"America's attic," the Smithsonian, was endowed by an Englishman who never visited America and probably would not have liked it much if he had.
James Smithson, illegitimate son of the inconceivably wealthy Duke of Northumberland, born in France and a lover of aristocratic privilege, left the equivalent of fifty million dollars "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men." The institution was third in line, behind his (also bastard) brother and his nephew. He may have known that the nephew, reputed to be homosexual, would not produce an heir, though he might not have predicted how quickly both relatives would follow him in death. Despite one small claim on the money and the speculation that Smithson must have been mad to make such a stipulation in his will, the money passed - in bags of gold coin - from the old world to the new, and the Smithsonian was born.
Living on a cusp of history not long before the destruction of the French monarchy, Smithson felt always the sting of non-acceptance among his peers. His mother, a strong, determined heiress of gentry, attempted to provide for her two sons every advantage that their rank might allow, but both men were barred from the drawing rooms of the legitimately titled. This could have been one reason why Smithson wanted his money spent -- and his name remembered -- in a more egalitarian clime. Had he not earmarked it for perpetuity with his unusual endowment, it would have passed back to the very lords and lawyers he so despised.
It is also possible that Smithson, a minor geologist and avid collector who hobnobbed with the leading scientific lights of his day, may have met Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or someone from their American entourage visiting in France. This link, and any other explanation for the mysterious bequest, cannot be proved because of a fire which destroyed all of Smithson's papers shortly after the first building of his new institute was constructed.
The establishment of an institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge" in the new United States was by no means assured, despite the endowment, and might not have come about had there not been a considerable effort on the part of ex-President John Quincy Adams and a cohort of far-thinking individuals within Congress and without. The money had no sooner arrived than a portion of it was misappropriated in a risky bond scheme. Southerners opposed the institution because it was to be housed in the North, scene of anti-slavery sentiment. Others argued that the Union had many more pressing needs than mere "knowledge".
Adams had a vision. He probably agreed with many foreign visitors to America at the time who found the inhabitants to be crude and uncivilized. Americans were interested only in practical applications of science, not in the purity of the discipline itself. Adams wanted - and never got - a national observatory. Robert Dale Owen, a utopian and proponent of the institute, envisioned it as a national school. Richard Rush, who had gone to England and husbanded the gold on its voyage to the States, thought the proposed establishment should include an experimental farm. Like blind men trying to conceptualize an elephant from its separate portions, these men and others created an amalgam of their individual perceptions and the institute was created, in time becoming a major architectural component of the then-wilderness outpost of Washington.
Smithson got his wish. His name did not disappear, but became as familiar -- and as American -- as Levi's and French fries. No doubt he would be satisfied.
The Stranger and the Statesman is a great deal more fascinating than its title implies, including a rich panorama of contemporary images. To give an idea of the decadence of pre-revolution France, Nina Burleigh offers the story of young women of nobility who dressed as peasants, collected milk from the local farmers early in the morning, and retired to their enormous bathtubs to spend the rest of the day bathing in milk and rose petals. This is one of the many vignettes that the author has tirelessly researched, making the book's otherwise flatly factual subject matter a treasure of the bizarre and beautiful.