The more one explores the history of the world’s largest museum complex, the Smithsonian Institution, the more one realizes how close it came to not existing. The man responsible for funding the Institution was James Smithson, an English scientist and the illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland.
In 1829, at Smithson’s death, his
valuable estate passed to his nephew, son of his half brother. Enigmatically,
Smithson added a contingency to his will stating that if his nephew died
without an heir, the money would go to “the
Six years later, Smithson’s nephew
dies without an heir. (What was he thinking?) President Andrew Jackson was
unsure if he had the Constitutional authority to accept Smithson’s gift, so he
asked Congress to pass legislation to allow its acceptance. A number of
politicians questioned whether the integrity of the country would be damaged by
accepting such a gift. Then, on
If you have read Dickens’ Bleak House, you know what Rush was up against. Dickens described the experience of the British Court of Chancery, which was more than 800 cases behind schedule, as “being ground to bits in a slow mill; it’s being roasted at a slow fire; it’s being stung to death by single bees; it’s being drowned by drops; it’s going mad by grains.” After two years, one counter claim, and an expenditure of $10,000, Rush got the money.
Rush then endured a six-week transatlantic voyage traveling with 11 heavy boxes packed with not only 104,960 English gold sovereigns, but also Smithson’s personal 213-volume library, his papers, personal effects, and loads of mineral specimens.
Once in the
Congressman Robert Dale Owen
introduced the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution in December 1846.
Owen was still catalyzing the “increase and diffusion of knowledge among men”
when he wrote to President Lincoln in 1862, “It is within your power as the
instrument of the Almighty, to restore to freedom a race of men.” Just days
after receiving the letter,