Touring the majestic Alnwick Castle in Northeast England, I expected to learn about the twelfth Duke and Duchess of Northumberland who currently live here and the history of the castle. What I never expected to learn was the story of their ancestors, which includes the gift that founded our American treasure, the Smithsonian Institution.
During the summer months when the Duke and Duchess live in their summer home near the Scotland border, the public may tour the Castle inside and out. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed inside the private quarters. The Dining Room walls are filled with large painted portraits of the Percy family, one of whom is Hugh Smithson.
Hugh Smithson became the First Duke of Northumberland and with the Queen’s permission became a “Percy.” Only the legitimate children of Hugh Smithson/Percy could take the name “Percy.”
James Macie, born in 1765 in France, is the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Keate Macie and Hugh Smithson. His mother had royal roots in France. At his mother’s death, James inherited her fortune and took his father’s name “Smithson.” James devoted his life to academia, studying science at Oxford University. When James died in 1829 without an heir to his fortune, his will revealed his wishes: to donate his estate to found an educational institution in a country that does not have an aristocracy and would never have a monarchy.
Here are a few more details about the founding of the Smithsonian from the Smithsonian Magazine:
Unsure of whether or not he had the authority to accept the gift, President Jackson sent the issue over to Congress where a spirited debate ensued.
“This is pre-Civil War, 1830s, and states rights versus federalism is a hugely hot issue,” Henson says. “Southerners vehemently oppose this because they believe it’s a violation of states’ rights to create such a nation entity but John Quincy Adams, really takes this on as his case and pushes it through and he eventually triumphs.” Congress authorized the U.S. to accept the bequest on July 1, 1836.
If agreeing to accept the money was complicated, deciding what to do with it was almost impossible. Smithson, who had never set foot in the United States while living, apparently never discussed the provision in his will or his plans for the Institution with anyone. So, for ten years, Congress debated what “increase and diffusion of knowledge” meant and what such an establishment would look like. Several ideas were suggested, including: a scientific institute, a teacher’s training institute, a school of natural history, a university for the classics, a national observatory, a national library and a national museum. Eventually, a political compromise was reached, which provided for many of the different ideas suggested, and the Smithsonian Institution was founded, signed into law by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, and funded.
Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/this-day-in-history-remembering-james-smithson-1765-1829-23450134/#gFQuEVceuvJi4Amz.99
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