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Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Little Known Facts"

I did not know that!

The illegitimate beginning that led to the establishment of the famous Smithsonian Institution.



I guess you would call James an inquisitive fellow. His friends say he thought nothing of risking life and limb in pursuit of knowledge. He published dozens of scientific papers, and some of those are still mighty interesting. He once wrote up his analysis of a lady's teardrop. And he convinced all England that there was a surefire scientific method for better coffee.

James was a member of the royal society of London. Now you've heard of those guys. They're the ones who led us all into the age of science. James was a leader in that circle of great men. They called him the best chemist of his time. But there was one thing about James that was a little different from the scholars he hung out with - he was rich.

He was the illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland and his mother, well she came from royalty. When James died in 1829, both England and the United States were surprised at the will he left behind. Oh, at first glance it wasn't anything unusual. He left his estate to a nephew since he didn't have any close family. But in a contingency clause, if that nephew died without children, well, then his riches would go to the people of the United States of America.

Now nobody could figure out why James would do that. He didn't know anybody from America and nobody could remember him ever visiting the U.S. You can imagine what an uproar it caused. And wouldn't you know it, a few years later that nephew did die childless. But there was one stipulation to America's fortune. All those bucks had to be used for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

Now a good many Congressmen didn't think we had any business accepting that inheritance. James was, after all, a foreigner - and an English one to boot. And not only was taking the money beneath our dignity, some said, but it was probably unconstitutional. Well President Andrew Jackson was all for accepting the gift, and after a lot of bickering and debate in Congress, we did.

But wouldn't you know it, that was just the beginning of the arguments. After we'd sent a man over to collect our inheritance, which, by the way, was more than a half a million dollars (quite a fortune in those days), nobody could agree on how to spend it. A bunch of people thought we ought to start up a university, but then they couldn't decide whether it should be dedicated to science, or to social reform, or to the classics - whatever those were. But finally, someone had the bright idea to start a museum.

And It's a Little Known Fact that we didn't just build any old museum, but our pride and glory, unequaled in the entire world. And for that the American people are beholden to a blue-blooded Englishmen: James Smithson, the benefactor of the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian Institution was founded for the "increase and diffusion" of knowledge by a bequest to the United States by the British scientist James Smithson (1765-1829), who had never visited the United States himself. In Smithson's will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States for creating an "Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men". After the nephew died without heirs in 1835, President Andrew Jackson informed Congress of the bequest, which amounted to 104,960 gold sovereigns, or US$500,000 ($9,235,277 in 2005 U.S. dollars after inflation).

Eight years later, Congress passed an act establishing the Smithsonian Institution, a hybrid public/private partnership, and the act was signed into law on August 10, 1846 by James Polk. (See 20 U.S.C. § 41 (Ch. 178, Sec. 1, 9 Stat. 102).) The bill was drafted by Indiana Democratic Congressman Robert Dale Owen, a Socialist and son of Robert Owen, the father of the cooperative movement. Link

The National Mall
Washington, DC 20560

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