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August 2014

The sixth adventure of Ruso and Tilla, he a Roman soldier and she a native; man and wife are they. Ruso is a medical doctor with the Roman Legion in Britain, and she a midwife. Ruso continues to be puzzled by the success of his friend Valens, who is bone-idle, no better medic than Ruso, and yet always gets the best posting, the fattest contract, the richest private patients. Tilla longs to reconnect with her family, most of whom died in when she was a baby. In truth, they were killed in an uprising against the Romans.

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Tilla tries, not very hard, to fit in as an army wife. Ruso tries, very hard, to accept her distant relatives. Despite all good intentions, each fails and the confusion, chaos, mayhem, ensues.

ilfracombe-library-7-march-2013-small.jpg Ruth Downie

The setting is the far north east of England along Hadrian’s Wall, the construction of which occupies every waking minute of the garrison that Ruso attends north of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Rumors that a murder victim’s corpse has been put into the wall spook everyone, Britons and Romans. The commanding officer’s only hope of promotion out of the bog - it rains sideways and every other way for months on end - is to meet the quota for his section of wall. He will not delay the work one hour, still less tear down what has been built to look for a body that may not be there. However, one legionnaire is missing, presumed AWOL.

Hadrians_Wall_map.png-800×995-Opera-01122011-222604.jpg Map of Hadrian's Wall

It gets worse. A native child goes missing. The only way to quell the rumors is to find the child and account for every man woman and child in the area. Moved to action, the Roman garrison searches in the way it knows how, with whip and torch.

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The locals, including Tilla’s relatives, retaliate. The spiral begins anew. Wiser heads pause to find common ground, after all it is one each: a Roman soldier and a British boy.

Though Ruso is terrified of becoming involved, because of the boy, the Britons will skin him alive or because of the body in the wall, the Legate of the garrison will crucify him, forbidding as these prospects are, he fears more Tilla’s reaction if he refuses to help her relatives, find the boy, trace the AWOL soldier or capture his murderer, and not disrupt the wall-building schedule in the rain, rain, rain. Neither the Legate, nor the mob of Britons can match Tilla for inducing action in Ruso.

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At the end, the Legate is impressed by Ruso, both as a medicus and a soldier, and offers him a private contract to accompany him to Rome. A private contract is real money, not the army wage! Rome! Where the sun shines. Where the food is...not British. Where the wine is not made from... Rome where there are galleries, theatres, ... Tilla hates the idea for those reasons. She prefers the rain, singing to trees, eating roots, all of which she avers are good for Ruso. Somewhere along the way they seem to have lost a horse and acquired a new born baby. We will see.

This is a superb series. Everything works. The setting is distinctive and brought to life. The characters are differentiated and substantial, none is a one-dimensional plot device. Though most of them live up to expectations, among them are some who can be surprising, as when the ramrod stiff Legate strips off his armor and kneels to talk to a decrepit old Briton man-to-man, not Roman conqueror to beaten subject. It takes Ruso longer than usual to realize what he has just seen, and even longer to figure why it happened.

There is enough medical detail to satisfy those interested but not too much to lose the momentum of the plot. A surfeit of 'blue herrings' (per Hercule Poirot) keeps the action going.

Best of all, though, is the marriage of Ruso and Tilla, so different and so complementary. She is quick and impetuous, he is slow and immobile. He plans ahead and she ricochets from one thing to another. She quivers with sympathy for slaves, waifs, suffering animals, trees, pregnant women, and he tries very hard not to get involved unless it is in the contract. He follows the Stoic way slowly and often silently; she laughs, cries, sings dances to the phases of the moon and whenever else the mood takes her.

She seldom lives up to her own high standards, because she cannot do everything. He seldom manages to stick to the contract. In those gaps, that is where the fun is.

Two American presidents have not been presidents of the United States. I have read a biography of one, Sam Houston, who served two terms as president of Texas when it was a sovereign state. The time came to read of the other, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America from 1861-1865. It is an unique story and this is an odd book.

