 2]. The society, however, was never able to raise funds to construct such a building.
Over the years, the Columbian Institute considered various schemes to supplement its membership dues. The society drafted a memorial for Congress in 1821 asking permission to raise funds by lottery in order to construct a meeting space, library, and museum; hothouses and greenhouses; and to cultivate the botanic garden (view text). However, the lottery scheme was soon abandoned—apparently over concerns that it would be deemed improper—and the Institute also contemplated requesting from Congress two public lots that could be sold by the society for profit. In 1830 the Institute examined, but ultimately rejected, a proposal to lease the botanic garden to Francis Barnes, an entrepreneur who wanted to turn the garden into a pleasure garden (view text).
Despite persistent financial challenges, by the summer of 1821, the Columbian Institute had raised enough money to begin draining and leveling the site that Congress had appropriated the previous year. The Columbian Institute reported on recent improvements to the site in 1823, noting that the land was by that time “in a great degree fit for cultivation.” The society had constructed an elliptical pond with an island and laid out four walks, three of which were lined with borders to be planted with trees and shrubs and the fourth a gravel path leading to the pond (view text). Congress granted the Columbian Institute use of public land adjacent the botanic garden in May 1824, nearly doubling the size of the society’s parcel by extending it west to Third Street and the Tiber Canal. In 1826 the Institute requested additional funding from Congress and proposed that water from Tiber Creek be carried in pipes from Capitol Square to the botanic garden and “thrown up in a jet d’eau” to “water the surrounding gardens” (view text).
The Commissioner of Public Buildings contacted the Columbian Institute in June 1827 to complain that the “foot-way, canals & plantation in the garden” were out of alignment with the new section of the Washington Canal, which “was laid out along a line drawn through the middle of the Capitol and of the Mall.” The Commissioner declared the “discrepancy . . . glaring and . . . offensive to the eye,” and requested that the society formulate a plan to correct the asymmetry (view text). By November, the Columbian Institute had taken steps to address the problem and made many improvements to the site, such as building new gravel walkways; deepening the canals and constructing a footbridge over it to the island; and preparing the borders on Maryland Avenue and the island to be planted and the remainder of the garden to be sown with a white clover lawn (view text).
A full plant list for the garden created in 1826 has been lost, but scholars have identified some species that were present. A live American thorn hedge enclosed the garden, which by 1830 contained thousands of domestic and exotic shrubs and trees, including white mulberry and honey locusts as well as the forest of trees native to Washington, DC, that John Quincy Adams purchased for the Institute. Although the Columbian Institute proposed spending $60 annually to employ a gardener, the society never secured sufficient funds to hire a full-time employee and instead relied on part-time workers, including occasional assistance by John Foy (d. 1833), the gardener of the Capitol Grounds, to care for the garden.
The Columbian Institute was failing by the mid-1830s due to a lack of support from its members and from Congress, and the botanic garden was in a state of disrepair. In 1837 the Columbian Institute sold its mineralogical, zoological, and art collections and ceased operation of the garden. The society’s charter expired the following year, and control of the botanical garden’s site returned to the federal government. In 1850 Congress established the United State Botanic Garden, which occupied the former site of the Columbian Institute’s garden, to house rare botanical collections brought back by the Great Exploring Expedition (1837–1842), which traveled to South America, Antarctica, and Oceania. Although short-lived, the Columbian Institute’s botanic garden was an important precursor to the U.S. Botanic Garden and began the system of distributing plants and seeds nationally that continues today through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Columbian Institute, August 1816, “Constitution of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences,” published by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, secretary of the Columbian Institute, in The National Register (1816: 405–6)
- “SECTION I.
- “Art. 1. The association shall be denominated the "Columbian Institute for the promotion of Arts and Sciences;" and shall be composed of resident and honorary members.
- “Art. 2. The objects of the Institute shall be to collect, cultivate, and distribute the various vegetable productions of this and other countries, whether medicinal, esculant, or for the promotion of arts and manufactures.
- “Art. 3. To collect and examine the various mineral productions and natural curiosities of the United States, and give publicity to every discovery which they may have been enabled to make.
- “Art. 4. To obtain information respecting the mineral waters of the United States, their locality, analysis, and utility; together with such topographical remarks as may aid valetudinarians.
- “Art. 5. To invite communications on agricultural subjects, on the management of stock, their diseases and remedies.
- “Art. 6. To form a topographical and statistical history of the different districts of the United States, noticing particularly the number and extent of streams, how far navigable; agricultural products; the imports and exports; the value of lands; the climate; the state of the thermometer and barometer; the diseases which prevail during the different seasons; the state of the arts and manufactures; and any other information which may be deemed of general utility.
- “Art. 7. To publish annually, or whenever the Institute shall have become possessed of a sufficient stock of important information, such communications as may be of public utility; and to give the earliest information, in the public papers, of all discoveries that may have been made by, or communicated to, the Institute.
