The baby’s father was a British aristocrat named Sir Hugh Smithson, although the duke did not acknowledge the child was his. That was probably because the mother of the little boy was, inconveniently, a cousin of the duke’s wife. The kid was raised in Paris, away from Smithson family gatherings.
After his mother died in 1800, Jacques Louis Macie, as he had been called, persuaded Parliament to officially recognize him as James Smithson. (The duke was no longer around to deny him, having died some years before.)
By then, Macie/Smithson had become a scientist specializing in minerals and chemicals. Among other things, he invented the term silicate; he also wrote a treatise on the chemical content of a lady’s teardrop. As you might imagine, accomplishments like that made him fabulously wealthy. Well, and a hefty inheritance from his mother’s family didn’t hurt, either.
A lifelong bachelor, Smithson wrote a will that left his fortune to a nephew named Henry Dickinson, but it contained a stipulation that had significant consequences. If the nephew died without children, all that money was bequeathed 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 among men.”
Smithson himself died in 1829, and Henry Dickinson died in 1835 — with no heirs. So, in accordance with the bequest, boxes containing over 100,000 gold sovereigns were shipped from England to Philadelphia, melted down and minted into dollars. Smithson’s fortune amounted to $508,318; back then, when Andrew Jackson was president, that was considered to be a large sum.
You would think that the U.S. government would have been overwhelmed with gratitude and acted immediately, but Congress — being Congress — bickered for 10 years about what to do with the gift, or if money like that should even be accepted from foreigners.
There were several proposals, but the plan that eventually prevailed was the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution. If you’ve seen it, I think you’ll agree that there is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.
To say that it is a collection of museums doesn’t do justice to the extent of its holdings. In 19 facilities, there are something close to 140 million artifacts and specimens and artworks and documents.
The National Air and Space Museum has the Wright Brothers’ plane, and Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis”. The Apollo 11 Command Module is there, too. The Natural History Museum has mollusks and bones and birds of all kinds — and the Hope Diamond. The National Portrait Gallery has Civil War-era photos by Matthew Brady and famous images of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
The Museum of American History’s holdings include the Star Spangled Banner, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (not nearly as tasty as other gins), and Archie Bunker’s chair from All In The Family. The Smithsonian has a National Quilt Collection, a rose garden, a zoo, wallpaper samples… you name it, “America’s Attic” has it.
No — regrettably, there is something it doesn’t have: James Smithson’s diaries and papers. In 1865 a fire gutted the original building, destroying most of his personal effects and turning to ashes the best chance later generations of researchers would have had to solve an enduring mystery: Why did James Smithson choose to give his fortune to a country he had never even visited?