John_Orley_Allen_Tate.jpg Allen Tate (1899-1979) has a commendable reputation as a poet; he was Poet Laureate of the United States for a time. When I looked for a biography on Davis I recognized Tate’s name (a faint residue from the 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning course I did in college on American Poetry with Dr. Hardwick). That seemed as a good a criterion of choice as any. The book is dazzlingly to read, the words flow, the images are powerful, the rhythm is palpable. It is far better written than Carl Sandberg's 'Lincoln,' he being another poet of note. Moreover, Tate is no apologist for Davis. His strengths and weaknesses are exposed, examined, evaluated, and summarized. To these I now turn, leaving further comment on the book to the end.

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Davis had an easy life. His father sent him to the best schools, and then West Point, where Davis was an indifferent student, on a merit list 40 out of 60. Davis served in the army in the Wisconsin and then Iowa territory, where he formed a very high opinion of his own military capacity, to judge from his letters. In the Mexican War of 1846 he served with distinction, which he took as further proof of his genius, though in each case Tate suggests others did the heavy lifting, Davis just arrived in time to accept the accolades.

He married, and seemed destined to disappear into Mississippi plantation life, but both bride and groom fell prey to typhus on honeymoon in New Orleans, and his bride, whom he had courted for one year, died within six weeks. He gradually recovered, though he remained dyspeptic thereafter, being stunned and stunted. For the first and only time in his life he became bookish and read in a study all hours, becoming the worst sort of know-it-all autodidact.

His older brother who had, by primogeniture, inherited the paternal planation, took him in, coaxed him back to life by propelling him into politics. Davis won a seat, another indication of his genius, never mind that the opponent was a numbskull, and his brother had arranged for a great deal of support. On he went, each time without much effort on his part, to the House of Representatives, and then the Senate, in Washington. He spoke well, cut a good figure, and his distant manner set him apart. He had by this time re-married, his brother having introduced him to every eligible woman in three states, and seemed contented.

To bring geographic balance to cabinet, and to make way for another to hold that Senate seat, President Franklin Pierce in 1853 appointed him Secretary of War, where he proved himself to be a micro-manager.

He was an exact contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, the two being born within a few miles of each other in Kentucky before their families moved. Whereas, Lincoln had to work, and work hard, perhaps even as hard the legends say, for everything, advantages dropped into Davis’s lap. Tate suggests that Lincoln learned much about working with others and getting along with them, respect for facts, the need to husband resources, modesty, and more, all of which entirely escaped Davis. The Davis in these pages seems born to the priesthood, ready to tell others what to do... Period. Not to persuade, not to sympathize, not to lead by example, not to negotiate. But ever ready to declare. To those who faltered his reaction was scorn and vitriol in equal measure.

He would never rise above himself, his clique, his region, his prejudices to deliver a funeral oration like Lincoln at Gettysburg, nor offer such compassion to mortal enemies as Lincoln in the Second Inaugural. Davis would conclude by some convoluted logic that such speeches impaired his majesty as president, and pandered to the mob for whom his contempt was open. He was never elected to office in the ordinary way. He was appointed to fill a vacancy by death in the House of Representatives. The Mississippi legislature selected him for the Senate twice, thanks to machinations of his brother. As for the Presidency of the Confederate States, read on.

Davis accepted the mother’s milk of states’ rights and took it to be a constant of the universe. Any objection to it was sin to be castigated and cauterised. For all his uncompromising defense of the indefensible, the slavery that was the purpose states’ right, he was not an extremist rushing to war in the manner of Howard Cobb, Robert Rhett, or William Yancey. Indeed when a Mississippi convention voted to secede, he was one of the few to vote against it.

Davis combined a profile among the political elite as an advocate of states’ rights with administrative experience in the War Department and the reputation of a moderate, a combination led him to the Confederate White House. When the leaders of the first six states to secede, those from the deepest South, met in Montgomery Alabama to constitute themselves as a separate sovereign nation they unanimously choose Davis, who had not attended the meeting, to be president. The Fire-eaters who led the secession movement checked each other, and some preferred, consistent with the doctrine of states’ rights, to remain in their state. That left Davis as harmlessly acceptable to all. At this Montgomery convention each state had a single vote, and so Davis won six votes. Surely the smallest vote for any president. As I said above, he had no experience of that fickle beast, the electorate.

