In 1826, James Smithson, a British scientist, drew up his last will and testament, naming his nephew as beneficiary. Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs (as he would in 1835), the estate should go "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."
The motives behind Smithson's bequest remain mysterious. He never traveled to the United States and seems to have had no correspondence with anyone in the country. Some have suggested that his bequest was motivated in part by revenge against the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father's name. Others have suggested it reflected his interest in the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and universal education.
Smithson was born in France in 1765. Named James Lewis Macie, he was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, who later became the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie, a widow of royal blood. Smithson and his half brother Henry Louis Dickinson inherited a considerable estate from their mother's family. He conducted research in chemistry, mineralogy, and geology, and he lived and traveled in several European countries. His schooling and interests afforded him the opportunity to mix with many noted scientists.
Smithson died in 1829, and six years later, President Andrew Jackson announced the bequest to Congress. On July 1, 1836, Congress accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust. In September 1838, Smithson's legacy, which amounted to more than 100,000 gold sovereigns, was delivered to the mint at Philadelphia. Recoined in U.S. currency, the gift amounted to more than $500,000.
After eight years of sometimes heated debate, an Act of Congress signed by President James K. Polk on Aug. 10, 1846, established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.
- From Smithson to Smithsonian: The Birth of an Institution, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
- James Smithson's Last Will and Testament, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Smithsonian Institution Homepage