- “Section II. . .
- “Art. 3. . . .
- “No. 3.—Committee on Botany and Agriculture.
- “To this committee shall be submitted the execution of the 2d article of the 1st section of this constitution, and they shall arrange and deliver over to the Curators such specimens as will not admit of cultivation. This committee shall likewise be charged with the superintendence of the Botanical Garden, and shall report to the General Committee the progress and state of the establishment.” back up to History
- Cutbush, Dr. Edward, January 11, 1817, in a lecture delivered in Congress Hall (quoted in Rathburn 1917: 13–14)
- “The extensive limits of our country afford numerous opportunities for discoveries and improvements, in every branch of natural sciences. How many plants are there, natives of our soil, possessed of peculiar virtues, which would supersede the necessity of importing those that are medicinal, or necessary for the operation of the dyer! How many minerals which might serve, not only to enrich the cabinets of the curious, but minister to the wants of our growing population! What an infinite number of substances may present themselves as objects of new trade and commerce, or for the supply of the necessary materials for the various domestic arts and manufactures; and what means are so likely to bring them to our knowledge, as research and careful investigations? Therefore, considering the extent of territory embraced by the United States, whose surface and internal structure have scarcely been examined, it must be regarded as a national reproach, that we are still unacquainted with the important sources of wealth, which are yet to be opened by chemical and mineralogical enterprise. Every individual in our republic should be animated with patriotic zeal in this important undertaking.
- “We have been peculiarly fortunate, my friends, that our association has commenced at the seat of Government; where, through the representatives of the people, coming from the various sections of our country, of different climates and soils, whose minds are illuminated by the rays of science; and through the scientific citizens and foreigners who visit this metropolis, we may reasonably expect, not only valuable communications, but various seeds and plants; hence, the necessity for a botanical garden, where they may be cultivated, and, as they multiply, distributed to other parts of the Union. . . . The numerous grasses, grains, medicinal plants, trees, &c., which are not indigenous to our country, should be carefully collected, cultivated, and distrubted to the agriculturists. . . .
- “By establishing a botanical garden, we may not only receive instruction ourselves, but excite a spirit of enquiry in the minds of the rising generation; every parent within the District of Columbia, who is desirous of seeing his children possessed of general information, should contribute toward the establishment and support of the garden, museum, and library.
- “. . . . In short, my friends, there is scarcely an art, science, or manufacture, which may not be benefited by this association; and should we be so fortunate as to succeed in establishing a botanical garden, it may excite an emulation among the proprietors of the eminences around our city, by inducing them to cultivate and adorn those beautiful heights with gardens; no city in the United States presents a greater assemblage of sublime views; nothing is wanting but industry, public spirit, and population, to render them not only pleasing to the eye, but highly advantageous to this district.” back up to History
- U.S. Congress, April 20, 1818, An Act to Incorporate the Columbian Institute, Statue I. Chapter CXXV (Rathburn 1917: 71)
- “Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That the said corporation may procure, 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.” back up to History
- Columbian Institute, February 3, 1821, in a draft of a Memorial to Congress proposing a lottery for the Columbian Institute, Washington, DC (quoted in Rathburn 1917: 26)
- “Under these impressions, the Institute solicit the permission to raise the necessary funds for enclosing the grounds, for the erection of their hall—their laboratory,—their hot and green houses,—their library and museum, and for the cultivation of the botanic garden, wherein they hope soon to present to the view of their fellow citizens specimens of all the plants of this middle region of our country, with others exotic and domestic; and the only plan that they can now suggest of raising the funds necessary for carrying into effect their views and endeavors to be useful will be by a lottery, which if, in some respects, liable to objection, may in some other respects be considered as a voluntary subscription for the promotion of a great national object.'" back up to History
- Columbian Institute, December 6, 1823, in a report describing the progress of the Columbian Institute, Washington, DC (quoted in Rathburn 1917: 43–44)
- “The ground for the garden has been completely drained and partly leveled, and is in a great degree fit for cultivation. An elliptical pond had been formed 144 feet for the transverse and 100 feet for the conjugate diameter, with an island in the middle 114 feet by 85 feet. The canal that surrounds it is 15 feet wide and 2 1/2 feet deep. . . . The island wants still to be leveled for cultivation, and the upper side of the pond to be deepened to produce a level.