When he answered the call of duty for a six-year term, Davis discovered that the Confederate Constitution (modeled on the Articles of Confederation of 1781, hence the name 'Confederated States') vested few powers in the President but he determined to make it work. There he exhibited his deficiencies as well as his personal courage and dedication. He worked himself mercilessly at micro-managing the promotion of lieutenants, how ambassadors should be received, and counting blankets. No ambassadors ever came, but had they, he was ready!

His health had been compromised by the typhus and he was fragile, often hors de combat for days at a time.

He was prickly and thin-skinned, unlike Lincoln with that rhinoceros hide. Davis was distracted and apoplectic by any criticism, and often took suggestions and advice as criticisms. Only those who learned to flatter and sugarcoat their approaches enjoyed access and even a modicum of influence with him. Any letter that did not address him as ‘Your Excellency’ was likely to be crumbled up and discarded. When a Confederate general became popular, he was damned in Davis’s eyes as a usurper of the president’s prestige. When a very good proposal came from an individual who had once slighted him, in Davis’s opinion, it was dismissed. When an aide suggested the President show himself in public to bolster civic morale, he was dismissed from service, because Davis took that suggestion to be a criticism and an affront to Presidential dignity. Rigid, inflexible, yes he was. The cause was just, the mob should not be placated but rather chastened to do its duty.

Robert E. Lee is the exception to all of this, and Tate acknowledges that but offers no explanation. He seems to have found it as inexplicable as the reader does.

Tate suggests that in his cloistered autodidact phase after the death of his first wife, Davis read a lot of political science about sovereignty and the divine right of kings, and when the presidency fell, unbidden in his lap, it was the one role model he had, even if unconscious of it.

Much in Tate's account of the Civil War puts paid to the myth that an external enemy unites people. Not so among the Confederates. The first six states never agreed among themselves, and never deferred to the Richmond government. The second five states likewise. Davis’s cabinet opposed his every move, and he made few enough of them. Here is one example from many, while Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia starved in rags over the winter of 1864-1865 in an agony worse than George Washington’s Continental Army at Valley Forge in 1777, the Governor of Georgia at the end of the railway line from Richmond had 95,000 wool uniforms in storage and three months army rations for 30,000 men. The Georgians in Richmond zealously defended the right of Georgia to retain these provisions though some had been paid for by the Richmond government. Davis would not deign to intercede as it would be beneath his presidential dignity to plead with a state Governor. He did however send him angry letters which made cooperation all the more impossible. No, the Governor did not have an army of 30,000 but he kept the uniforms and rations just the same. That is until Sherman’s Union army found the stores and burned the lot.

The other example is personal enmity. There was much of it among the politicians and generals, but the most striking embodiment is Confederate General Braxton Bragg whose titanic incompetence made Davis stick to him all the more! Once Davis appointed Bragg, despite the overwhelming evidence of Bragg’s repeated failures, for Davis to replace him would be implicitly to admit he had been mistaken in appointing him, so he did not. Bragg was always careful to address Davis as Your Excellency.

bragg_braxton.jpg Braxton Bragg

Bragg thus secured from his own breath-taking errors, devoted himself to undermining his comrades in arms least they succeed where he had failed and show him up, pursuing these personal vendettas even while Atlanta burned. Davis promoted him to higher responsibility from which he continued to destroy the Confederate Army from within. He might almost have been a Union agent. That would explain his actions. As a standard of incompetence, he rivals George McClellan’s stellar achievements. And he had in addition a personal spitefulness and venom McClellan never knew.

Today revisionist historians, searching for a new and provocative and topic, rather than deeper insight, are now rehabilitating Bragg. Mission impossible!

Tate argues that the move of the Confederate capital from Montgomery in the geographic centre of the rebellious states to Richmond was a fatal error that distorted both the military and political strategy that followed. I had never thought of it that way before.

Davis feared ceding a foot of territory to the Union, and so spread Confederate forces very thin, allowing the Union armies to pick off, smaller, isolated garrison one after another. Tate repeatedly disparages Davis’s approach, failing to mention until the last chapter that all the rambunctious Dixie governors wanted it that way and would not have cooperated with the concentration of the army. It reminded me of that spectral Brisbane Line in Australia in 1942. Though the need to concentrate was obvious, it dared not be said, the political trumping the military.

