Graphical timeline from Smithson to Smithsonian
From Smithson to Smithsonian - The Birth of an InstitutionAccepting Smithson's Gift

Who Was James Smithson?
Sccepting Smithson's Gift
All-American Compromise
The Smithsonian Building
An Institution Emerges
A National Collection
Smithson's Legacy

Pursuing the Smithson Bequest

Richard Rush, Diplomat Extraordinaire

A lawyer and a diplomat, Richard Rush spent two years in England pursuing the United States' claim in the Court of Chancery. The mother of the late Henry James Hungerford, Smithson's nephew and designated heir, filed a counterclaim. Nonetheless, Rush won the United States' claim in a remarkably short time.

The Court awarded Smithson's properties, valued at the equivalent of $508,318, to the United States on May 9, 1838.

Rush personally posted a $500,000 bond as insurance that he would not abscond with the Smithson bequest.

Richard Rush
Richard Rush

"A suit of higher interest and dignity has rarely, perhaps, been before the tribunals of a nation. . . . Benefits may flow to the United States and the human family not easy to be estimated."
—Richard Rush (1780-1859)

Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Bleak House

Bleak House?

"[Being in the Court of Chancery is like] being ground to bits in a slow mill; it's being roasted at a slow fire; it's being stung to death by single bees; it's being drowned by drops; it's going mad by grains."
-Tom Jarndyce in Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1853

In his letters to U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth, Rush complained that the British Court of Chancery was overly complex and bureaucratic, with excessive fees and clerks to be paid at every step. Exasperation with the Court--which was more than 800 cases in arrears--was a theme of several popular novels of the period, including Dickens' Bleak House.
Letter from Levi Woodbury to Nathan Mayer Rothschild
Woodbury to Rothschild

International finance was a cumbersome process in the days before air mail and electronic transfers. Rush spent two years in London securing the Smithson bequest. His expenses, which amounted to about $10,000, were handled by the Rothschild bank, which acted as the European bank to the United States.

Transcript Letter from Levi Woodbury to Nathan Mayer Rothschild
July 18, 1836

After winning his case on behalf of the United States, Rush sold the properties that made up the Smithson bequest and converted the proceeds into gold sovereigns.

Gold sovereign - obverse
Gold sovereign - obverse

Gold sovereign - reverse
Gold sovereign - reverse


Rush left London aboard the Mediator on July 17, 1838, with 11 boxes containing a total of 104,960 sovereigns, 8 shillings, and sevenpence as well as Smithson's mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects. The transatlantic voyage took six weeks.

The Mediator
The Mediator


"Somewhat worn down by fatigue since coming on shore, after an uncomfortable voyage of squalls, gales, and headwinds, I venture to ask a little repose at my home before proceeding to Washington."
-Letter from Richard Rush to Secretary of
State John Forsyth, September 4, 1838

Several inventories were made of James Smithson's belongings, including his clothing and jewelry, household items, books, and mineral specimens. Rush brought many of these items to the United States with the gold.

Transcript Inventories of James Smithson's Belongings,
1829, 1838, [1841-42]

Upon his arrival in New York, Rush transferred the gold to the U.S. Treasury. The coins were melted down to yield a value of $508,318.46.

Inventories of James Smithson's Belongings
Inventories of James
Smithson's Belongings


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