On this day in….
….1846 — President James K. Polk signed into law the Smithsonian Institution Act. How it came about is odd, to say the least, beginning in 1829 when James Smithson (ca. 1765-1829), a British chemist, died in Italy and left a will with an interesting footnote.
Smithson was born the illegitimate son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland and named James Lewis (some sources say “Louis”) Macie. All in secret. And in Paris (that’s in France, not England). All the secrecy means that his actual birth date is not known. Illegitimacy was bad back then, and probably still is among the British royalty. Eventually Macie was naturalized in England and, at the age of 22, changed his name to James Smithson, which was his father’s surname. Smithson never married and had no children.
Smithson’s will stated that if his only nephew, Henry James Hungerford, died without heirs, his estate would go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge.”
Hungerford died six years later, without children.
On July 1, 1836, the U.S. Congress authorized acceptance of Smithson’s gift, and President Andrew Jackson sent diplomat Richard Rush to England to negotiate for the funds. After two years of negotiating [Really? Two years? Governments.... — That was an editorial comment], Rush returned to the United States with eleven boxes containing 104,960 gold sovereigns, 8 shillings, and 7 pence, as well as Smithson’s mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects. The gold was melted down, totaling over $500,000 in 1838 money.
Interestingly, even though Smithson’s will stated that his estate was to found the Smithsonian Institution, once Congress had the money, it considered creating a national university, a public library, and an astronomical observatory. Typical Congress…. [another editorial comment]. Finally Congress agreed that Smithson’s bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history. [Imagine that! Congress doing what was right! — Ooops. Another editorial comment.]
The Smithsonian Institution as it exists today comprises nineteen museums and galleries, nine research facilities, and the National Zoo. The original Smithsonian Institution Building, shown on the three stamps below, is popularly known as the “Castle.” Smithson’s mineral collection is housed in the National Museum of Natural History. The National Museum of American History houses the original Star-Spangled Banner, and the National Air and Space Museum, home of the Wright brothers’ plane and the space capsule that carried the first American into space, is the most visited museum in the world.
James Smithson was originally buried in Genoa, Italy, in 1829. The grave site was scheduled to be re-located in 1905. That’s when Alexander Graham Bell, a regent for the Smithsonian, requested that Smithson’s body be re-interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian building, and that was accomplished in 1904.
What is most interesting about all of this is that Smithson had never been to the United States.
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