A descendant of Dutch settlers, Jacob Aaron Westervelt began his career in 1814 as an apprentice in Christian Bergh’s shipyard at the point of land on the East River known as Corlears Hook. He left his employer in 1835 to start his own operation along the river. Over a period of three decades, the yard produced 234 vessels.
One of Jacob’s first commissions in 1836 was to build the packet boat Mediator for John Griswold’s Black X Line. Founded in 1823, its ships ran between New York and London displaying a house flag with a black X on a red background.
Few if any of his ships would have carried a more valuable cargo than did this liner when it entered New York Harbor on August 29, 1838. Setting out from London, the Mediator transported 104,960 gold British sovereigns over the Atlantic. Each weighing about eight grams, they were stuffed into 105 sacks of 1,000 gold pieces each and packed into eleven crates. The lot was simply addressed “to the United States.” The gold was transferred to the US Mint in Philadelphia, melted down and re-minted into ten-dollar gold coins with a then staggering value of over half a million dollar.
The benefactor of this treasure was a French-born Englishman who had died in Italy. It was the gift of a person who had never visited America or been in personal contact with anyone in the country. Few Americans had come across his name during his lifetime. Yet this very name would become an integral part of the nation’s emergence as a scientific and cultural powerhouse.
Oxford & Royal College
An illegitimate child, Jacques-Louis Macie was born about 1765 in Paris (precise date or location are not known) and educated in in Britain where he changed his name to James Lewis Macie. His powerful father was Hugh Smithson, 1st Duke of Northumberland; his mother Elizabeth Hungerford Keate, a wealthy widow from Weston (near the city of Bath) and a cousin of the Duke’s wife. She had fled to Paris to hide her pregnancy. Father and son probably never met.
James became a naturalized British citizen at age nine after his mother had returned with him to England. Denied his father’s name, he was ineligible to benefit from the Duke’s vast estates or social standing. He was barred from entering the Army, the Church or civil service and prevented from seeking a career in politics. Science offered a way out.
In 1782 Macie entered Pembroke College, Oxford, where he was attracted towards scientific research, developing a lifelong interest in chemistry and mineralogy (he was an ardent collector of minerals and ores). Chemistry was the cutting-edge scientific branch of the day, one that lay at the heart of the making of modern industrial society.
Having received his master’s degree in 1786, Macie moved to London where he joined the science community. Within a year, he was admitted to the Royal Society (Britain’s most prestigious scientific society) as its then youngest Fellow under the tutelage of Henry Cavendish, the researcher who had discovered the properties of hydrogen.
Three years after admission, James Macie published his first scientific paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. He stood on the brink of a distinguished career in British science.
Brotherhood of Scientists
Although Enlightenment thinkers (known as “Philosophers”) retained a role for speculative thought, they put emphasis on empirical knowledge that was grounded in verifiable demonstration. To any proposition or theory unsubstantiated by evidential data, the Enlightenment demanded “proof” in response. The approach manifested itself in a boundless curiosity that sparked the drive to invent and spurred a quest for practical applications. Its methodology gave rise to a range of new technologies and labor-saving devices (“Industrial Enlightenment”).
Smithson studied a scale of natural phenomena such as snake poisons, the chemistry of volcanoes or the nature of electricity. He was not a theoretician but a sharp mind in chemical analysis. During his lifetime he published twenty-seven papers and his work on zinc ores led to the mineral Smithsonite being named in his honor.
Smithson came of age in a time of scientific discovery and political upheaval. From his student years onward he counted eminent scholars amongst his friends and colleagues. He insisted that the brotherhood of scientists should be considered “citizens of the world.” Their work served mankind; their research did not acknowledge boundaries; their task was to improve the human condition.
The word “brotherhood” is an appropriate choice in this context as many scientists (including Isaac Newton or Benjamin Franklin) were also freemasons who were engaged in spreading the principles of the Enlightenment. Freemasons were frequently charged with conspiring to undermine religion and plot social disorder.
Suspicious of all forms of absolute authority, numerous scientists adhered to the democratic ideals of the French Revolution. The diffusion of knowledge was key to the creation of a more equal and just society. James Macie actively promoted this notion although it would damage his standing in the British academic establishment.
In 1790, Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France in which he sided with the monarchy, the clergy and the establishment. His views were opposed by liberals who called for wide-ranging political reforms. Burke challenged Thomas Paine to pen the Rights of Man in which he heralded the Revolution as the beginning of an era in which civic rights would be enhanced.
This public debate polarized British society. A minority enthusiastically endorsed the revolutionary principles, but was faced by large numbers of opponents who fiercely condemned the spirit of radicalism. They alleged that the uprising had plunged Europe into a state of collective savagery.
Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, may have claimed that the sciences were never at war, but toxic political incidents did intervene. Hatred against British apologists of the Revolution was whipped up by the press. As they were also identified as freemasons or dissenters, the “debate” soon turned into a witch-hunt in which scientists were singled out as culprits. They became a target of the anti-revolutionary lobby. When populist passions are unleashed, violence is never far away.
Joseph Priestley was a chemist based in Birmingham who had discovered oxygen, invented carbonated water and had written a textbook on electricity. He also promoted revolutionary principles. For his sympathies, he was made to suffer. After it was leaked in July 1791 that Priestley and friends planned to celebrate the second anniversary of Bastille Day at Dadley’s Hotel in Temple Row, rioters took to Birmingham’s streets chanting “Church & King forever!” Priestley’s house and laboratory were destroyed with the mob looking for other targets. Encouraged by “agents provocateurs,” they turned their rage against members of the scientific Lunar Society (which included James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin and others).
