The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Founding of America's Greatest Museum, the Smithsonian
by Nina Burleigh
269 pp., $24.95
Of all the great nineteenth-century philanthropists who used their wealth to enrich American civil society, James Smithson (1765-1829) is surely one of the more enigmatic. Millions flock to the Smithsonian museums that bear his name each year, yet few people realize he never visited America. And none can say why this illegitimate son of a British aristocrat used his fortune to endow what would become America’s best-known museums.
Nina Burleigh, an investigative journalist for Time in the 1990s, decided to look for the answer. A great deal of research and a book later, however, fans of the museums are none the wiser. She concludes that the answer can’t be determined. Yet her work does not go to waste, for in trying to answer that question she unearths a far more interesting story: the difficulties the United States had deciding if the gift should be accepted, and then interpreting Smithson’s intent for his bequest.
Little is known about Smithson’s life; so Burleigh takes readers on a series of digressions through eighteenth-century England and nineteenth-century Washington. James Smithson was born Jacques Louis Macie. His mother, Elizabeth Macie, was the paramour of Sir Hugh Smithson, the Earl of Northumberland. After she became pregnant, Macie fled England for more permissive France, where she gave birth in 1765. Jacques Macie was renamed James Macie in 1770; in 1800, following his mother’s death, he took his father’s last name. Bastard children were not unusual among England’s eighteenth-century nobility, but they could not become military officers or ministers of the Church of England, the two careers aristocrats commonly pursued. Forced to find a different line of work, Smithson chose science and eventually became a geologist. He made a few minor discoveries, but no major ones; he was, in Burleigh’s view, “a serious but not terribly brilliant or original scientist.” Yet Smithson’s researches opened doors for him and enabled this solitary recluse to become part of an international community of intelligent and interesting people.
Smithson inherited a substantial amount of land from his mother, which enabled him to live well. But he never married and had only one close relative, a nephew. In his will, Smithson left his fortune of £100,000 to his nephew, and instructed his solicitors that, if the nephew died, they were to “bequeath the whole of my property . . . 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.”
Why did Smithson leave his money to America? Any definitive answer to that question vanished in 1865, when most of the donor’s unpublished papers were destroyed in a major fire at the Smithsonian. Strenuous efforts by Smithsonian researchers have found no evidence that Smithson ever met an American. All we know is that Smithson did have in his library travel writings that provided accurate information about America. Burleigh speculates that he may have thought his dollars would go further in this country, which was relatively poorer and had fewer large philanthropists. But perhaps he also thought this country provided a climate especially hospitable to science and technology.
The phrase “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge” that appears in Smithson’s will harkens to the founding charter of the Royal Institution, of which Smithson was an original patron in 1800. That organization was created with the mission of “Diffusing the Knowledge . . . of Useful Mechanical Inventions” through research and a series of popular lectures. Burleigh believes Smithson planned something similar for the United States. She is backed in her opinion by Royal Institution science historian Frank James, who told Burleigh, “It is difficult not to believe that Smithson did not have the Royal Institution in mind when he drafted his will.”
In 1835 Smithson’s dissolute nephew died, and Smithson’s lawyers informed American diplomats of the bequest. Then-President Andrew Jackson sent veteran diplomat Richard Rush to get the money. After spending two years shepherding the will through England’s notoriously slow Chancery Court, Rush finally received £104,960 in 1838, which he converted into a half-million gold dollars. These were transported across the Atlantic and deposited in the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.
Smithson’s bequest was quite large for the time. Per capita income in America in the 1830s was around $100. Harvard’s endowment in 1836 was $600,000—not much more than Smithson’s bequest. Because of the gift’s size, it took Congress eight years of squabbling to figure out whether to accept the money, and what to do with it.
Some hotheads were suspicious because the gift came from England, and they gave speech after speech bashing the British. More intelligent foes feared that establishing Smithson’s institution as a national educational center was a dangerous expansion of federal power, since education was a prerogative of the states. “We accept a fund from a foreigner and do what we are not authorized to do by the Constitution,” said Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. “We would enlarge our grant of power derived from the States of this Union.”
The majority favored accepting the money but were divided over what to do with it, and Smithson’s vague statement of intent didn’t help. Some favored the creation of a national university; others, a national library. A surprisingly persistent proposal would have used the money to create an agricultural college and national farm on the Mall in Washington, D.C.; the 640-acre farm would have included vineyards, a hop garden, 500 acres of woods, a sugar beet refinery, and “piggeries.”
While Congress argued, the money vanished before it could be put to use. After Rush deposited the funds in Philadelphia, the money was invested in state bonds. The funds were used to buy 500 bonds of the newly created state of Arkansas, which defaulted on these dubious financial instruments three years later, wiping out Smithson’s wealth. In 1842, Congress appropriated new funds to recreate the bequest with 4 percent interest. But it took four more years of arguments before the Smithsonian Institution was created.
Former President John Quincy Adams helped to convince Congress to make the Smithsonian an organization devoted to advancing science. Congress finally approved the creation of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 as an organization that would have lecture halls, publications, and engage in some scientific work, including a notion advanced by Richard Rush of collecting seeds and plants from around the world.
No one favored using Smithson’s money to create a national museum. The Smithsonian acquired that function almost accidentally. The story begins in 1840, when the National Institute for the Promotion of Sciences was created by some Washingtonians who hoped Congress would turn it into a national museum. When Congress failed to authorize the money in 1842, the National Institute went out of business. Its collection—which included Ben Franklin’s cane, a two-headed snake from Maryland, and a “Liberian lemon”—was dumped in the U.S. Patent Office. When the Smithsonian was created, the Patent Office then presented these “treasures” to the Smithsonian.
For the next 30 years, heads of the Smithsonian tried to persuade Congress to create a separate national museum and free the Smithsonian to do scientific work only. As late as 1876, after the Smithsonian had acquired, among other things, a collection of turkey feather dusters in five sizes and a bunch of Indiana grasshoppers, Smithsonian head Joseph Henry begged Congress to take the museum away from him and keep the Smithsonian focused on science. “The Institution is not a popular establishment,” Henry wrote in the 1876 Smithsonian annual report, and “does not depend for its support upon public patronage.” Congress ignored Henry’s pleas, and the Smithsonian evolved into what it is today—a national museum with some scientific sections.
In The Stranger and the Statesman Nina Burleigh has written a very entertaining book about the Smithsonian Institution’s origins. James Smithson’s intentions may be as mysterious as ever, but Burleigh sheds as much light as she can on one of the nineteenth-century’s most generous philanthropists. Current funders can ponder the story’s lessons—both the need to define one’s intentions clearly, and the hazards of public-private entanglements.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster, a former Smihsonian employee, is the author of The Foundation Builders and By Their Bootstraps.