Their value isn't intrinsic: after all, they are merely two British gold sovereigns, with Queen Victoria as a teenager on one side, the royal coat of arms on the other. About the size of a nickel, they were worth only a pound sterling each a century and a half ago when they were in circulation. But to the Smithsonian, which keeps them in its National Numismatic Collection (one is now traveling with the "America's Smithsonian" exhibition), they have a significance beyond any monetary value.
The story begins in 1826 with the writing of a will by an Englishman named James Smithson. Born in 1765 and educated at Oxford, Smithson studied chemistry and mineralogy and became a notable amateur scientist. He chemically analyzed minerals and plants, and was the first to distinguish between zinc carbonate and zinc silicate, both then called calamine. Since 1832, zinc carbonate has been known as smithsonite. In 1787, only a year out of college, he was elected to the Royal Society of London "for Improving Natural Knowledge."
Smithson was also a highborn bastard, and a man with ambitions as well as a large grievance. His father was a wealthy Yorkshire baronet who became the Duke of Northumberland. His mother was a descendant of Henry VII. Alas, because these two illustrious parents never got married — at least to each other — James Smithson had no chance of inheriting his father's title, fortune or dukedom. The fact continued to rankle. One of Smithson's lifelong aims became the spread of knowledge, which, he said, allows learned people to "see a lot where others see nothing." He wanted, he wrote, to ensure that the Smithson name would "live in the memory of man."
Eventually he inherited a good deal of money, mainly from his mother, and decided to leave it all to his illegitimate 20-year-old nephew — but with a remarkable stipulation attached. If the nephew died childless, the fortune would go toward "an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men." Not in England. Not at all. Smithson was not about to do that. The money was to go to the United States of America. The eventual result was the Smithsonian Institution.
James Smithson died at 64, in 1829, three years after making the will. The nephew died, childless, six years later. Shortly thereafter, word of the Smithson will reached President Andrew Jackson and Congress. At first, there were doubts about accepting any money at all from Great Britain, a country still seen by many Americans as a bully and a territorial threat. The will seemed pretty vague, too. "Increase and diffusion of knowledge" sounded all right. After all, George Washington himself, in his "Farewell Address" to the nation, had asked his countrymen to promote "institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge." But what kind of an institution would we have to create, anyway? A few Congressmen suggested we not bother with it at all. Otherwise, one complained, "every whippersnapper vaga-bond would send a gift to the United States in order to immortalize his name."
Nevertheless, in July 1836 Congress voted to accept the Smithson bequest. Richard Rush was dispatched to London to get it. A diplomat, recent Vice Presidential candidate and son of the eminent Dr. Benjamin Rush — a signer of the Declaration of Independence — Rush seemed a perfect Galahad to snatch Smithson's bequest from the toils of England's notoriously slow-moving Court of Chancery.
Rush was soon embroiled in British red tape, fighting off assorted claims on Smithson's will. After two years it looked as if he might have to face a decade or so of legal thumb-twiddling. Then, suddenly, with a little backstairs help from a Dickensian law firm — Clark, Fynmore & Fladgate, Solicitors of Craven Street — the Smithson bequest got jumped ahead of some 800 other cases. On May 9, 1838, the court turned over Smithson's fortune to Rush. It came to 92,635 pounds, 18 shillings and ninepence. Rush still had to pay off one family claimant — Madame de la Batut, mother of Smithson's nephew — who got £5,015. That left roughly £87,620 to be converted from stocks and annuities (called "Consols") into hard cash. Paper transactions were so unreliable in those days that Rush decided the best way of bringing the money home to America was in British gold sovereigns.
He wisely waited to sell at the top of the market. "Consols had not brought so high a price for nearly eight years," he wrote home cheerfully on June 13, 1838. There were storage and packing charges, of course, legal fees, insurance and a sales commission of about £800. Small change in the amount of eight shillings and sevenpence was carefully placed in the last bag of gold. In the end Rush was able to put 104,960 sovereigns aboard the packet ship Mediator, bound for New York. Each sovereign weighed about eight grams. They were stuffed into 105 sacks (cost: sixpence apiece), each sack holding 1,000 gold sovereigns (except for one with 960). They were packed into 11 boxes, 10 sacks to the box, each box weighing 187 pounds. The lot was simply addressed to "the United States."
