It’s nice to be born into wealth, and that often equates to being born into privilege. Often… but not always. James Lewis Macie was born in France in 1765, with aristocratic, wealthy parents. Macie’s problem was that one parent, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, was wealthy, and the other, the eventual Duke of Northumberland, was aristocratic. The pair simply weren’t married.
This rendered Macie illegitimate. Despite common knowledge of the pair’s dalliances, Elizabeth Macie’s assertions that she had been exclusively with Hugh Smithson (later Sir Hugh Percy), and the strong resemblance between James and his father, the Duke refused to acknowledge his son.
Macie moved to England. He became a naturalized citizen. He studied very hard, and he proved to be an excellent student. He was a good son; he bore little resentment to his father, and respected his mother. After both of his parents had passed away, he had his name legally changed to James Macie Smithson, to respect both family names.
He continued to excel at his studies, becoming a mineralogist and then an expert in the burgeoning field of chemistry. His meticulous notes fueled advances by himself and others, and also earned him far greater wealth. Lesser accomplishments than his earned people peerages.
James, however, was a bastard. Illegitimate children weren’t simply banned from inheriting from their fathers’ estates, they also could not be granted titles in England. James watched as friends and rivals alike were regularly elevated to positions he could never achieve, solely due to his birth.
James never married, refusing to bring scandal to any women he admired. He avoided having children for a similar reason, having dealt with the shame of being born out of wedlock all his life. Instead he poured his efforts into his work.
He did have a nephew. James arranged to leave his entire fortune to that nephew upon his death. His nephew undoubtedly appreciated that when his famous, rich uncle died in 1829.
But if his nephew died without fathering an heir, that would result in all of James’ wealth defaulting to England, the country whose rules had resulted in his unjust humiliation. He could leave it to an organization… but they typically worked hand-in-glove with the aristocracy. He could leave it to France… but he had long since abandoned the nation of his birth. He did not trust either country to treat him fairly, particularly on the topic of carrying on his family name.
James included a provision into his will to cover that possibility, which proved to be prescient when his nephew passed away in 1835 without any children of his own.
That provision was designed to reward a young country which James had never so much as visited, because they didn’t have any aristocratic title games. It shifted the remains of his fortune “to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
To his great credit, it has continued to do exactly that.
Question of the night: Do you have any notorious or celebrated relatives?