Digging Up James Smithson


Smithson was a total stranger to the nation when his money arrived—in 11 boxes of gold sovereigns—at the U.S. Mint in 1838. His intentions and mind-set when he wrote his will have been a matter of scholarly, psychological, and political conjecture for nearly two centuries. No one really knows if Smithson “appreciated the potentialities of the American people,” as one newspaper speculated. The bottom line is, no one knows if he thought about the American people at all. We only know he asked that his estate be used to build an institution bearing his name, in Washington, for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Was he mad, radical, drunk, progressive, or just amusing himself? Did he have an egotistic, late-life fantasy about having his name carved into a building? Did he genuinely care about diffusing knowledge among the inhabitants of a fledgling nation in a distant land? Likely we will never have definitive answers. 

The story of Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to rescue Smithson’s bones is but one chapter in the saga of this mysterious man and his wondrous bequest, which, whatever the original motive, represented a victory for the forces of enlightenment, rational thought, and progress over the forces of ignorance, superstition, and greed. Today, the fruits of Smithson’s gift spread across the capital, the nation, and the rest of the world.