It was on this date in 1846 that the United States Congress passed legislation creating the Smithsonian Institution.
James Smithson was an English scientist. He was also the illegitimate son of a nobleman and a widow who was related to the royal family. He was born in secret in Paris, and though he inherited a lot of money from his mother, his illegitimacy kept him from any of the social or career advantages that his family connections might have given him. He once wrote, “On my father’s side I am a Northumberland, on my mother’s I am related to kings, but this avails me not.” He never married, and spent his life traveling and getting to know some of the greatest scientific minds of Europe. He believed scientists should be “citizens of the world,” and wrote, “It is in knowledge that man has found his greatness and his happiness.” Smithson published more than two dozen papers on a wide variety of subjects.
Shortly before his death in 1829, he bequeathed his estate to his nephew. But if the nephew died childless, Smithson wrote, then the money was to go to the United States for the foundation of an institution for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The nephew died without any heirs in 1835.
The bequest sparked a debate in Washington between the Federalists and the supporters of states’ rights. The states’ rights people argued that the Constitution didn’t make any provisions for a national institution. But the Federalists won out, and in 1838, the entire estate, worth more than half a million dollars, was transferred to the United States Mint. The debate didn’t end with the Federalists’ victory, though. For nearly a decade, people argued about what he meant by the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Did he mean a university? If so, what kind? Did he mean an observatory, a research institute, a publishing house, a national library, or a museum?
In the end, it became all of those things, with the exception of the university. The Smithsonian complex now includes museums of natural history, American history, fine and decorative arts, and air and space technology: 19 museums and galleries in all, including the National Zoo.