What did James Smithson’s endowment create today? And why did it take 10 years to put his $500,000 donation to use?
August 10, 1846 — When British chemist and meteorologist James Smithson (born 1765) died in 1829, he left his sizable estate to the US “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”
Interestingly, Smithson never set foot on American soil. So why did the illegitimate child of a wealthy Englishman choose to give the entirety of his sizable estate — which amounted to $500,000 (equivalent to $11,073,000 today) and totaled 1/66 of the country’s entire federal budget — to the US?
According to historians at the Smithsonian: “Some speculate it was because he was denied his father’s legacy. Others argue that he was inspired by the US’ experiment with democracy. Some attribute his philanthropy to ideals inspired by such organizations as the Royal Institution, which was dedicated to using scientific knowledge to improve human conditions. Smithson never wrote about or discussed his bequest with friends or colleagues, so we are left to speculate on the ideals and motivations of a gift that has had such significant impact on the arts, humanities, and sciences in the US.”
President Andrew Jackson announced the bequest to Congress, and on July 1, 1836, it accepted the legacy and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust.
However, it took another eight years of sometimes heated debate for an Act of Congress to be signed by President James K. Polk today in 1846. It established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.
Today, the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and galleries, a National Zoological Park and nine research facilities make it the world’s largest museum and research complex. Visitors can pay homage to Smithson with a visit to his crypt, located on the first floor of the Smithsonian Castle.
Words of Wisdom
It is in his knowledge that man has found his greatness and his happiness, the high superiority which he holds over the other animals who inhabit the earth with him, and consequently no ignorance is probably without loss to him, no error without evil.