The book is at least half a summary history of the Civil War, and starts with two long chapters that are hard to swallow, blaming everything on the rapacious North and glorifying slavery. No apologist for Davis is Tate but he is a one-eyed apologist for the Slavocracy. Reminded me of the Tea Parody rantings in its profound irrationality.

Believe it or not. I offer no detail, it is too tedious to recount. The result is less of biography than the title promises.

Least a generous spirit excuse Tate for his racism, as of his time and place, note that in the same year that this book was published, 1929, Tate’s fellow Mississippian William Faulkner published ‘The Sound and the Fury’ peopled by thinking, feeling, reasoning blacks wherein Faulkner describes Southern racism as a cancer that is killing black and white, the latter more slowly but just as dead.

This is a krimie set in Prague during the last days of the Nazi occupation in the spring of 1945. A terrible time in a terrible place, to be sure, but handled with dexterity by Pavel Kohout, a terrible time because of the death throes of the Nazi regime, and terrible place because of the coming Armageddon between that Nazi army of occupation in Czechoslovakia and the Red Army just over the hill. In addition, everyone assumes that when the Nazi grip further loosens there will be a Czech uprising.

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In the midst of this Dantesque inferno a Czech police officer and a German homicide detective are assigned to apprehend a serial killer of widows. The Czech is very junior and gets the job because he speaks German, while the German is attached to the feared Gestapo though he never thinks of himself as ‘one of those beasts,’ but he finds it helpful to let others think he is. The German underestimates the Czech and the Czech misjudges the German.

There is a lot of Prague in it, and I got out our well-worn tourist map to follow some of the fro’ing-and-to’ing.

It runs to nearly 400 pages and I confess skipping yet another scene of chaos and confusion that did not seem to be moving the story along. The human dimension was of far greater interest as the two reluctant colleagues, each aware that in a few days they may be at war with each other, work together, come to trust one another, and guardedly confide in their common fears and hopes. While there are paeans to Czech nationalism, the Germans are not reduced to cardboard ‘beasts’ though some certainly were, as were some of the Czechs, including the perpetrator.

1374983.jpeg Pavel Kohout

It all makes sense in the story, and the odd couple reminded me Robert Janes's mis-matched pair Jean-Louis St. Cyr and Hermann Kohler, the former a master of Cartesian rationality and the latter a mystic of sorts, who together police occupied Paris at about the same time but in less apocalyptic circumstances. Kohout has several other titles but I think I will move on to something else, namely a krimie set in the Belgium Congo and published in 1950.

My short lesson in Czech history while we were there in 2014 included this observation. When Woodrow Wilson created Czechoslovakia, the Czechs and Slovaks banded together to drive the Germans and Hungarians out of THEIR country. Then the Germans came back and drove out Jews, gypsies, and more, and in poured even more Germans. Then the Communists took over and drove out Germans again, along with 200,000 Czechs. Then the Red Regime decayed and the communists were driven out, though they had few places to go by then, some did go to Russia. Then the Slovaks and Czechs drove each other out of THEIR country, this, for the first time, was done peacefully. One can only wonder what the future will bring. Who next will be expelled, and how it will be done.

I have a few complaints about the translation that often renders 'Reich' as 'Empire' and refers to German military vehicles as jeeps (General Purpose, or GP, vehicles made by General Motors in Detroit) and now a closely guarded brand-name. 'Reich' refers to the nation, its people, its realm, its regime. The French speak of the Republic in the same way. But the curse of Naziism has rendered the ordinary use of the term 'reich' impossible today. Reich does not imply or entail an empire, however that is defined, any more than the French Republic does. Ergo it is mistaken hang the adjective 'imperial' on German functionaries in Prague, though that is done more than once. And no, the Germans did not have American jeeps nor did BMW or Mercedes make something comparable. If this is the writer's error, it should nonetheless be corrected. This is a fine book, and such errors distract the attention of a reader.

My guess is that Picador, the English publisher, no longer employs sub-editors who might notice these things, preferring computer power to brain power.

It has fifteen parts and is currently being aired on Studio TV. We have watched three episodes with great interest, and occasional comprehension.

