James Smithson, the great benefactor of America, was born in 1754, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland. Illegitimate children were not unusual among England’s 18th century nobility, but certain opportunities were closed to them; they could not become military officers or ministers of the Church of England,...
James Smithson, the great benefactor of America, was born in 1754, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland. Illegitimate children were not unusual among England’s 18th century nobility, but certain opportunities were closed to them; they could not become military officers or ministers of the Church of England, two careers aristocrats commonly pursued. However, the young man attended Pembroke College at Oxford University, and there became interested in the natural sciences. He became a mineralogist and chemist.
If as a youth Smithson set out to establish his name respectably, he certainly succeeded, as his research, publications, and activities in science opened doors for him, and quickly gained him the regard of his peers. He was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society in London, a signal honor that made him part of the scientific elite. Meanwhile, Smithson inherited a substantial amount of land from his mother, and careful management of it brought him wealth.
Smithson never married and had only one close relative, a nephew named Henry James Dickinson (who later changed his name to Hungerford). In his will, Smithson left his fortune of £100,000 to his nephew. In the event of Hungerford’s death, Smithson stipulated, the estate would pass his children – legitimate or illegitimate. But if his nephew died childless, he did “bequeath the whole of my property…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 among men.”
Why America remains a mystery. Smithson was born around 1765 in Paris, and despite his world travels, he had never once visited the United States. He is not known to have been in regular communication with any Americans, and his papers – other than his will – never mention the United States. Smithson’s motivations for choosing to deed his estate to the citizens of a nation to which he seemingly had no connection may never be satisfactorily answered. Heather Ewing, Smithson’s biographer, suggests that his donation reflected the late-18th century’s interest in a “culture of improvement,” and a widespread belief that the United States would play an important role in advancing the arts and sciences. A handwritten note later discovered among Smithson’s papers suggests his decision was part of his search for legitimacy, perhaps even immortality. “The best blood of England flows in my veins,” Smithson lamented, “but this avails me not. My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten.”
In 1829 Smithson died in Genoa, Italy. In 1835 Smithson’s nephew died childless, and Smithson’s lawyers informed American diplomats of the bequest. The gift was quite large for the time, almost equal to Harvard’s entire endowment, which was then $600,000. Surprisingly to us today, the bequest flummoxed the government of the United States. President Andrew Jackson was unsure of the constitutional propriety of accepting the gift, and turned the matter over to Congress. Former President John Quincy Adams, then a Representative from Massachusetts, championed the gift as being consonant with “the spirit of the age.” However, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina vigorously disagreed, proclaiming it “beneath the dignity of the United States to receive gifts of this kind from anyone.” He also worried about overstepping and the Federal government exercising too much power, saying “We would enlarge our grant of power derived from the States of this Union.” The debate went on for eight years. But meanwhile, in July 1836, Congress at least agreed to send former Attorney General Richard Rush as envoy to London to secure the funds.
Rush spent nearly two years at the Court of Chancery, arguing for the validity of the will and pledging “the faith of the United States” that the institution would indeed be built. He had to overcome formidable obstacles, as the British Crown initially sought to void the bequest and keep the money in England. Even a more formidable attack on the bequest came in the form of a lawsuit filed by Hungerford’s mother, Mrs. de la Batut, who made a claim against the estate. The British attorneys representing the United States were Fladgate and Clarke. After long negotiations, it was agreed that she would receive a payment of £526 immediately and thereafter receive an annual annuity of £150 for her life. In May 1838, the court entered the settlement and awarded the bequest to the United States, retaining about £5000 from the Smithson estate to cover the expense of payments to Mrs. de la Batut. These retained funds were known as Smithson’s residuary legacy, and it would fall to President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to collect these residuary funds and bring them to the United States.
In 1846, after nearly a decade of wrangling, Congress formally established the Smithsonian Institution. American scientist Joseph Henry was named as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1861, Mrs. de la Batut died, and the Smithsonian was notified that owing to her death the time had come to “petition to have the residual bequest of James Smithson paid out, in the amount of £5,015 and the arrears of dividends due thereon”. U.S. government officials acted quickly. Smithsonian reports show that in 1862 Secretary Henry reported to the Board of Regents that “the President of the United States had forwarded a power of attorney to Messrs. Fladgate, Clarke & Finch, of London, authorizing them to collect the remainder of the Smithsonian fund, which was left as the principal of an annuity to the mother, Marie de la Batut,..The power of attorney was forwarded to the care of Honorable Charles F. Adams, American minister to England.”
Document signed as President, Washington, November 12, 1862, being the very document that allowed the United States to collect, and bring back to the United States, Smithson’s residuary legacy, the final funds from his bequest to establish the Smithsonian. “I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of State to affix the Seal of the United States to a full power to Messrs. Fladgate, Clarke & Finch, agents for the Smithsonian Institution, dated this day and signed by me, and for so doing this shall be his warrant.” Thus the U.S. had the same London attorneys in 1862 as it had with the first funds of the bequest in the 1830s, and the same positive results.
The U.S. received the final residuary funds from the Smithson estate on June 11, 1864. This amount in dollars totaled $54,165.38. The funds were deposited with the Treasurer of the United States, Francis E. Spinner. This was the final bequest.
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