This Day in History: Remembering James Smithson (1765-1829)

James Smithson died June 27, 1829, setting in motion a series of circuitous events that would lead to the eventual creation of the Smithsonian Institution

Portrait of James Smithson
Portrait of James Smithson Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

On this day, 182 years ago, James Smithson passed away in Genoa, Italy after a long illness at the age of 64. His will, which contained a puzzling provision, set in motion a series of circuitous events that would eventually lead to the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.

Smithson’s considerable wealth was left to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. But the will indicated that if Hungerford should die leaving no heirs—legitimate or illegitimate— the money was to go to the people of the United States of America to create something he called the Smithsonian Institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” among men. The will was so extraordinary that it was published by the Times of London. While Smithson’s reasons and exact intentions are still unknown, the journey “from Smithson to Smithsonian” is intriguing.

“Nobody thought it would ever some to pass because his nephew was young and healthy and by all accounts quite good at spending money,” says Pamela Henson, director of the Smithsonian’s Institutional History Division. “It was very unlikely that this money would ever come to the United States.”

Born in France in 1765, James Lewis Macie was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, who would later become the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie. Upon the death of his mother, a widow of royal blood, Smithson inherited a considerable amount of money and adopted his father’s surname. A wealthy man, Smithson studied at Oxford and devoted his life to science, increasing his wealth through wise investments.

But in 1835, Smithson’s nephew died while living in Pisa, Italy without heirs. The executor of the estate contacted the American Chargé d’Affaires in London to set in motion the transfer of funds and eventually President Andrew Jackson was notified of the bequest. Unsure of whether or not he had the authority to accept the gift, President Jackson sent the issue over to Congress where a spirited debate ensued.

“This is pre-Civil War, 1830s, and states rights versus federalism is a hugely hot issue,” Henson says. “Southerners vehemently oppose this because they believe it’s a violation of states’ rights to create such a nation entity but John Quincy Adams, really takes this on as his case and pushes it through and he eventually triumphs.” Congress authorized the U.S. to accept the bequest on July 1, 1836.

If agreeing to accept the money was complicated, deciding what to do with it was almost impossible. Smithson, who had never set foot in the United States while living, apparently never discussed the provision in his will or his plans for the Institution with anyone. So, for ten years, Congress debated what “increase and diffusion of knowledge” meant and what such an establishment would look like. Several ideas were suggested, including: a scientific institute, a teacher’s training institute, a school of natural history, a university for the classics, a national observatory, a national library and a national museum. Eventually, a political compromise was reached, which provided for many of the different ideas suggested, and the Smithsonian Institution was founded, signed into law by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, and funded.

Not much is known about the life of James Smithson, whose papers, diaries and correspondence were lost in a massive 1865 fire in the Castle building. But a recent biography by Heather Ewing, who traveled throughout Europe looking in various archives for Smithson’s correspondence with others, does shed some additional light onto his life and scientific thinking. The mystery of why he decided to gift the equivalent of $508,318.46 to the United States and what his true intentions were may never be solved. “But it’s sort of fascinating what, by chance, that sentence at the end of his will turned out to be,” Henson says.

James Smithson’s remains, brought to the U.S. by Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell 75 years after his death, are interred in a tomb in the Castle Building. Learn more about his life and the founding of the Institution online.