The mayhem lasted for three days until George III finally agreed to send in soldiers to end the riot. He may not have condoned the brawl, but his contempt for those who approved of the Revolution was clear. Priestley moved his family to London before embarking in April 1794 on a vessel named The Hope to set sail for the United States, eventually settling in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. For this man of science Europe held no future.
Britain’s hostile intellectual climate made Macie decide to move to Paris in 1792. He would spent most of his life on the Continent where his egalitarian views and hatred of the gentry were shaped. His contempt for absolute authority deepened under Napoleon’s rule. Detained as a suspected spy in 1807, James spent five miserable years in prison.
Macie maintained some links with British scientific developments. In 1800, he became a founding member of the new Royal Institution, an organization devoted to spreading scientific knowledge. That same year his mother died. Having inherited her vast estate Macie changed his surname to Smithson. Resenting his “bastard” status, he was impatient to leave the country.
Back in Paris at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, he dedicated himself to research whilst enjoying the company of many outstanding scientists. Here he wrote the majority of his known publications. His relations with Britain further deteriorated as the Royal Society for reasons unknown (political?) declined to publish his later contributions.
Death & Legacy
In 1819, Smithson’s brother died in Paris. He left his estate to James to be held in trust for his son, Henry James Dickinson. With his own health deteriorating, bachelor Smithson journeyed back to London in 1826 to finalize his own will. He left his estate to Henry James, but added an intriguing final clause which stipulated that if his nephew would pass away without heirs, his estate was to go to the United States with the aim of founding “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
Smithson died in 1829 while on a visit to Genoa and was buried in the city’s English Protestant cemetery, his grave site marked with an elaborate sarcophagus paid for by his nephew (now on view in the Smithsonian). His will was printed in the London Times and reprinted in The New York American. James’s nephew died six years later in Pisa, leaving no offspring.
Suddenly the will took on significance. The Smithson estate was bequeathed to America, a nation that had carried forward the principles of the French Revolution and rebelled against Britain. James’s admiration for its democratic ideals was evident. The language of the will reflects his conviction that the United States would soon overtake Europe in scientific endeavor. His ideal of an egalitarian “public science” stood in sharp contrast to the Royal Society’s exclusivity.
President Andrew Jackson announced the news of the bequest to Congress. It caused heated debates as to whether the Federal government had the authority or willingness to accept the gift. Getting the money out of England was an administrative ordeal, compounded by lingering animosity over the War of 1812. British troops had invaded and burned much of Washington, DC. Would it be sound politics to welcome charity from a “patronizing” Englishman? Distrust of Smithson’s intentions surfaced time and again in the debate; some politicians doubted the benefactor’s sanity.
Once the argument was settled after more than a decade of fractious wrangling, the estate was awarded to the United States in May 1838. Eight years later President James K. Polk signed the legislation, establishing the Smithsonian Institution. In 1865, its first building (known as the Castle) suffered a blaze in which Smithson’s diaries, papers and mineral collection were lost. It is a persistent myth that his ghost still visits the “haunted” Castle.
Saved by the Bells
In 1903, the British Cemetery in Genoa was to be displaced by the enlargement of a nearby marble quarry. If not moved, Smithson’s bones would be blasted into the Mediterranean. When Smithsonian Regent and inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell became aware of the situation, he and his son-in-law Gilbert Grosvenor (editor of the National Geographic Magazine) started a campaign to “save” Smithson and bring him to Washington.
Bell shared Smithson’s belief in the social value of science and the latter’s conviction that it is in “knowledge that man has found his greatness.” He was determined that the latter should gain the respect he deserved and be honored as an “American hero.”
Bell and his wife Mabel arrived in Genoa on Christmas Day. Following days of securing permits, the exhumation process finally began on the morning of December 31, 1903. The coffin had crumbled, but Smithson’s skeleton was well preserved. In spite of atrocious weather conditions, Mabel took a series of photographs to record the grisly process, which includes an image of Smithson’s skull being held aloft by the US Consul William Henry Bishop.
After completing their task, the German steamship Princess Irene left Genoa for New York on January 7, 1904, carrying the Bells as well as Smithson’s remains in new metal casket draped with an American flag. Arriving in New York on January 20, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Navy dispatch vessel USS Dolphin to welcome the Irene by firing salutes and escort it to Hoboken, New Jersey, where the casket was transferred to the Dolphin for the voyage to Washington’s Navy Yard. From there a troop of the 15th Calvary accompanied the coffin to the Regents’ Room at the Smithsonian, the final destination of this eternal migrant’s physical and intellectual journey.
Illustrations, from above: House flag of John Griswold’s Black X Line; portrait of James Smithson, 1786 by James Roberts (Smithsonian: National Portrait Gallery); Rioters Attacking Priestley’s House, July 14, 1791 by Johann Eckstein (Susan Lowndes Marques Collection); Smithsonian Castle; William Henry Bishop, US Consul to Genoa, holding Smithson’s skull during exhumation (Smithsonian Institution); and steamship Princess Irene sailed from Italy to New York, carrying Alexander Graham Bell and his wife and James Smithson’s remains.