What we like is the low-key presentation and comments, the worldwide scope from Zimbabwe to Afghanistan and the generosity of spirit that underlies both. All so rare on the air these days when shouting replaces thought, when the crass drives out all else, and the relentless me-focus shrinks the world, and that is on the the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)!

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The most recent episode was an account of the last days of celluloid filmmaking before the CGIs (Computer Generated Images) conquered all.

Among those in the spotlight were Lars von Trier one whose films deadened me when I was a film festivalian, but he gave a modest and cogent explanation for his approach, as did some others, though none of it encouraged me to watch their films. They make 'L'Année dernière à Marienbad' (Last Year at Marienbad) (1961) seem like an action movie! It is all so intellectual, dessicated, retentive, inward, abstract, meta, self-referential, reflexive, slow ... well you get the idea by now or you never will. Gone are plot and character, gone are place and time, and with them, meaning. Instead the images on the screen are to trigger some unconscious response in the viewer. Uh huh... Well, unconscious anyway.

However, the broader theme was that actors are human beings and CGIs are not. Accordingly, Mark Cousins featured directors who concentrated on film characters as human beings. They have imperfect bodies, which age, sag, and sometimes let them down. (Amen.) They also have emotions that cannot be articulated in an six-second scream but have to have portrayed. (For an example, BCGI (Before CGI) recall Steve McQueen, without a word, bouncing the ball off the wall in 'The Great Escape' [1963].)

Tsai Ming-liang, a Taiwanese director, had some insightful things to say, and talked mainly about his ‘Vive l’Armour‘ (1994). His comment on the Hollywood fetish of CGI concerned the deadening effect of the screen busy with multitudes of CGIs from spaceships, endless weapons, to vampires, and a deafening surround soundtrack. Sadly that is too often true.

Tsai-Ming-liang.jpg Tsai Ming-liang

Cousins focussed on the last scene in ‘Vive l’Armour’ where a distressed young woman cries, and cries, and keeps crying in an exhausting (to watch) seven-minute take. Emotions engulf and cannot be switched on and off, that is the point. I appreciated that argument intellectually, but I confess it did not inspire me to sit through any of his work.

images-2.jpeg Here she is.

As said above, I found much of the material covered in this segment, as in some of the others, to be inward looking, made only for other directors, not an audience. Though much was said about humanity in the program, it seemed there was little for the actors to do but stand in front of the camera. These directors often prefer a single handheld camera, cutting the cost of elaborate camera work, producing little more than a home movie to my eye. The director is the auteur who creates everything, when everything else has been discarded, the actor is the last prop. More than once Von Trier has done films without sets, leaving only actors. Maybe next he will dispense with them, too. That would leave the director doing a selfie into the camera, which some of these films seem to be anyway.

I have visited Smithsonian museums many times in Washington D.C. At last count there were nineteen (19) of them on the Mall. Vast and varied!

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I vaguely knew that James Smithson (1764-1829) started it all with a whopping great cash gift in the 19th Century, and that Smithson was English and never set foot in the United States. That satisfied my need to know (-it-all) for years.

My interest was pricked a few month ago in reading a biography of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States. Uniquely, after he left the presidency, defeated in a bid for re-election, he served in the House of Representatives for nearly twenty years, dying at his desk. In Congress he was instrumental in securing the Smithson gift and putting it to work as Smithson intended. (There were others who hoped to siphon the money off for their purposes; these others included the sitting president, Martin van Buren.) Quincy Adams navigated through these sharks and shoals, arriving at the first museum, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, that is the red brick building often referred to as the Smithsonian Castle these days, from the turrets of which Abraham Lincoln observed the Confederate Army at Harper’s Ferry in 1862.

Taken as read, I thought no more of it, until I happened to mention Quincy Adams’s role to a friend, who did not know that the Smithsonian was started with a private bequest or that the donor was English. I then realized how little of the story I knew because I could not shed any light on how or why the gift was made.

Clearly it was time to top-up my know-it-all tank and I sought out and read a biography of James Smithson. What did I find?

