The greatest museum in the United States owes its existence to an eccentric British benefactor and a staggering number of gold coins.
The story starts with an Englishman named James Smithson. Smithson was the illegitimate child of a baronet from Yorkshire who later became a Duke. Due to the circumstances of his birth, Smithson could never inherit his father’s wealth or titles, a fact that never ceased to frustrate the young man. Smithson had a passion for knowledge, and graduated from Oxford after studying chemistry and mineralogy. He was the first person to determine that what was then called “calamine” was actually two different substances: zinc carbonate and zinc silicate; zinc carbonate is also known now as “smithsonite.” A year after he graduated, Smithson was elected to the The Royal Society of London for his work in natural science.
Smithson loved science, but one passion overruled all others: that the Smithson name “live in the memory of man.” Smithson did inherit money from his mother, but never married, leaving him with no obvious heirs. Smithson made an unusual choice: he left his money to his illegitimate nephew, clearly understanding the difficulties of getting ahead in life without a respectable birth. However, the will had a remarkable stipulation: if the nephew died childless, the money would leave England entirely and go towards creating an institution in America for “the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”
Smithson died in 1829, and his nephew died, childless, six years later. The American government was dutifully informed of their windfall, and…nothing happened. Congress was dubious about the legality of accepting the gift, and there was still a great deal of resistance to the idea of accepting any gift from England in any form. In addition, no one was quite sure how to interpret the stipulations of the will. What sort of “institution” would be created? One Congressman argued that the gift be ignored entirely, lest it set a precedent where “every whippersnapper vaga-bond would send a gift to the United States in order to immortalize his name.”
Congress voted to accept the Smithson inheritance in 1836, and diplomat Richard Rush was sent to England to receive it. He soon found himself fighting the legendary British red tape and disputing other claimants for the money. After working for two years to get the money, Rush thought it might take a decade or money to actually receive it, if it happened at all. Unwilling to wait so long to complete his job, Rush joined with the firm of Clark, Fynmore & Fladgate to get the case bumped up in the queue, and in 1838, Rush received the money. The total amount was 92,635 pounds, 18 shillings, and ninepence. One family claimant had to be paid off for just over 5000 pounds, leaving 87,000 for the American institution. One problem: the fortune was in stocks and annuities (known as “consols” at the time) and needed to be converted into hard currency. Paper currency being unreliable, it was decided to bring the money to America in the form of British gold sovereigns. Rush, having spent two years getting the money in the first place, decided to continue being patient and waited to sell the stocks until the market was right. Fortunately, he only had to wait a few months, and in the summer of 1838, sold the stocks for record-high prices. There were fees, including legal, storage, and insurance charges. “ In the end Rush was able to put 104,960 sovereigns aboard the packet ship Mediator, bound for New York. Each sovereign weighed about eight grams. They were stuffed into 105 sacks (cost: sixpence apiece), each sack holding 1,000 gold sovereigns (except for one with 960). They were packed into 11 boxes, 10 sacks to the box, each box weighing 187 pounds. The lot was simply addressed to ‘the United States.’”
British sovereigns, however, were not legal tender in the United States in 1838. The coins had to be melted down, a little copper added to reach American purity standards for gold coins, and re-minted. The Philadelphia mint turned most of the coins into ten-dollar gold eagle coins, which had not been produced since 1804, due to gold shortages. (If you have a gold eagle from 1838, it is almost certainly Smithson gold.)
The Smithson gift was enormous: $508,318.46; for comparison, the yearly budget of the entire country at the time was about $34,000. The Secretary of the Treasury invested the money in high-return bonds being offered by the new states of Michigan and Arkansas…both of which quickly defaulted. Quite a few in Washington, D.C. were glad for the loss; refinement and imported culture were out of fashion at the time. Jackson’s presidency had left the country in a fervor of nationalism and foreign culture was suspect. However, John Quincy Adams, though past 70, found the Smithson gift a worthy cause, and rallied to build an institution as intended. The money must not “be filtered to nothing and wasted upon hungry and worthless political jackals.”
Adams forced Congress to replace the lost money, but then new battles began: what sort of institution should be created? Adams wanted an observatory, others wanted a places for lectures, and others an expansion of the national library. At one point, Adams railed that he would rather see the money tossed into the Potomac river than have it used for a teachers college, as was proposed by Robert Owen. Finally, in 1846, President Polk signed a bill into law to create the Smithsonian Institution, though no one had yet agreed what the Institution would be. A Board of Regents was selected, and charge with choosing the first Secretary: Joseph Henry, a famous scientist from Princeton. He moved into the large neo-Norman building being built on the National Mall, and the work of creating the Smithsonian Institution began.
Of all the coins melted down by the Philadelphia Mint to pay for the Smithsonian, two remain. They were preserved by the Mint and kept in their foreign coin collection for years, but were finally handed over to the new Smithsonian Institution, where they serve as a reminder of the beginnings of this national treasure. It took decades of political wrangling, but Smithson’s coins finally funded one of the greatest museums in the world. Smithson’s dream of expanding the knowledge of the human race had finally come true.