Smithsonian Institution Building 1864

The Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, D.C., known as the "Castle," 1864 photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Looking Back with Aurore Eaton sig

During his 14 years working for the U.S. House of Representatives, Benjamin Brown French found that the political dynamics of his workplace were generally favorable to his continued employment. From the time he started in the House as an assistant clerk in late 1833 until the beginning of 1841, the majority of the Congressmen belonged to his own party, the Democrats (originally known as the Jacksonian Democrats). The party’s early leaders were Presidents Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) and Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), who had served as Jackson’s vice president.

The Whig Party candidate, William Henry Harrison, won the presidential election of 1840. When Harrison died of illness on March 4, 1841, after only one month in office, Vice President John Tyler became President. Tyler served out the remainder of Harrison’s term, but he was greatly unpopular with the Whigs. A former Democrat, Tyler often disagreed with the Whig Party establishment on policy matters. Although the House was controlled by the Whigs from 1841 to 1843, Benjamin was well-respected and was able to retain his position. The Democrats regained their majority in the House in 1843, and the party’s candidate, James K. Polk, was elected President at the end of 1844. In 1845 French was elected to the prestigious position of Clerk of the House of Representatives.

On Dec. 7, 1847, soon after the Whigs regained the majority in the House, French was dismissed, and Thomas Jefferson Campbell of Tennessee was elected as the new clerk. A few days later French wrote in his journal, “To me personally, it is matter of little moment … I can live without the office full well as the office can live without me! But to my friends in the office, some of whom are really poor, it is likely to be a source of distress. The political guillotine has already been set in motion, and five or six of my good fellows, and excellent clerks, have been decapitated.”

Benjamin Brown French, or B.B. French as he was commonly known, became a familiar figure in the political, social, and cultural circles in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the Society for the Promotion of Science and of the U.S. Agricultural Society, and he was deeply involved in Freemasonry. On May 1, 1847, he had the honor, as the Grand Master of the Masons of the District of Columbia, to lay the cornerstone of the original Smithsonian Institution building. He recorded the occasion in his journal, “I performed in the presence of some thousands of spectators … It was, take it all in all, a most imposing spectacle…” The handsome red sandstone building designed by architect James Renwick Jr. took several years to complete. Today, the “Castle” continues to serve as the Smithsonian’s headquarters.

During the 1840s French became involved in local politics. An article in the June 16, 1842, issue of the Baltimore Sun newspaper reported his election as the president of the Washington, D.C., Common Council. The article jokingly called him the “elocutionary clerk” of the House of Representatives, and stated that “Nature has bestowed upon him a pair of lungs admirably calculated to keep order.” French’s ability to project his voice was an important skill in his work, when he was often called upon to read official documents out loud to the raucous congressional assembly.

One of French’s closest friends was former Maine Congressman and fellow New Hampshire native F.O.J. (Francis Ormond Jonathan) Smith. French named his son Francis Ormond French, born in 1837, in his friend’s honor. Smith was a business partner of Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. In 1843 Smith demonstrated the invention to Benjamin, who was astounded. He wrote in his journal, “…only a few years will elapse when, by the aid of electromagnetism, miles will be converted into inches, and hours into seconds; the thought that occurs in the heart here in Washington, will be instantly known to all the extremities of this widespread Union!”

French invested in the development of this new technology, becoming a stockholder in the Magnetic Telegraph Company in 1845 — a move that would enable him to find his next professional position after he became unemployed at the end of 1847.

Next week: Benjamin French helps to spread telegraphy across the land.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.