- “Four walks have been laid out, one on Pennsylvania Avenue, one on Maryland Avenue, one opposite the circular road around the west side of the Capitol, and one in the center of the ground leading to the pond. The three walks on the sides of the garden are 20 feet wide, with borders of 26 feet, in which to plant trees and shrubs; the center walk or road is 15 feet wide; the whole is well graveled.” back up to History
- Columbian Institute, March 6, 1826, in a Memorial to Congress describing the Columbian Institute, Washington, DC (quoted in O’Malley 1989: 132)
- “1st. The water of Tiber Creek being thus conducted into the Capitol square, will afford ample security against the progress of fire, in case of such accident taking place either in the Capitol or in any of the adjacent buildings. After leaving the Capitol, this water may be carried in pipes to the Botanic Garden, and there thrown up in a jet d'eau 30 or 40 feet high, and thence water the surrounding grounds.
- “2d. This National Botanic Garden may be used to raise all kinds of indigenous and exotic trees, shrubs, roots, grasses, &c. to be distributed to every part of the Union.
- “3d. Cool and shady walks will be formed in the neighborhood of the Capitol; the science of Botany encouraged; and a delightful scene from the Capitol created to please the eye of the stranger and citizen.” back up to History
- Commissioner of Public Buildings, June 9, 1827, in a letter to the Columbian Institute, Washington, DC (quoted in Rathburn 1917: 45)
- “The Botanic Garden belonging to your Institute is so directly in view from the Capitol, that I hope to be pardoned for a remark in relation to the improvement of it. The new section of the Washington Canal was laid out along a line drawn through the middle of the Capitol and of the Mall. The foot-way, canals & plantation in the garden do not coincide with this line, but diverge from it at an acute angle. This discrepancy is so glaring and so very offensive to the eye, that I am satisfied that every person visiting the Capitol would be grateful for its removal.
- “I would be gratified by the location of the Botanic Garden in its present site, from an expectation that it would become an ornamental appendage to the Capitol, and that under the eye of Congress they would be induced to foster it. But you are aware, Sir, that whether it shall become an ornament or deformity, depends materially upon the plan which shall be pursued in its improvement.” back up to History
- Treasurer of the Columbian Institute, November 20, 1827, in a report to the Columbian Institute, Washington, DC (quoted in Rathburn 1917: 45)
- “By means of the late expenditures on the Botanic Garden the following objects have been attained, viz.—The ground has been completely drained by drains extending between 400 and 500 yards in length, and in some places 3 feet deep; the canal has been deepened so that it now surrounds the island, and is between 3 and 4 feet deep and about 18 feet wide, with a good foot bridge over it. Several new walks have been made and the whole well gravelled. The ground has been well ploughed and harrowed at least 3 times over. A tool house has been erected. The border on Maryland Avenue and the island have been properly prepared for the reception of seeds and plants. It is believed that it would be most beneficial, at the same time least expensive, to cultivate this border and the island, and to sow the remainder of the ground in the center with white clover, in the spring. And to effect these objects a gardener can be obtained for $60 per annum, who will not only preserve the garden, but will plant any seeds or plants that may be received, besides supplying trees where dead.” back up to History
- Anonymous, May 1828, in an article published in the New York Farmer (1828: 116)
- “The Columbian Institute has just received from Tangier, in Morocco, some wheat and barley, which, it is supposed, may form an useful addition to the stock of those grains already in the United States and Territories south and south-west of Washington. The Institute has also received some seeds and fruit of the date, which have been sent under a belief that they may be successfully cultivated in the most southern parts of the Union.— Tangier, whence those grains and seeds are brought is in lat. 35 deg. north. Though black frosts are rare, white frosts are frqeuent there in January, February, and March.—Nat. Jour."
- Barnes, Francis, August 1830, in a proposal to the Columbian Institute to lease their land to operate a pleasure garden (quoted in Rathburn 1917: 47)
- “I will at my expense keep the garden in perfect order, pay all necessary attention to the plants already growing therein, cultivate all such seeds and plants as the Institute may provide, and, in short, do all in my power to promote the science the botany and fulfil to the strictest letter the objects of your incorporation.
- “I will at my expense repair the fences now standing or erect new and substantial fencing in their stead, lay the garden out in handsome and tasty style, erect arbours in various parts thereof, and set out vines of various kinds to afford shelter and cool retreats to such persons as may visit it, where refreshments may be obtained by the payment of a moderate compensation therefor.
- “I will erect an ornamental building in some part of the garden having therein a convenient room or place of meeting for the members of the society where they may congregate, free of expense and by calling therefor receive every accommodation, on such terms as cannot fail of being satisfactory.
- “As the garden will be open to visitors at a small expense, a strict police will be established, to prevent the ingress of improper persons, to guard the plants, flowers, &c., from the depredations of such heedless or idle persons as might break or otherwise injure them.
