James Lewis Smithson was a Briton who died in Italy in 1829, at the age of 75. Six years later, the primary beneficiary of Smithson’s will died, and urgent letters were sent Washington, D.C. It emerged that Smithson’s estate, worth an estimated £100,000, had devolved “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” It was the first time a private individual had made such a gift to the new nation. It helped establish the contours of public-private partnerships in American philanthropy.
Smithson was born in 1754, the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Macie and Hugh Smithson, the first duke of Northumberland. During his years in Pembroke College at Oxford University, he became interested in the natural sciences, particularly chemistry. His research so impressed his colleagues and mentors that within a year of graduating from Oxford he was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.
Deprived of the right to his father’s titles, Smithson set out to establish his name respectably and quickly gained the regard of his peers. Though he would call London home, he spent many years travelling the world to obtain samples of minerals and meteorites, study the geography he traversed, and describe the mining and manufacturing processes he encountered.
Smithson’s interests were broad: he investigated improved methods for making coffee and tea, wrote a paper on “Some improvements of lamps,” and was said to have once held a small container to a woman’s face in order to capture her tear, take it to his study, and analyze it. While doing much for his romantic reputation, the story has a note of plausibility; the majority of Smithson’s work was dedicated to studying the chemical composition of various compounds.
His methods were scrupulously careful, and he saw the importance of detailed work even on modest scientific investigations. At the end of a paper on the element fluorine, for instance, he wrote “there may be persons who, measuring the importance of the subject by the magnitude of the object, will cast a supercilious look on this discussion; but the particle and the planet are subject to the same laws, and what is learned of the one will be known of the other.” He repeatedly advocated the publication of even marginal advances, rather than withholding them on the assumption that they were insufficiently important.
James Smithson’s gift to a people and a country he did not know personally grew out of his interest in a “culture of improvement,” and a belief that the U.S. would play an important role in future human progress.
It is not entirely clear how Smithson acquired his fortune. It seems to have been inherited, although biographers split on whether it resulted from a combination of inheritances from several relatives, or if it was Smithson’s own careful investment of his mother’s estate. Nevertheless, by the time Smithson wrote his will in 1826, he was a wealthy man.
Making exception for an annuity for his servant, Smithson would leave his estate to his half-brother’s son, a nephew named Henry James Dickinson (who later changed his name to Hungerford). In the event of Hungerford’s death, Smithson stipulated, the estate would pass to any children—legitimate or illegitimate. But in the event that his nephew had no minor children, the estate would be bequeathed to the government of the United States of America, for the creation of the Smithsonian Institution and the broad pursuit of knowledge.
Why America remains a mystery. Smithson was born around 1765 in Paris, and despite his world travels, he had never once visited the United States. He is not known to have been in regular communication with any Americans, and his papers—other than his will—never mention the United States. The question of why Smithson chose to deed his estate to the citizens of a nation he seemingly had no connection to may never be satisfactorily answered. Heather Ewing, author of the most recent and comprehensive biography of Smithson, suggests that his donation reflected the late-eighteenth century’s interest in a “culture of improvement,” and a widespread belief that the United States would play an important role in advancing the arts and sciences.
A handwritten note later discovered among Smithson’s papers suggests his decision was partly motivated by the search for legitimacy, perhaps immortality, taken on by a bastard son. “The best blood of England flows in my veins,” Smithson lamented, “but this avails me not. My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten.”
Regardless of Smithson’s motivation, the bequest flummoxed the government of the United States. President Andrew Jackson was unsure of the constitutional propriety of accepting the gift, and turned the matter over to Congress. Former President John Quincy Adams, then a Representative from Massachusetts, championed the gift as being consonant with “the spirit of the age.” Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina vigorously disagreed, proclaiming it “beneath the dignity of the United States to receive gifts of this kind from anyone.” In July 1836, Congress agreed to send an envoy to London to secure the funds.
Richard Rush spent nearly two years at the Court of Chancery, arguing for the validity of the will and pledging “the faith of the United States” that the institution would be built. In May 1838, the court awarded the bequest to the United States. Rush quickly converted the estate (held mostly in the form of annuities) into coin, trading paper for 11 boxes of gold sovereigns. He returned to Philadelphia and personally handed the funds over to the U.S. Mint. The coins were re-cast into $508,318.46 worth of hard currency—a sum, notes Ewing, roughly equivalent to 1/66 of the federal budget. In 1846, after nearly a decade of wrangling over what shape it should take, Congress formally established the Smithsonian Institution.
Since then, the Smithsonian Institution has robustly achieved the ambitious goal James Smithson set for it. It is today the world’s largest museum complex and a prominent center of research. As important, James Smithson set a powerful precedent demonstrating that private individuals, acting voluntarily, can initiate fruitful partnerships with the government of the United States, achieving even public benefits as grand as “the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”
- Heather Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian (Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2007)
- Nina Burleigh, The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian (Harper Collins, 2004)
- William Rhees, “James Smithson and His Bequest,” Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. XXI (Smithsonian Institution, 1881)