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It is possible, for instance, that he
met
Benjamin Franklin
(1706-1790)
while he was the U.S. minister in Paris;
we know that Smithson later lived on
the same London street as Franklin’s
nephew. In his youth Smithson had also
known
William Thornton
(1759-
1828), the future architect of the U.S.
Capitol. However, Thornton had not
yet moved to the United States, and no
subsequent correspondence between
the two has turned up.
Ultimately, though, all these expla-
nations are speculative. Smithson’s mo-
tivation for leaving his fortune to the
U.S. is likely to remain a mystery.
Uncle Sam Gets a Gift
In 1828 Smithson relocated to
Genoa, where he died on June 27, 1829,
and was buried in the tiny Anglican
Cemetery on San Benigno Hill, above
the port. Three years later his nephew,
Henry James Hungerford, had a monu-
mental tomb built for his uncle there.
A bit of a dandy, Hungerford trav-
eled throughout Europe under the as-
sumed name of Baron de La Batut. He
was described in a 1965 biography of
Smithson as “a wastrel, living for his
pleasures, which did not, however, in-
clude women.” While touring Italy, he
died in a hotel in Pisa on June 5, 1835,
at the age of 26 or 27.
As James Smithson’s will provided,
since Henry James Hungerford had
died unmarried and without children,
the estate of James Smithson became
legally the property of the United
States.
Informed by Smithson’s London so-
licitors, the U.S. chargé d’affairés there,
Aaron Veil
(1796-1878), wrote to the
Department of State about the inheri-
tance. Curiously, he cast aspersions on
Smithson’s soundness of mind when the
will had beenmade, writing that he had
doubts on whether “the testator labored
under some degree of mental aberra-
tion at the time it (the will) was made.”
Veil was chargé in London from
April 1832 to July 1836; he was subse-
quently a special diplomatic agent to
Canada (1838-1840) and chargé d’af-
faires in Madrid (May 1840–August
1842), where he was succeeded by au-
thor
Washington Irving
(1783-1859).
President
Andrew Jackson
(1768-
1845), in his second term when in-
formed about the Smithson legacy, was
not even sure that he had the authority
to accept the gift. OnDec. 17, 1835, he
dropped the issue into Congress’s lap.
Some congressmen saw the legacy as
“a cheap way of conferring immortality”
on Smithson. Others, particularly Sen-
ator
John C. Calhoun
(1782-1850) of
South Carolina, argued that it was “be-
neath the dignity of the United States to
receive presents of this kind from any-
one.”
Calhoun hadmore than national dig-
nity on his mind, however. He, like
most of states-rights Southerners, was
opposed to the legacy because it con-
ferred on the national government the
power to use it to set up a national in-
stitution that neither the states, nor
Congress through its appropriations
process, could control.
Fortunately, former President
John
Quincy Adams
(1767-1848) advocated
using the legacy to set up an astronom-
ical observatory.
Adams was well acquainted with the
Department of State and foreign affairs,
having lived abroad when his father,
John Adams, was U.S. envoy to France
and then to the Netherlands. Under
President
GeorgeWashington
(1732-
1799), he himself was the U.S. envoy to
the Netherlands (at age 24). He later
served as envoy to Portugal, Russia and
England before becoming Secretary of
State, a position he held from 1817 to
1825.
After leaving the presidency in 1829,
Adams won a seat in the House of Rep-
resentatives in 1830 and served there
for 17 years.
By the spring of 1836, Adams’ per-
sonality and force of argument had gar-
nered enough congressional support for
accepting Smithson’s legacy, but the de-
cision on what to do with it was left to a
later day. In the meantime, Congress
gave the president authority to appoint
a representative to go to London and
claim the bequest.
A Rush Job
On July 1, 1836, Pres. Jackson ap-
pointed
Richard Rush
(1780-1859) of
Philadelphia to represent the United
States in its claim. A son of
Benjamin
Rush
(1746-1813), a signer of theDec-
laration of Independence, Richard
Rush had held a wide range of govern-
ment positions, including stints as
comptroller of the Treasury, U.S. Attor-
ney General, acting Secretary of State
and Secretary of the Treasury, among
many others. He had also been envoy
to England, where he had replaced
John Quincy Adams, and was well ac-
quainted with English public figures
and that country’s court system.
Rush arrived in London in Septem-
ber 1836 and soon learned the legal dif-
ficulties of the case. Smithson had
stated in his will that the estate would
go to the United States only if his
nephew died unmarried and childless.
Because “Baron Le Batut” had traveled
widely in continental Europe, the courts
had to be satisfied that he had not left
any illegitimate children in his wake.
Complicating things further, his
mother was also clamoring for a share
of the money, as was the British gov-
28
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 2
If James Smithson
did cross paths with
Benjamin Franklin
and other Americans,
that might have
influenced his bequest.