A lonely man’s bequest — Smithsonian Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin

Today, the Smithsonian Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers when Congress and the President approved the Smithsonian Institution on August 10, 1846.

An Englishman who lived in France bequeathed his assets to be used in Washington DC, however it took several years after his death before Congress agreed on how to satisfy his request.

From The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896, The history of its first half century with excerpts from sections written by Samuel Pierpont Langley and George Brown Goode:


Of Smithson’s subsequent life we know but little.

His later years appear to have been tried by bad health and painful infirmities.

During these years he seems to have resided chiefly in Paris, where he lived at Number 121 Rue Montmartre, and where he was in the habit of entertaining his friends.

One gathers from his letters, from the uniform consideration with which he speaks of others, from kind traits which he showed, and from the general tenor of what is not here particularly cited, the impression of an innately gentle nature, but also of a man who is gradually renouncing, not without bitterness, the youthful hope of fame, and, as health and hope diminish together, is finally living for the day rather than for any future.


The Will of James Smithson

“I James Smithson Son to Hugh, first Duke of Northumberland, & Elizabeth, Heiress of the Hungerfords of Studley, & Niece to Charles the proud Duke of Somerset, now residing in Bentinck Street, Cavendish Square, do this twenty-third day of October, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six, make this my last Will and Testament:

“I bequeath the whole of my property of every nature & kind soever to my bankers, Messrs. Drummonds of Charing Cross, in trust, to be disposed of in the following manner, and I desire of my said Executors to put my property under the management of the Court of Chancery.

“To John Fitall, formerly my Servant, but now employed in the London Docks, and residing at No. 27, Jubilee Place, North Mile end, old town, in consideration of his attachment & fidelity to me, & the long & great care he has taken of my effects, & my having done but very little for him, I give and bequeath the Annuity or annual sum of One hundred pounds sterling for his life, to be paid to him quarterly, free of legacy duty & all other deductions, the first payment to be made to him at the expiration of three months after my death. I have at divers times lent sums of money to Henry Honore Sailly, formerly my Servant, but now keeping the Hungerford Hotel, in the rue Caumartin at Paris, & for which sums of money I have undated bills or bonds signed by him. Now, I will & direct that if he desires it, these sums of money be let remain in his hands at an Interest of five per cent, for five years after the date of the present Will.

“To Henry James Hungerford, my Nephew, heretofore called Henry James Dickinson, son to my late brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Louis Dickinson, now residing with Mr. Auboin, at Bourg la Reine, near Paris, I give and bequeath for his life the whole of the income arising from my property of every nature & kind whatever, after the payment of the above Annuity, & after the death of John Fitall, that Annuity likewise, the payments to be made to him at the time of the interest or dividends becomes due on the Stocks or other property from which the income arises.

“Should the said Henry James Hungerford have a child or children, legitimate or illegitimate, I leave to such child or children, his or their heirs, executors, & assigns, after the death of his, or her, or their Father, the whole of my property of every kind absolutely & forever, to be divided between them, if there is more than one, in the manner their father shall judge proper, or, in case of his omitting to decide this, as the Lord Chancellor shall judge proper.

“Should my said Nephew, Henry James Hungerford, marry, I empower him to make a jointure.

“In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property, subject to the Annuity of One hundred pounds to John Fitall, & for the security & payment of which I mean Stock to remain in this Country, 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.

“I think it proper here to state, that all the money which will be standing in the French five percents, at my death in the names of the father of my above mentioned Nephew, Henry James Hungerford, & all that in my names, is the property of my said Nephew, being what he inherited from his father, or what I have laid up for him from the savings upon his income.

“James Smithson. [l. s.]”


We see that he begins by recalling the parentage which had denied him the name of his father and the position in the some object of affection, and to find only an old servant (whom he remembers with thoughtful liberality) and a nephew, to whom he bequeaths his property.

He has provided for the continuance of the property to any possible heir to this nephew, and there seems to remain nothing more.

But there must have remained, in the retrospect of such a life as his, a sense of failure of that purpose with which he entered it, when he hoped, with youthful ambition, to create a greater name than that which birth had denied him, and when he wrote, “My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten,” and there must have come up on such an occasion the question whether this was, indeed, the end of hope and the time only for renunciation.

We see that he has not utterly renounced this hope even now; but it is so faint that he writes between a clause which concerns a legacy to a servant and one which concerns an investment in the funds, and, as it were, almost casually, the words which have perpetuated his name.

Probably no man ever made a more remunerative investment in the direction in which he would like best to see a return than was brought out by these words of Smithson, for we now all know that his bequest, when accepted by the United States Government, formed the initial step in the creation of an institution whose position has been altogether exceptional, for it is likely to remain without successor, as without precedent, in perpetuating, as it does, the fame of a private individual, whose wishes have been adopted and carried into effect by a great nation, which has consented to take the position of a guardian to award in the care of his property, and which has subsequently made his private fortune the nucleus to which have been added appropriations for objects of national importance, yet appropriations which are still administered in association with his name.


Ten years after the announcement of the bequest, and eight years after the beginning of the contest as to its disposition, the bill to incorporate the Smithsonian Institution received the approval of Congress and the President.

The charter in its final form did not represent the views of any one party, except in some degree that which favored the harmonious with the spirit of Smithson’s bequest as at present understood.

These were, for the most part, eliminated in the final discussion, and the Act finally passed by Congress, and approved by the President, August 10, 1846, while broad enough to permit almost any work for intellectual advancement, was fortunately expressed in such general terms as to allow a large degree of liberty to the governing board.


The Smithsonian Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with a portrait of James Smithson, circa 1816.

Smithsonian Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin