An Unexpected Bequest

James Smithson In 1829, James Smithson, a British scientist who never visited the United States, died, leaving his estate to his nephew. However, the will stipulated that should the beneficiary die without heirs, the estate should go “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….” Deeply inspired by the Enlightenment ideas behind the founding of the US, Smithson believed that a government based on laws and reason offered the best foundation for the pursuit of knowledge and the improvement of the human condition.

Smithson’s nephew died in 1835 unmarried and without children, setting in motion the extraordinary secondary clause in Smithson’s will. After a two-year court case in England, Smithson’s legacy, a gift of more than $500,000, was delivered to the mint at Philadelphia in 1838. An Act of Congress established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.