- “At the expiration of the lease the buildings and improvements made at my expense will be given over to the Institute in perfect order and at all times during its continuance it will afford me pleasure to welcome the members of the Institute in the garden and to listen to any suggestion they may make for its further improvement.” back up to History
- Elliot, William, August 6, 1830, in a letter protesting a proposed leasing of the Columbian Institute’s land as a pleasure garden (quoted in Rathburn 1917: 45–46)
- “It is urged that the garden remains uncultivated, and that we make no use of it. But even in its present uncultivated state, it is a not unpleasant object as seen from the Capitol; and certainly much more worthy the nation than a pleasure garden, with its usual scenes of debauchery. And why is the garden not cultivated, and the other proper objects of the Institute accomplished? Because we have no funds. Let those gentlemen who complain, first pay up their annual and other dues; and then see what can be done. No money has been laid out (of any amount) on the Botanic Garden for about 3 years. How then can we expect it to appear? However, with what has been laid out, the ground has been well drained; good gravel walks made; and more than 1,000 shrubs and trees planted; and in a thriving condition. No matter who has charge of the garden, it will require time for the trees and shrubs to grow.”
Anonymous, Map of the Columbian Institute’s plot for a botanical garden on the Mall, 1820.
Charles Bulfinch, Plan of Grounds adjacent to the Capitol, 1822.
- For more on the early proposals for a national botanic garden in Washington, DC, see Therese O’Malley, “Art and Science in American Landscape Architecture: The National Mall, Washington, DC, 1791–1852” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1989), 90–104, view on Zotero; Richard Rathburn, “The Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences,” United States National Museum’s Bulletin 101 (October 18, 1917): 37–39, view on Zotero; Pamela Scott, “‘This Vast Empire’: The Iconography of the Mall, 1791–1848,” Studies in the History of Art 30, Symposium Papers XIV: The Mall in Washington, 1791–1991 (1991): 45, view on Zotero. For more about the educational and aesthetic goals of a national botanic garden in this period, see O’Malley 1989, 112; Therese O’Malley, “‘Your Garden Must be a Museum to You’: Early American Botanic Gardens,” Huntington Library Quarterly 59, no. 2/3 (1996): 207, 213, view on Zotero.
- Franklin, “Proposal for establishing an Experimental, Agricultural, and Botanical Society; at the Seat of the general Government,” Washington Expositor 1, no. 2 (January 9, 1808): 12, view on Zotero.
- For more on the composition of the Columbian Institute’s membership, see Rathburn 1917, 18–23, view on Zotero; O’Malley 1989, 117–18, view on Zotero.
- According to Rathburn, the Columbian Institute’s constitution was framed by a committee gathered on June 28, 1816, composed of Samuel Harrison Smith, Rev. Dr. Andrew Hunter, John Law, Dr. Alexander McWilliams, and Dr. Edward Cutbush. The constitution was approved on August 8, 1816. Rathburn 1917, 11, view on Zotero. For a detailed history of the founding of the Columbian Institute, see Rathburn 1917, 10–18, view on Zotero; O’Malley 1989, 115–117, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley 1996, 217, view on Zotero.
- Harold T. Pinkett, “Early Agricultural Societies in the District of Columbia,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, DC 51/52 (1951/1952): 42, view on Zotero; Rathburn 1917, 12, view on Zotero; O’Malley 1989, 123, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley 1989, 118–119, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley 1996, 218, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley 1989, 123, view on Zotero. The Columbian Institute held meetings in various hotels and public buildings, including the General Post Office building (1817–1818), the Treasury Department (1820–1822), and, from 1824, the Library of Congress. See Rathburn 1917, 32–34, view on Zotero.
- According to Rathburn, the lottery was first proposed on December 22, 1817, but the proposal was not fully formulated until February 3, 1821. This proposal was likely never submitted to Congress. Rathburn 1917, 26–27, view on Zotero. For a discussion of the Columbian Institute’s various fundraising proposals, see Rathburn 1917, 23–30, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley 1989, 124, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley 1989, 131, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley 1989, 118–119, 127–28, 135, view on Zotero.
- Rathburn 1917, 4, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley 1989, 137–38, 140, 144, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley 1996, 220, view on Zotero; Pinkett 1951/1952, 43, view on Zotero.
- O’Malley, 1989, 140–141, view on Zotero.
- Benjamin Henry Latrobe on behalf of the Columbian Institute, “Constitution of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences,” The National Register (Washington, DC) 1, no. 26 (August 24, 1816), view on Zotero.
- Rathburn 1917, view on Zotero.
- Therese O’Malley, “Art and Science in American Landscape Architecture: The National Mall, Washington, DC 1791–1852” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1989), view on Zotero.
- Anonymous, “Miscellaneous and Domestic Summary,” New York Farmer 1 (May 1828), view on Zotero.
- The version quoted in Rathburn includes an additional paragraph that reads as follows:“Those members of Congress who may desire to obtain a portion of either or all of these objects will please make known their wishes to Mr. Dickins, the secretary of the Institute.” Quoted in Rathburn 1917, 48, view on Zotero.