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July 14 is Bastille Day

Images: Smithson letter of “May 9, Year 4”

Bastille Day, a French national holiday, commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison by the populace of Paris to free political prisoners of the royal government (and obtain a supply of ammunition and gunpowder) on July 14, 1789. It symbolizes the start of the French Revolution, more formally initiated in August when feudalism was abolished and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed.

A young man named James L. Macie traveled to Paris two years later. He had been born there in 1765 to a wealthy English widow and her lover Hugh Smithson, who later became the Duke of Northumberland, but as an illegitimate son James was never acknowledged by his father and was barred by English law and custom from certain professions, rights, and privileges. He was therefore understandably thrilled by the winds of democratic change and social progress that were sweeping away age-old inequalities and injustices in France. In May of 1792—which he mistakenly called “Year 4” of the new Revolutionary calendar—in a letter to a friend named Davies Giddy (later Gilbert) back in England, young Mr. Macie writes:

Well! Things are going on! . . . Stupidity and Guilt have had a long reign, and it begins, indeed, to be time for Justice and common-sense to have their turn. . . . Mr. Louis Bourbon [King Louis XVI] 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. . . . 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.

He left Paris a few months later, just before of the massacre at the Tuileries where the royal family was captured. In his later years, after changing his name to that of his father and becoming James Smithson, his enthusiasm for the principles of democracy and scientific enlightenment took a different form, and after his death in 1829 it was discovered that he had bequeathed his estate 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.”

For a fascinating study of his life and times, read Heather Ewing’s recent biography The lost world of James Smithson: Science, revolution, and the birth of the Smithsonian ((New York: Bloomsbury, 2007).

—Leslie Overstreet

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