James Smithson (above). The name probably means very little to most Americans. In fact he was barely known to the people of his own country – England. Yes, Mr. Smithson was a life-long Englishman. He never even visited the United States during his life time. And yet, his gift to the United States of America – an odd addendum to his will – resulted in the building of one of the foremost research institutions and museums in the entire world – the Smithsonian Institution. For on today’s date, August 10, in 1846, President James K. Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution Act into law.
Smithson’s Strange Bequest
All of his life, James Smithson was a hardworking man who had a problem with legitimacy. He was the “illegitimate” son of the Duke of Northumberland and Elizabeth Katie Macie, a descendant of King Henry VII. Smithson inherited a considerable estate from his mother, and studied hard in his chosen field of science, becoming a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of London at the age of 22. He published many scientific papers on chemistry and mineral composition. In geology, he changed scientific wisdom in proving that zinc carbonates
were true carbonate minerals – one type of zinc carbonate was named “smithsonite” in his honor (above). Still. there was this problem with his sketchy parentage. “On my father’s side I am a Northumberland, on my mother’s I am related to kings, but this avails me not.” he once said. So he wrote out a will in which he left all of his estate to his nephew. And this contained an odd provision: that if his nephew was to die without an heir (legitimate or otherwise), it was to go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
Smithson’s Bequest Sets Off Much Discussion
Smithson’s motives are unknown. Me may very well have turned against the mores of his own country which put such a stigma upon “illegitimacy.” It may very well be that with the French Revolutions and Napoleonic Wars still being a recent memory, Smithson thought that his bequest was better off being placed in a country that was far away from all of this warfare, and thus would be a more suitable place for scientific research. Whatever the case, when Mr. Smithson died in 1829 the press in America was quite taken aback by this odd provision. In fact it was given play in the New York American which on Jan. 26,
1830 published the relevant portion of the will with the headline: “We Find the Following Statement Respecting a Will.” Well six years after the death of Smithson, his nephew, Henry James Hungerford did indeed die, heirless as they say. So, on July 1, 1836, the U.S. Congress approved the acceptance of Smithson’s bequest. President Andrew Jackson dispatched Richard Rush (above), former Treasury Secretary and diplomat to England to arrange the whole thing. And two years later Rush returned with the gold that Smithson had left, as well as all of Smithson’s papers, The gold when melted down came out to be worth an astronomical $500,000. After much debate, Congress agreed that the bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.
The Smithsonian Institution Today….
Today, the Smithsonian stays true to the original ideal set by Joseph Smithson, stating as their mission: “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” From those beginnings the Smithsonian has grown into a true museum of America, comprised of 19 museums and galleries. The
Smith- sonian also includes nine research facilities throughout the world, stating as its vision: “Shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world.” And towards that end it is always expanding with new branches such as the recently announced National Museum of African American History and Culture. Still standing is the original Smithsonian Institution Building the “Castle,” as it has come to be called (above). Also included is the National Museum of Natural History, which holds the natural science collections, and the National Portrait Gallery. The National Museum of American History contains the original Star-Spangled Banner and hundreds of other artifacts of U.S. history. The National Air and Space Museum has such pieces of aviation history as the Wright brothers’ plane and goes all the way to space exploration with Freedom 7, the space capsule that took the first American into space.
And as said, James Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution’s great benefactor, never made it to America in his lifetime. But after his lifetime, he finally made it “across the pond.” He was buried in Genoa Italy upon his death in 1829. But his mortal remains were brought to the United States in 1903, and since that time they have been interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building (above).
“The Smithsonian Institution” by Gene Gurney, Crown Publishers Inc., New York, 1964