A British Philanthropist Bequeaths America’s Smithsonian Museums

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution website)

In 1829 James Smithson, an Englishman, died without visiting the U.S.  Smithson wrote his own will, leaving his estate to his nephew, but if the nephew were to die without children, “I bequeath the whole of my property . . . to the United States of America, to be found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men.”  His nephew died in 1835 and had no children.

In 1838, Richard Rush brought 105 sacks of gold sovereign coins from Smithson’s estate to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, where they were re-coined into American currency, producing $508,318.46, equivalent to about $12 million in 2019 dollars.

It was not clear that Congress would approve a large federal institution in Washington, D.C., given the focus on protecting states’ rights and opposition to expanding the national government.  Should America build a monument to a British donor two decades after the War of 1812, and 70 years after the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain had been signed by Dr. Benjamin Rush, Richard’s father?  The bill to establish the Smithsonian passed narrowly.  In 1846, President James K. Polk signed the bill that created the Smithsonian Institution, which is now the world’s largest and most popular museum and research complex.

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