Love the Smithsonian? Thank James Smithson.

Recently I had occasion to read a new biography of James Smithson, the Englishman whose bequest led to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. In The Lost World of James Smithson, author Heather Ewing does some historical sleuthing to bring to life this enigmatic figure, the times in which he lived, and the circumstances which led him to donate his significant fortune to a young country that he had never visited.

Smithson Engraving of James Smithson, published in 1881 after an 1816 portrait by Henri Johns. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

One reason that Smithson is such a mysterious figure is that most of his papers and personal effects were destroyed by a devastating fire in the Smithsonian Castle in 1865. So what do we know about him? He was born about 1765, the illegitimate son of aristocracy who was never acknowledged by his father, the Duke of Northumberland. He was haunted by the resulting diminishment of social status in class-conscious England. He found solace in intellectual achievement and foreign travel, becoming a gentleman scientist and performing research that led to some minor discoveries, particularly in the field of mineralogy (the mineral smithsonite, which he identified, is named after him). His achievements were significant enough to allow him to rub shoulders with the great scientists of the day (at the time they called themselves “natural philosophers”), not only in Britain but all over Europe. He was an admirer of the American, and later the French, overthrow of entrenched monarchies and creation of new forms of government based on Enlightenment values. He was a shrewd investor despite a penchant for gambling, for which we can all be thankful, leaving an estate that amounted to $508,318.46 when it was transferred to the U.S. Mint in 1838.

For someone with a history background, and with a career at a history museum, I was surprised by my own lack of curiosity about the peculiar origins of the Smithsonian until I read this book. Today, the Smithsonian is a beloved and world-famous institution, with a dominating presence in the capital’s monumental center. But of course, it was not always so. Reading how Smithson created his will with the help of a do-it-yourself legal manual, adding in the request “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” I actually got chills as I looked around my office—my own humble outpost in this vast educational complex—and thought how history can be changed by the brief stroke of a pen.

Other aspects of the story are singular as well. The bequest could easily have never happened, since the money was first left to Smithson’s nephew, who died by chance without heirs shortly after Smithson (though more distant relatives tried mightily to contest the will). Many in Congress thought the whole thing was preposterous, and who can blame them? An unheard-of Englishman, wanting to establish an institution of learning under his own name in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol? And with only one sentence of instructions? How to even obtain the money from his estate, let alone figure out what this thing should be?

SovereignOne of the gold sovereigns used to convey Smithson’s bequest to the United States, in the Museum’s numismatic collection.

As it turned out, after several years winding through the British Court of Chancery, the money sailed across the Atlantic in the form of 104,960 gold sovereigns (apparently at that time no one had heard of electronic bank transfers). It took Congress eight more years to figure out what to do with it. And one of my favorite historical tidbits: in 1904, none other than Alexander Graham Bell and his wife journeyed to Genoa, Italy on a personal quest to rescue Smithson’s remains and bring them to the U.S. where they now lie in the Smithsonian Castle.

For me, Ewing’s biography brought to life the fascinating period of history around the early days of the United States, infused as it was with revolutionary fervor and the excitement of scientific discovery, but also tinged with uncertainty and violence. The story of Smithson himself is a good reminder that history is often an intriguing combination of human will and seemingly random acts of fate. We will probably never know what ultimately led Smithson to include this country in his will, but we’re glad he did.

Matthew MacArthur is Director of New Media at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 11:33 am EST in Musings