SMITHSON (JAMES)
Lot 186
SMITHSON (JAMES)
Sold for £21,510 (US$ 36,625) inc. premium
Lot Details
Americana
SMITHSON (JAMES)
Autograph letter signed (“James L. Macie”), to Davies Giddy (Gilbert), written from Paris at the height of the French Revolution, for which he exhibits the greatest possible enthusiasm (“...Well! Things are going on! Ça ira, is growing the song of England, of Europe, as well as of France. Men of every rank are joining the chorus. Stupidity and Guilt have had a long reign, and it begins, indeed, to be time for Justice and common-sense to have their turn. Every English man I converse with, almost every every [sic] English man I see or hear of, appears to be of the Democratic party...You have understood, I hope, that the church is now here, quite unacknowledged by the state...Mr Louis Bourbon is still at Paris, and the office of king is not yet abolished, but they daily feel the inutility, or rather great inconvenience, of continuing it, and its duration will probably not be long. May other Nations, at the time of their reforms, be wise enough to cast off, at first, the contemptible incumbrance. I consider a nation with a king, as a man who takes a Lion as a guard-dog; if he knocks out his teeth, he renders him useless; while if he leaves the lion his teeth, the lion eats him...”), and bantering about some crystals which Gilbert had promised him, three pages, 4to, address panel on verso, postmarked, Gilbert´s docket, laid down at edge of verso of second leaf, printed identification slip, but otherwise in fine fresh condition, “Paris. May 9th Year 4” [1792]

AN EXTREMELY RARE LETTER BY JAMES SMITHSON, REVEALING THE POLITICAL SYMPATHIES THAT LED HIM TO ENDOW THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION. James Lewis Macie was the illegitimate son of Sir Hugh Smithson, later Duke of Northumberland, by Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie. He changed his name from Macie to Smithson at some time before 1802. Much of his great wealth appears to have come from his mother´s side of the family, the Hungerfords, augmented by a bequest from Dorothy Percy, the Duke´s illegitimate daughter. He was an undergraduate at Oxford with Davies Gilbert, who described him as being the best chemist and mineralogist of his year. He maintained his friendship with Gilbert, being elected FRS the year he went down and having many papers read at the Society, of which Gilbert was Treasurer and later President (including one in 1802 on ‘A Chemical Analysis of Some Calamines´ which resulted in carbonate of zinc afterwards being named Smithsonite). He spent most of his time on the Continent, where he died, without visiting America. By his will of 1826, he entailed his estate upon his nephew Henry James Hungerford, stating that, should he die without heir, the whole would go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”. Smithson died in Italy three years later, and the childless nephew in 1835; whereupon the United States was informed of Smithson´s bequest. A court case then ensued in Britain (resolved in America´s favour in 1838), and the issue was debated in Congress; a good deal of puzzlement being expressed as to why someone who had never visited America should have made such a bequest. Nevertheless, with John Quincy Adams´s support, the Smithsonian Institution was eventually established by Act of Congress in 1846. In 1904 Smithson´s body was taken in state, accompanied by John Logie Baird, from Italy and reinterred at the Institution. Most of Smithson´s papers were destroyed by a fire at the Institution in 1865; and none are listed as having appeared for sale in American Book Prices Current. This letter, from which an extract is quoted in the article on Smithson in the Dictionary of National Biography, provides the most plausible reason for Smithson´s benefaction to the young republic, one which led to the foundation of what is now its largest museum complex, and one without parallel elsewhere in the world.
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