The drama of making the Smithsonian Institution

January 04, 2004|By Louis P. Masur | Louis P. Masur,Chicago Tribune

The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum: the Smithsonian, by Nina Burleigh. HarperCollins. 320 pages. $24.95.

The Smithsonian Institution is vast. It consists of 16 museums, seven research centers, the National Zoo and, according to its Web site, collections of "objects, artworks and specimens" totaling more than 142 million items. There are also 129 affiliate museums that help allow the "the nation's attic" to display its holdings.

The institution's benefactor was English scientist James Smithson. In The Stranger and the Statesman, journalist Nina Burleigh begins with a gripping account of Alexander Graham Bell's successful 1903-1904 mission to Genoa, Italy, where the patron had died in 1829, to recover his remains.

Although he had never visited America, Smithson had bequeathed his entire estate of $500,000 -- worth some $50 million today -- to the United States upon the death of his heirless nephew, for the purpose of founding "at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men."

In trying to figure out who Smithson was and why he acted as he did, Burleigh must make the most of scraps of evidence. Smithson's papers burned in a fire at the institution bearing his name in 1865. Moreover, he lived a peripatetic life, residing on the continent as much as in London. As the illegitimate son of the powerful duke of Northumberland, he had no legal claims to any titles or lands and played no part in any official family histories.

He was born Jacques Macie in Paris in 1765. His mother, Elizabeth Macie, who had been widowed four years earlier, enjoyed a dalliance at the resort town of Bath, England, with the married Hugh Smithson, an earl and soon to be duke with an estate that included more than 100,000 acres of land. Mother and son returned to England in 1774. James Macie, as he was now known, would not take his father's surname until 1800, and his father, as far as Burleigh can determine, never provided for his bastard son.

Until his death in 1829, Smithson lived in England, France, Germany and Italy. He published 29 papers but was not an especially significant scientist. He was, however, a man of letters who embodied the Enlightenment spirit of inquiry and investigation.

The problem that troubles Burleigh is why Smithson left his money to the United States. In the end, the answer remains nearly as elusive as the man's private life. Smithson did write, "The man of science is of no country; the world is his country, all mankind his countrymen."

Still, it took the efforts of several American statesmen to realize the terms of the will, and that story is told in the shorter, second part of the book. John Quincy Adams is the hero of the tale.

The acrimony over what to do with the bequest exposed the tensions in American society at the time, and it is unfortunate that Burleigh hurries this part of the story. The Smithsonian Castle opened in 1855, and the nation's capital had the beginnings of a cultural center that not only would honor Smithson's desire to see knowledge diffused but, over time, would also play a significant role in how such knowledge was preserved, displayed and interpreted. The nation has a majestic institution dedicated to collecting the myriad components of American identity.

Louis P. Masur teaches American history at the City College of New York and is the author of Autumn Glory: Baseball's First World Series. This review, in longer form, was published in the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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