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!
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?
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.
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.