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He was born to an English mother in France, where she had gone, as have many others, to have her illegitimate baby. The father, most likely, was the Duke of Northumerland, a man who owned about one percent of England. His mother was volatile and threw her own considerable wealth into one endless, pointless, and unproductive lawsuit after another trying to get yet money out of others. James grew up speaking French with other children and English with his mother. When she returned to England with him, he had to be naturalized. The Duke never recognized either his mother or him in any way.

Naturalization took an act of parliament, though routine, it was also conditional, namely that James, like all the others, was prohibited from holding public office, either elected or appointed, and could not receive any benefit from the crown, e.g., a royal pension. Later in his life he bristled as these restrictions, as well as the illegitimacy which prohibited him from taking his rightful place in society, as he saw it. He was twice estranged, once socially and once politically from Mother England.

His mother indulged him and used her contacts to get him into Oxford, at one of the lesser colleges, Pembroke, which contrary to the other more prestigious colleges, emphasized learning -- rather than drinking and gambling -- and even more unusual it emphasized science, and most unusual of all that dirty and stinking science where even a gentleman got his hands dirty -- chemistry. It was a time when many advances were being made in chemistry outside the two historic universities and the Master of Pembroke College, striving to elevate the reputation of the college, went into chemistry with enthusiasm. Smithson loved it. He published many papers, and was elected to the Royal Society at twenty-two, the youngest ever at that time.

He inherited modest means from his mother, and invested it in canals and railroads, and made a lot of money out of each, which he reinvested, accumulating far more dosh than he could spent of display cabinets for his mineral collection, or blowpipes for his chemistry experiments, or on his travels.

Like other young gentlemen of his class and era, he made a Grand Tour through Europe; in fact he made three such Grand Tours. Whereas others frequented galleries, salons, and cathedrals, Smithson sought out chemists, chemistry laboratories, minerals, mines, and miners. He took meticulous notes, collected many specimens (rocks and dirt to the inn-keepers who often refused his baggage entry), measured anything that could be measured, and tried to measure some that could not be measured. Amateur scientist, yes, but deadly serious and completely focussed. He had several unwanted adventures on these Tours because Europe was rent by the Napoleonic Wars, e.g., he spent a year in a cold, stinking prison in Hamburg as a British alien at a time when all of Germany was occupied by Napoleon's army, which saw a spy in those copious notes Smithson took of the geography and geology. In his travels around Europe he must have crossed paths with John Quincy Adams, on his many diplomatic missions, but they did not meet. Did he ever came across Ethan Gage?

Many of his English friends who had supported the French Revolution in the early days, were suspect in Great Britain as Jacobins. A few went into voluntary exile, including several to the United States, and they wrote to tell Smithson of the premium given to science in the United States. He also met Americans on the Grand Tour and they also told him that science was uninhibited and valued in the United States. He noticed when the incumbent President John Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson one was the President of the American Philosophical Society and the other President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The two leading political figures of the decade were intellectuals! Did George W. Bush ever read a book, after 'The Little Prince,' I wonder? Bill Clinton stopped reading with 'Little Red Riding Hood.' Mitt Romney and books...does not compute. Barry O'Bama only reads himself.

In addition Smithson saw the vast private museum of Lumley Keate, a distant relation, broken up and auctioned, when all lamented that such a carefully acquired and artfully curated collection was sold piece-by-piece as curios, rather than preserved as a whole. In an England impoverished by the endless wars with Napoleon, there was no public means to capture this patrimony for the country. England along with Europe was consumed by wars from Portugal to Russia and the Baltic Sea to Sicily, leaving little time, space, or finance for science.

He continued to travel in Europe, despite the upheavals and convulsions. His health had never been good, and after that year in prison it got worse. Whole years are missing from the tale because the intrepid author could find no record of his activities, and surmises he was laid up somewhere recovering his strength. In 1829 he died in Genoa, Italy where he had gone see a collection of mineral specimens. He was buried there and in due course his will was probated in London. He had made the will some years earlier; he wrote it himself without consulting a lawyer; this is always a recipe for trouble. In it he left the income of his worldly goods to a nephew during the nephew's lifetime, his only living relative, and the goods themselves to be divided equally among the nephew’s children, legitimate and illegitimate, when the nephew died, and in a secondary clause, ‘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.‘ A quaint second clause it seemed, until the nephew drank and whored himself to death in two years, dying without issue. Accordingly the secondary clause applied. [Aside, reader of Charles Dickens’s ‘Bleak House’ know what is coming next: The Feast of the Lawyers.]

