In New York Harbor. on January 19, 1904, a coffin bearing the remains of a man who had never been in the United States, and is not known to have had a single American friend, was transferred from a British ship, the Princess Irene , to an American ship, the Dolphin . Draped with an American Mag, the coffin was conducted by Alexander Graham Bell and an escort from the United States War Department. The skeleton in the coflin was that of the natural son of an English nobleman—the remains of James Smithson, whose unexpected bequest of his entire estate, seventy-five years before, had provided for the establishment of the institution that now bears his name.
That institution, the famed Smithsonian, has grown to a sixe undreamed of by its founders. But although it is the largest museum complex in America and is renowned the world over for its promotion of scientific research, nobody has ever been able to explain completely why an Englishman of royal descent left his half-million-dollar fortune to the United States.
In July, 1835, the American chargé d’affaires in London, Aaron Vail, received from a British law firm a letter explaining that a Mr. James Smithson, deceased in 1829, had left stock amounting to about £100,000 in trust for his nephew, Henry J. Hungerford, who was to have the income from this amount during his lifetime. “News has just reached England,” the letter continued, “that AIr. Hnngerford has died abroad, leaving no child surviving him.” Vail was astonished to learn, upon leading the enclosed copy of Smithson’s will, that in such an eventuality the enure principal was to go to the government of the United States, “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
Vail quickly informed his government of this great windfall, and by 1836 President Andrew Jackson had appointed Richard Rush (son of the famous Dr. Benjamin Rush) to go to England and follow up the claim. The proceeds of Smithson’s bequest, which Rush had in hand by the spring of 1838. were shipped to Philadelphia on the clipper ship Mediator , carefully packed in ten boxes holding a total of 105 bags, each bag containing 1,000 gold sovereigns—except for the last, which held 960 sovereigns, eight shillings, and sixpence. At the official rate of exchange, this came to $508,318.46.
It was to be eight years, however, before the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution itself. John C. Calhoun argued that Congress ought to reject the gilt: to accept it was unconstitutional, he said, and in any case beneath the dignity of the United States. A representative from South Carolina declared that Smithson had counted on “buying everlasting fame at too low a price.” There were also a hundred different opinions as to just what sort of institution ought to be established if the gift was accepted.
Eventually, in 1846. agreement was reached. The act of incorporation for the Smithsonian Institution listed the President of the United States, his Cabinet, the Vice President, and the Chief Justice of the United States as statutory administrators: its business would actually be conducted by a permanent secretary and a Board of Regents. Operational funds would be derived from six per cent interest on the principal endowment, which was made a permanent loan to the U.S. Treasury.
Joseph Henry, the greatest American scientist of his day, was chosen as the first secretary, and the brownstonc main building now so familiar to visitors was built between 18]? and 1855. Gifts from Americans have multiplied the original Smithsonian endowment many times over during the past century, with a torresponding development of the Institution’s research, publishing, and exhibition activities.
What of James Smithson? Despite diligent research, not much is known of his life. He was born about 1765, illegitimately, to Hugh Smithson, Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a widow whose lineage went back to Lady Jane Grey, grandniece of Henry VIII. “The best blood of England flows in my veins,” James Smithson once wrote bitterly; “on my father’s side I am a Northumberland; on my mother’s I am related to kings, but this avails me not.” Graduated from Oxford in 1786, he did some original research in chemistry, published a number of scientific papers, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1787. He lived for many years on the Continent, and died at Genoa in 1829. There he was buried: but in 1904 the regents of the Smithsonian arranged to have his remains brought to the Institution and entombed in the main building.
No precise clue has ever been uncovered to explain why Smithson chose America for his generosity, but it may well be that he sensed a natural rapport between the democratic view of life and the vistas of science. “Stupidity and guilt,” he once said, “have had a long reign, and it begins indeed to be time for justice and cominon sense to have their turn.”