Thursday, June 28

His Will Be Done

By Grant Davies

On this day in 1829, an Englishman named James Lewis Macie passed away in Italy after a long illness. Actually, he was a Frenchman (kind of), and his name wasn't actually Macie, but we'll get to all that later. 

We can be pretty sure his children would have greatly mourned his passing, but as it turns out, he never had any children, or even a wife for that matter. His only relative was a nephew, who we might speculate, may have been less sad than some since he stood to inherit a rather sizable estate after old Uncle Jim cashed in his chips.

History doesn't tell us exactly what their personal relationship was, but for reasons that only Macie knew he didn't leave his rather substantial estate to him, per se. Rather, his will stipulated that his fortune be bequeathed to his nephew's children, if he ever had any. But of course, he didn't. (Resist the temptation to click on some other website for a moment, there actually is a point to all this.)

James' family situation was always rather tricky. He was born in secrecy in Paris, the bastard son of the first Duke of Northumberland, a dude named Hugh Smithson. His mother was Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a rather rich widow, who in addition to being the Duke's mistress, was also the Duke's wife's cousin. See? I told you it was tricky.

Anyway, when his mother died, Macie got pretty wealthy from his share of the inheritance. He changed his name to Smithson, and became a naturalized British citizen. He went to college, learned a lot about mineralogy, discovered some important stuff, and published a raft of scientific papers on everything from a better way to make a blow-pipe to a better way to make coffee. He started kicking back with a bunch of the most important scientists of the day and was generally acknowledged to be one of them himself.

Umm, where was I? Oh yeah, James Smithson died. And his nephew died a few years later with no heirs of his own. So, per the provisions of his will, he gave all his money to the United States government. Huh?

That's right, he gave over $500,000 (which was a whole bunch of dough before the FED started protecting its value) "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men."

So a guy who had never been to the US while living, but now resides here under one of the museums that bears his name, started the most popular attraction in Washington DC for reasons no one will ever really know. Somehow I'm pretty confident that if you or I willed our money to the US government it wouldn't turn out quite the same way.


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