The British Government, skint from all those Napoleonic Wars, moved to seize the fortune for the Crown. Somerset House informed the American minister in London, who passed the word to the President (Andrew Jackson). A plenipotentiary was dispatched to London to secure the money for the United States. He did superb job, no doubt paying bribes, to keep the matter out of the Chancery Courts. It was Richard Rush, a wily Pennsylvanian, who had been United States Attorney General for President James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury for President John Quincy Adams, and previously ambassador to the Court of St. James. He wrestled the money from the British Bulldog in only two years. Various distant relatives of Smithson, retainers, friends, some of many scientific associations Smithson frequented, all tried to contest the will, and Rush parried each.

That was only the beginning of a story that would take another book to tell in detail. The short version is that no one in Washington wanted the gold. (Rush brought it to Washington in twenty-one chests, each filled with gold bars!) Southerners thought it would enrich the federal government to dominate the states with their precious states right (to slavery) and Northerners thought it was a devious British plan to take over the country.

How big? About 100 million pounds today! That is about $US166 million or $A179 million today.

A satellite image of the eastern half of the National Mall with 10 Smithsonian museums located on it.
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This is what the money bought. The Castle is 14 above. This is only half the Mall, the others are on the west end. (1, 7, and 8 are not Smithsonians.)

In time the Smithsonian Institution on the Mall emerged, though it took many hands, like Quincy Adams, Alexander Graham Bell (yes, Don Ameche invented the telephone), Joel Poinsett (the flower man), and others to overcome, first, the objections, and then to stave off the swarm of special interests who wanted all, most, or some of the money siphoned off into hundreds of pet peeves, from butterflies in Maine, to public lectures in every town on fingernail clipping, and so on. It took years. Work began on the red castle in 1855 about twenty years after Smithson’s death. Even then claims from relations and retainers continued to arrive at the White House. I expect they still arrive today, addressed to the Smithsonian!

Where did the money come from? Why did he do it? The first is the easier question to answer. He invested in canals and railroads, and was one of the first to do either and one of the few to do both, and they each paid off and continued to do so all of his life. He also invested in inventors, some of whom paid him back twenty times over.

Why did he do it? Let’s break that down into some smaller, more focussed points. What we have here is multiple causation.

Let us be clear he left his money to his only living relative, that twenty-five year old nephew. Only when fate intervened did that secondary clause come into play. Perhaps it was a amusement for him to write in that afterthought.

He had long been estranged from England by the reactions to his illegitimate and foreign birth. He was completely divorced from the French by that year in the slammer. More generally, he saw Europe bent on destroying itself. Wherever he went there was war, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Austria ....

He had seem examples of philanthropies in England and France, though few aimed at scientific knowledge. Rather he had seem great scientific collections sold as paperweights, while to find specimens he had had to travel the length and breadth of Europe.

Did he want to immortalize himself as a man of science in a way that his own scientific labors did not achieve? He was a very able and dedicated chemist but he made no breakthroughs to put him in the pantheon, and he knew it. If so, Europe was not the place.

From the United States he had heard many good stories about the value of science there and that democracy did not hold a man of talent back because of his illegitimate or foreign birth. (He had a total loathing for sea voyages and never thought to go there. Even to sail from England to France was something he avoided, in one case, for four years, so much did he fear the ocean.)

The book is a sterling example of thorough research and the dexterous handling of uncertainty, and speculation. Little is known of Smithson’s life, partly because trunks with his private papers burned in a fire, much has to be inferred. The author tracks him rather like astronomers identify celestial bodies by the distortions they cause passing in front of star fields. She has combed bank records, passport files, police reports, and the correspondence of his contemporaries for mentions of Smithson and draws conclusions from them. The author handles these inferences well, they are qualified but integrated. There are many ‘possibilies,’ ‘surelys,’ ‘probablies,’ 'maybes,' and so on. None of this is easy, not even that name Smithson for it was not his birth name. For details, read the book.

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