Our national museum
Better known to the public as the Smithsonian Institution
Founded with funds left to the United States by James Smithson, an Englishman with a terrible grudge
On that delightful reservation in Washington known as the “Mall,” or Smithsonian grounds, there stands one of the most famous buildings in the world, namely the “Smithsonian institution.” Although it is not one of the largest buildings in the world, it is architecturally remarkable. It is built of Seneca brownstone, and the Gothic style of architecture makes it resemble one of the ancient feudal castles with towers and battlements and embrasures like loopholes, reminding one of the ancient battles of nobles when they fought with arrows instead of guns.
Inside, the prospect is very different from that of an ancient feudal castle, for there one finds not fierce-bearded barons with their ladies crouching behind them in fear of the coming foe, with their army of soldiers, trenchmen, vassals, serfs, servants, hirelings and minions. Next to the British museum, the greatest museum on earth, it is a museum not only of exhibit, but of education and for the diffusion of knowledge.
Here comes the peculiar and, one might almost say, romantic feature of this institution; for, at Genoa, Italy, on the 27th day of June, and in the year 1829, one of the noblest men that ever lived, James Smithson, bequeathed to the United States of America the whole of his fortune, amounting in American money to about $500,000, “To found, according to the terms of the will at Washington, under the name of ‘The Smithsonian Institution,’ an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
A death is an ordinary occurrence, and so is a bequest; but, for an exile from his own home, a gentleman by birth and education and of the highest scientific attainments, laboring under the bar sinister (for he was an illegitimate son of the duke of Northumberland), and with an almost broken heart at the odium cast upon him by his blemished name, to die in a foreign land and leave his whole possessions to the government of another land than that which gave him his birth, is, at least, a novelty, if not a romance.
Born in France, where his English mother had gone to escape the odium of her disgrace, he passed the early days of his life in the solitude of Oxford schools, where, in the year of 1785, he was graduated with honors from the Pembroke college, receiving the degree of master of arts from that institution. In early life, he was known as Lewis James Maceo, that being his mother’s name. He did not assume his father’s name until he had achieved some scientific attainments. His father had been Sir Hugh Smithson before his marriage to the daughter of Lord Percy had enabled him to assume the title of duke of Northumberland; and thus we base the early history of the man whose name, to use his own words, was “to live in the memory of man when the titles of Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten.”
On the 28th of July, in the year of 1835, John Forsyth, the secretary of state at Washington, received information from the American charge d’affaires at London that the original testator of the will, James Hungerford Smithson’s nephew (to whom he had left interest in his property and to whose children, if he should marry and have an heir or heirs, legitimate or illegitimate, he left all his property except an annuity of £100 a year to one John Fitall, an old servant), had died at Pisa, Italy, on the 5th day of June, and in the year of 1835, without heirs, and that as the will runs: “In case of the death of my said nephew, without leaving a child, or children, I then bequeath the whole of my property, subject to the annuity of £100, to John Fitall, and for the security and payment of which, I mean stock to remain in this country, to the United States.”
English attorneys, having advised the charge d’affaires at London that it would be proper for the United States government to send attorneys as their representatives to England to prosecute its case before the English courts of chancery, the secretary of state, having transmitted the reports to the president on the 17th day of December, 1835, Andrew Jackson, then president, sent a message to congress advising the appointment of a commissioner to go to England to get the money. After sundry wrangles and debates in congress this was accomplished, and Hon. Richard Rusk was sent to England to prosecute the claim. Two years later a decree of chancery awarded the money to the United States and Rusk came home with it in the ship Mediator.
Then how to apply the money was the question. Some advised a public library, others a university. It was finally decided by the solons of congress that the most practical means to diffuse knowledge among mankind was by original scientific research, and the publication of the result of such researches for public distribution. In accordance with this view the Smithsonian institution, as it now stands, was built, but not until the original Smithsonian bequest had seen various rounds of fortune. By act of congress, dated July 7, 1838, and while the discussion as to what should be done with the bequest was still in progress, the whole sum of the Smithsonian bequest, amounting then to $538,000, was invested in Arkansas state bonds, which afterwards became worthless, Arkansas defaulting in the payment of interest and settling up a counterclaim of indebtedness against the United States.
The congress then made the Smithsonian bequest good by placing to the credit of the Smithsonian Institution in the treasury of the United States the sum of $538,000; and so it was that the Smithsonian Institution, as it now is, was begun. Its officers are the president of the United States, the vice president, the chief justice of the supreme court, the members of the cabinet, three senators, three representatives, two residents of the District of Columbia, three residents of different states, a secretary and an assistant secretary. The secretary is the chief officer of the institution.
The first secretary, Joseph Henry, served from 1846 to 1878. The second secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, from 1878 to 1887, and the third and present secretary, Samuel Pierpont Langley, from 1887 until this date. The publications of the Smithsonian institution form a library in themselves, and are called “The Annual Reports,” “The Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections,” “Bulletins of the National Museum,” “The Annual Reports of the Bureau of Ethnology,” and “The Bulletins of the Bureau of Ethnology.”
These books are given to educational institutions all over the world. In return for these, and by purchase, the institution has received a library of 300,000 volumes, which is deposited in the congressional library for safe keeping.
In 1881, a new library was built, at a cost of $250,000, to accommodate the growing needs of the National museum, whose collections of wonderful curiosities had become so large that the original building was no longer able to hold it. The bureau of exchange establishes communication with scholars in all parts of the world, by which their publications are exchanged for publications of similar societies.
Besides the original bequest of Smithson, congress every year makes an additional appropriation for the maintenance of the institution.
Smithsonian Institution Building, aka The Castle (1867) and Enid A. Haupt Garden behind the Castle Smithsonian Garden — both photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives