The Smithsonian’s Illicit Beginning


An Illicit Romance

As the Smithsonian Institution celebrates its 150th anniversary, consider two important facts. First the Smithsonian plays an enormous role in helping to preserve our national heritage. Second, the Institution would not exist if it weren’t for an illicit romance.

We’ll get to the Smithsonian’s role in preserving our heritage in a moment. But first, why was an illicit romance important to the existence of the Smithsonian?

The story begins in 1765 when James Smithson’s mother, Elizabeth Macie, had an affair with Hugh Smithson, a married man. James was born out of wedlock the following year.

In those days the penalties for illegitimacy were severe. Because of his bastardy, young James was barred from entering the military, the church, the civil service, and politics. Society, in effect, locked him out of the careers that would normally have attracted a man from his social background.

Fortunately for him, and for us, there was nothing to keep him from a career as a researcher and naturalist. Early on, he developed a deep love of knowledge, and wrote several papers on natural history.

Smithson’s Will

During his lifetime, he also seems to have developed at least some resentment for the society that looked down on his birth. We don’t know for sure exactly why he did it, but in effect, he disinherited his country. When he made his will in 1826, he stipulated that if his nephew and only heir died childless, his fortune of $500,000 should go to the United States of America.

The bequest puzzled many people because Smithson had never visited the country that was to benefit from his estate. “The money,” he wrote, “was to be used, found at Washington, under the name the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson died in 1829. When his nephew died childless six years later, the American Charge d’Affaires in London received a most surprising communication. It was a copy of Smithson’s will leaving half a million dollars, to the United States. At the time, $500,000 was an extraordinary sum. The Charge sent the will to the U.S. Secretary of State, along with a covering letter saying that Smithson might be insane.

The bequest turned out to be genuine. In 1838, eleven boxes of gold sovereigns were shipped to Philadelphia and melted into American coins worth exactly $508,318. And so began the Smithsonian Institution. Today it is the world’s largest museum and research complex. It includes the National Zoo, the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

The Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibit

Twenty-five million people visit the Smithsonian each year, but if you won’t be visiting Washington, D.C., you still have a chance to see at least some of the Smithsonian’s 140 million objects. To celebrate the Institution’s 150th Anniversary, a traveling exhibit will visit 12 cities over the next two years.

In the traveling exhibit, you can see some of our nation’s treasures, such as ancient fossils, the Apollo 14 command module, George Washington’s sword, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, and the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the 1939 movie, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Visiting the Smithsonian, whether in Washington or during the traveling exhibit, is a wonderful experience, especially if you bring kids with you. Share the experience with them, because a community’s vitality comes from its shared memories. America owes a lot to James Smithson, who enabled us to preserve so many of ours.


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