James Smithson

March 2007


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 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.”


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 July 1, 1836, Congress officially allowed acceptance of Smithson’s gift, and Jackson promptly sent Richard Rush to England to pick up the money.


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 United States, the sovereigns were melted down and converted into U.S. funds, valued at $508,318.46, or over $2 billion in today’s money. The money was quickly invested in the Real Estate Bank of the State of Arkansas, an act that caused heated debates when the interest wasn’t paid. The dust finally settled when the Treasury guaranteed the interest. The money was finally free to be used for its purpose.


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, Lincoln introduced the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.