“Every man is a valuable member of society who by his observations, researches, and experiments procures knowledge for men." - James Smithson
Maybe you’ve heard of a little institution that he founded? Some strange circumstances, to be sure, but we’ll get to that later
A Rather Inauspicious Start
Born James Lewis Macie in France in 1765, he was the illegitimate son of one Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie. She was a widower who could trace her ancestry to the royal family. Little is known about his early education but he did received a Master of Arts from Pembroke College, Oxford in 1786.
Things Start Looking Up
The following year, Macie (he wasn’t Smithson yet) was admitted as a member of The Royal Society and his career as a scientist was born. During his lifetime he conducted research in the fields of chemistry, mineralogy and geology. As a matter of fact, his research in mineralogy was considered so groundbreaking that he has own mineral, smithsonite, named after him.
It wasn’t until 1800, upon his mothers death that James Macie changed his named to James Smithson. He also inherited a small fortune left to him by his mother and spent the remainder of his lifetime traveling the world and conducting his research. All in all he had at least 27 papers published on varying topics and 213 of his personal journals now reside in the institution that bears his name.
Strange Things Start Happening
When Smithson died in Genoa, Italy in 1829 at the age of 64, he had never married. He left his estate to his nephew, one Henry James Hungerford but added a provision to his will that should his nephew die without having any children, the estate would 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.” Well, either his nephew Henry didn’t have what it took to produce offspring or, just couldn’t be bothered, he died childless in 1835 and the rest is history. Well, almost….
A Debate Ensues
Even before his nephews death in 1835, the provision in Smithson’s will sparked some controversy. After all, Smithson had never even been to the United States and people wondered how he could leave his fortune to a country that he didn’t call home. Questions were asked about his intentions but Smithson declined to answer any of them in public or document his reasons in any of his writings. His intentions remain a mystery.
Naturally the press on both sides of the Atlantic got a hold of the story and had field day. At issue was whether or not the United States should accept the gift and if they did, how would it be put to use.
The matter was deemed so controversial that then President Andrew Jackson assured the parties involved that the money would be put to good use . Since he was unsure about the constitutionality of accepting such a gift, he called upon Congress to pass legislation authorizing him to do so.
Congress ultimately granted Jackson’s request but not without a fight. Noted statesman and Senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun suggested that it would be “beneath the United States dignity to accept presents from anyone.” Another Senator, William Preston, also from South Carolina offered up his thoughts by saying “Every whippersnapper and vagabond might think it proper to have his name distinguished in the same way."
The Battle Begins
President Jackson sent a diplomat by the name of Richard Rush off to England to accept the gift but upon his arrival found that a counterclaim had been filed by the mother of Smithsons nephew. It took two years but the court finally decided on behalf of the United States and awarded them (us?) the estate.
Six weeks later, Rush arrived back in the United States. With him he had 104, 960 gold sovereigns, Smithsons notes and papers and other personal effects. The sovereigns were transferred to the Treasury where they were eventually melted down to yield $508,318.46 and an institution was born.
Smithson Comes Home
When Smithson died in Italy in 1829, he was buried with little fanfare in a local cemetery. By the time 1901 came around, he was largely forgotten until news reached the Institution that the cemetery was going to be moved to allow for expansion of the village. Upon hearing the news, Alexander Graham Bell led the effort to have Smithsons remains exhumed and returned to Washington D.C. and the institution he founded. He and his wife personally set sail for Italy and returned with Smithsons remains in January of 1904. Smithsons long journey was finally complete.
A Personal Note
Mr. Smithson, I doubt if you can hear me but if you can, thank you.