"America had specified that it wanted new English coins," says Smithsonian numismatist Richard Doty, "so there would be no loss of gold through wear." But in 1838 British sovereigns were not legal tender in this country, so the coins had to be melted down and reminted as American gold pieces. "Our mint people had to add a little copper to give them the correct fineness for American gold coins (less pure than British)," Doty explains. "In effect, we had to 'depurify' the English gold a little before we could strike our own."
The Philadelphia mint turned many of the Smithson sovereigns into the beautiful ten-dollar gold pieces of the time, the Goddess of Liberty on one side with the date 1838, and on the other, a splendid eagle, great wings thrust out, every feather sharply defined. In the early 19th century, known gold deposits were rather scarce in America, the sources mostly found in Georgia and the Carolinas. Ten-dollar eagles hadn't been minted since 1804; Smithson's trove provided a rare chance to reintroduce them. (Today any 1838 ten-dollar U.S. gold piece is almost certainly Smithson gold.) Two of the sovereigns were set aside by the mint for its foreign coin collection and later were presented to the Smithsonian.
It was an amazing gift — $508,318.46 — at a time when the yearly budget of the United States was only about $34,000.
Even before the gold eagles were minted, all sorts of people had ideas about what to do with them. The Secretary of the Treasury, Levi Woodbury, won out. He decided to invest the lot in high-return bonds being offered by two new states, one-year-old Michigan and two-year-old Arkansas. No sooner did the eagles arrive in Washington than the equivalent amount was laid out for thousand-dollar, 6 percent bonds — 500 for Arkansas and 8 for Michigan. Both states quickly defaulted.
Many Congressmen were just as glad. This was a time when refinement, wealth and, particularly, imported culture were politically incorrect. When Andrew Jackson became President in 1829, he inspired a rush to the nation's capital of tobacco-chewing, gallus-snapping rustics from the southern and western frontiers. Book learning was not high on their list of national priorities, and they figured the gift might be a sign that the Brits were patronizing us.
Such growlers and naysayers ran headlong into former President John Quincy Adams, "Old Man Eloquent," the son of a President and a President himself just before Jackson. After leaving the White House, he returned to Congress as a Massachusetts Representative "accountable to no one but the Nation." He was past 70 when Smithson's gold arrived, but he rallied behind Smithson's "noble and most munificent donation." It must not, he declared, "be filtered to nothing and wasted upon hungry and worthless political jackals."
Adams succeeded in forcing Congress to vote for full replacement of the money lost by Woodbury's bad investments. Once the money was in hand, battles began again about exactly what sort of institution Smithson's gift should be put to. Adams wanted a national observatory. Other Congressmen favored shoring up the capital's Columbian College (now George Washington University), creating an agricultural college, a lyceum for uplifting lectures or, perhaps inevitably, a greatly expanded national library.
Indiana's Robert Owen doubted that there were "a hundred thousand volumes in the world worth reading" and pushed for a teachers college. Adams replied that he would rather throw all the money "into the Potomac" than vote for such a thing.
The year 1846 was in all sorts of ways a fateful moment in America's history. But for the Smithsonian Institution, the year's most crucial event occurred on August 10, when President James K. Polk at last signed the Smithsonian Institution bill into law. Congress had still not given firm orders on what kind of place it would be. But it was agreed that a building would go up on what is now the Mall with suitable rooms for "objects of natural history, a chemical laboratory. . . a gallery of art." A Board of Regents was established, charged with selecting the Institution's first Secretary. Let him worry about how to increase and diffuse knowledge. Princeton's Joseph Henry, a world-famous scientist, got the nod, though not too cheerfully. "Save the great National Institution from the hands of charlatans!" one of the first regents begged him, and he did, moving his family into the Castle, a pinkish neo-Norman pile then just rising on the Mall. Gradually the Institution took shape around it, evolving and expanding over the years until it fulfilled James Smithson's vague wish. His sovereigns had bought something after all.