Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,

Presidential Shenanigans: John Quincy Adams and the Hollow Earth Theory

John Quincy Adams may not have been the most successful President, but he was certainly a visionary, and would often, to use modern parlance, "think outside the box". For example, in his first annual message to Congress he proposed the building of astronomical observatories, referring to them as "lighthouses in the skies". He told Congress:

"Connected with the establishment of an university, or separate from it, might be undertaken the erection of an astronomical observatory, with provision for the support of an astronomer... It is with no feeling of pride as an American that the remark may be made that on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe there are existing upward of 130 of these lighthouses of the skies, while throughout the whole American hemisphere there is not one. If we reflect a moment upon the discoveries which in the last four centuries have been made in the physical constitution of the universe by the means of these buildings and of observers stationed in them, shall we doubt of their usefulness to every nation? And while scarcely a year passes over our heads without bringing some new astronomical discovery to light, which we must fain receive at second hand from Europe, are we not cutting ourselves off from the means of returning light for light while we have neither observatory nor observer upon our half of the globe and the earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes?”


Adams' forward thinking was mocked at the time, but he was certainly unafraid to use his imagination to consider scientific possibilities. During Adams presidency, one of these scientific imaginings was something called the Hollow Earth Theory. One of its leading proponents was John Cleves Symmes, Jr., an American army officer, who was traveling around the country on the lecture circuit. Symmes was espousing his theory of a Hollow Earth. He believed that our planet was composed of several solid concentric spheres. He published a circular containing the theory and in his talks he was lobbying for "one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea." He planned to somehow slip between those concentric spheres, which he believed were open at the poles "12 or 16 degrees."

Symmes lobbied Congress for funding for the epic journey. Not surprisingly, Congress said no. But President John Quincy Adams believed that there might be something to Symmes theory. Even though Congress considered the theory to be laughable, Adams disagreed. In Adams’ diary, he wrote: "I saw the sun rise and set, clear, from Charles' house on the hill. The pleasure that I take in witnessing these magnificent phenomena of physical nature never tires; it is a part of my own nature, unintelligible to others. The sensations which affect me at the rising and setting sun are first, adoration to the power and goodness of the Creator, mingled in the morning with thanksgiving and in the evening with sadness and with humble supplication for forgiveness of my own errors and infirmities."

One of Symmes' leading supporters was Jeremiah Reynolds. Reynolds had toured with John Cleves Symmes Jr. The two presented talks on the subject. Although the Symmes' expedition to Siberia was not approved, Reynolds was able to find support from some members of John Quincy Adams' cabinet. Speaking before Congress, Reynolds did succeed in fitting out a national expedition to the South Pole. But the expedition did not get underway before the election of 1828 and incoming President Andrew Jackson opposed the project. After he became president it was nixed.

Reynolds garnered support from private sources and the expedition sailed from New York City in 1829. Encountering much danger, the expedition reached the Antarctic shore and returned north, but at Valparaíso, Chile, the crew mutinied. They set Reynolds and the artist John Frampton Watson on shore, where they remained for two more years.

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As for Adams, he continued to advocate for the promotion of science. In 1829, British scientist James Smithson died, and he left his fortune for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." In Smithson's will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States to create an "Establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men." After the nephew died without heirs in 1835, President Andrew Jackson informed Congress of the bequest, which amounted to about $500,000 (over $75,000,000 in today's dollars). Adams became Congress's primary supporter of the future Smithsonian Institution.Though Congress wanted to use the money for other purposes, Adams successfully persuaded Congress to preserve the money for an institution of science and learning. Largely due to Adams's efforts, Congress voted to establish the Smithsonian Institution in 1846.
Tags: andrew jackson, john quincy adams
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