Smithson’s Best Bet

Traveling the country, I am often asked how the Smithsonian began. The questioners expect a straightforward explanation, but names and dates, facts and figures, can’t resolve a fundamental mystery about the origin of the Institution. In a sense, the Smithsonian rests on the outcome of a bet, and that makes its beginning a lot more contingent—dicey, you might say—than you would expect for a place that’s cast today in so much stone.

The relevant fact is this: in 1826 an English scientist named James Smithson made a will that left his considerable estate to a nephew—unless the nephew were to die childless, in which case the entire fortune was to 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 among men." The mystery is this: Why the option of generosity to America, a nation in which Smithson had never set foot? What was the unspoken impulse behind the puzzling gesture?

We can seek clues in Smithson’s life. His father, Hugh Smithson, was the Earl of Northumberland by marriage (he was later, by action of Parliament, made Duke of Northumberland and given the name Percy). Alas, his mother was not the earl’s wife but one of her cousins, who had an affair with Hugh, possibly at the fashionable resort of Bath, around 1765. James Smithson was born out of wedlock at the highest level of society, to be sure, but subject to stigma nonetheless. Certain careers—in the army, the church, the civil service and politics, for example—were closed to him.

 Smithson graduated in 1786 from Oxford, where he distinguished himself in chemistry and mineralogy, and he was elected the following year to the Royal Society, as its youngest member. There’s no evidence that he ever saw his father. His wealth came to him from his mother. He maintained a lifelong interest in science and spent much of his life on the Continent. In later life, he became a gambler. He made no wager more daring than that on his own immortality.

When we speak of Smithson’s generosity to the United States, let’s not forget that willing the estate to America was, formally, an alternative course. After Smithson died, in Genoa, Italy, in 1829, the fate of the bequest hung for years on the possible birth of a child. Then, in 1835, Smithson’s nephew died "without issue" (the term seems appropriate to the era). So the United States of America won the prize, which was worth the then enormous sum of $508,318.46. Congress and the nation debated about the money and its purpose for a decade. Not until 1846 was there a Smithsonian Institution to put flesh on Smithson’s noble but skeletal intent.

We can only surmise why James Smithson was willing to gamble his wealth on an establishment as indistinct as a dream. Did he look to America out of simple disaffection with an England that could not ignore the circumstances of his birth? Or was he drawn by a particular vision of the young nation—by an America of boundless social and intellectual possibility, where a man like Thomas Jefferson, a congenial spirit in the Enlightenment mode of Smithson himself, might hold the highest office?

We do know that Smithson once wrote the following: "My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten...." The first alternative in his will promised a genteel obscurity for the Smithson name. The second held out the hope of something more. But that larger prospect was doubly contingent: the estate had to pass from the nephew, and a foreign land had to do right by the gift. Smithson won the bet, and his name endures, most vividly in a nation an ocean away from his own.

In 1904 James Smithson’s remains were moved from Genoa. They were placed not in an English castle built by Northumberlands or Percys but in an American castle in Washington, D.C. that carries his name. That’s a payoff even the most audacious gambler could not have foreseen.