Volume 6 Issue 1 Spring-Summer 2019
By Ann McCoy
Last year I spent the first few days of October in Washington, D.C. with my husband. One of the things on my ‘to do’ list was to see "Old Glory,” the 1814 American Flag that hung in the entrance to the American History Museum and was recently refurbished, to the tune of over 13 million dollars. It is now displayed in a huge glass case under dim light.
We’ve walked the Smithsonian Mall before several times, but this time it provoked my interest in the history of the creation of the Smithsonian. So much so, that upon returning I read a book by James Conaway titled The Smithsonian. It is a coffee table book that has over 500 illustrations, each with accompanying articles steeped in history. With every page I turned, I uncovered how the Capital Mall actually came to be.
n 1740, Hugh Smithson, who was to become James Smithson's father, married a wealthy widow and daughter of the Earl of Northumberland, England. Hugh Smithson was quite a man about town, enjoying the finer things of life—including women. When his wife’s father (the Earl) died, Hugh inherited considerable wealth. In 1764, he impregnated his mistress, Elizabeth Macie, a direct descendant of Henry the IV.
Nine months later, Macie gave birth to James Smithson in Paris (where women of means in similar circumstances often retired). Her son was only one of several illegitimate children of the prolific Mr. Hugh Smithson.
James Smithson went by his mother’s sir-name, James Macie, until his father died in 1801. Because he was born under the bar sinister, he was precluded from entering the army, the church, the civil service or politics. He never saw his father or inherited any of his father’s estate. Instead, he became the beneficiary of his mother’s money.
He attended Pembroke College, Oxford, where he studied chemistry and mythology. He classified the minerals zinc and calamine, experimented with plants from daisies to artichokes, studied science from geology to biology and even experimented with the fundamental nature of electricity. His thirst for knowledge seemed unquenchable. In 1778, he was awarded the youngest member of the Royal Society of London for improving natural knowledge. He published twenty-seven papers in his lifetime, ranging from an improved method of making coffee, to an analysis of the mineral carbonate critical in the manufacturing of brass. That mineral was named Smithsonite, in his honor.
Only responsible for himself, he spent much of his inheritance on research projects and gambling and traveling throughout Europe. Smithson was friends with many of the great scientific minds of his era. He believed that the pursuit of science and knowledge was the key to happiness and prosperity for all of society. He saw scientists as benefactors of all mankind, and thought that they should be considered “citizens of the world.”
One of Smithson’s chemist contemporaries, Joseph Priestly, found asylum in America after being forced to leave England because of his political beliefs. When Smithson heard from Priestly that greater scientific discoveries would be made on the American side of the Atlantic than on the British side, a love of America quickened within his heart. Priestly quoted an American poet who said the capital city of Washington was an “Athens of the future, rising on the banks of the Potomac.”
Smithson bought into this promise of America. So much so, that in 1826, Smithson stipulated in his will that should his nephew, his only heir, die childless, “The bulk of his fortune should go to the United States of America to found, in Washington, under the name the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
Three years after writing his will, Smithson died. As fate would have it, his nephew died six years later, without an heir. In 1835, the American Charge D’ Affaires in London received a copy of Smithson’s will. It was sent to the United States Secretary of State along with a letter saying that the benefactor may have been insane!
The endowment was met with some resistance and controversy. Fortunately, retired President John Quincy Adams took up the cause of the request, championing it from 1836 to 1846. Both houses of Congress eventually agreed to accept the extraordinary gift.
In July of 1846, the United States minister, Richard Rush, supervised the loading of eleven boxes of gold sovereigns on board the USS Mediator and sailed with the treasure chest to New York City. From there the gold was shipped to Philadelphia, melted down and made into American coins worth precisely $508,318.46 (approximately 7 million today).
On November 30, 1846, James Renwick Jr.’s design for the new Smithsonian Institute building was chosen. It took a decade to complete and it captured the attention of people of all ages, with its towers and crenellations.
The Smithsonian “Castle,” as many refer to it, stands strong and tall today, even after sustaining bombardment of the roof during the Civil War, when most of James Smithson’s papers were destroyed. Far beyond Smithson’s dream, the Castle’s impact has expanded.
At 162 years old, the Smithsonian Mall is the world’s largest museum containing 156 million items. The area has grown to span about 309 acres, with 19 world-class museums, galleries, gardens and a zoo. It hosts 24 million visitors a year. The budget to run the Smithsonian is 947 million dollars a year and it employees over 4000 people. What a gift from a man who never stepped foot on American soil!
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