Life Story of

Benjamin Thompson, Jr.

1753 - 1814

A Biography of Benjamin Thompson, Jr.

Written in 1868 by Rev. Samuel Sewall as part of his work
"The History of Woburn, Middlesex County, Mass."



This biography is in the public domain.
It has not been edited for grammar or language.



"Benjamin Thompson, the future Count of Rumford [...] was born March 26, 1753, in the west end of the house of his grandfather, Capt. Ebenezer Thompson, where his parents went to live immediately after their marriage. That house, an ancient two-story dwelling house, is still standing; recently, till her death, the home of the Count's first cousin, the widow of Willard Jones, and situate a few rods south of the meeting-house in North Woburn, at the corner of the road coming from Burlington, and of the road leading from Woburn Centre to Wilmington; and is distinguished by a huge willow tree growing directly in front of it.
In this humble dwelling, the child Benjamin continued to live with his mother and grandfather after the death of his father, who died November 7, 1754, when the boy was hardly one year and eight months old. But in March 1756 his mother married, for her second husband, Mr. Josiah Pierce, Jr., of Woburn, and took her son Benjamin with her to her new home; a house, it is said, that once stood directly opposite the Baldwin mansion, but is now taken down, though the cellar of it is yet visible.

He was distinguished, while yet a boy, by quickness of apprehension, fondness for books, and a genious for mechanical invention. At a suitable age, he was sent (accompanied by his neighbor and school-mate, Loammi Baldwin) to that celebrated teacher in Woburn, Master John Fowle [...] who kept the grammar school in his native town, some ten or twelve years in succession. By him he was taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and the grammar of his own language, through the medium of the Latin. After leaving Mr. Fowle at eleven years of age, he was put under the charge of a Mr. Hill of Medford, with whom he proceeded in the study of mathematics; and was also taught astronomy; of his proficiency in which, he gave evidence by calculating eclipses of the sun and moon.

At the age of thirteen, he was bound an apprentice to Mr. John Appleton, a respectable merchant in Salem; and while he was with him, he industriously improved his leisure moments in extending his acquaintance with mathematics and physical science. But this gentleman, having in consequence of the growing difficulties between Great Britain and her Colonies, entered into the non-importation agreement, his business became so contracted, that he no longer needed an apprentice; and young Thompson was allowed to return to his mother's in Woburn. From this same cause, he left the employ of Mr. Hopestill Capen, a dry goods dealer in Boston, in whose store, some time after he quitted Mr. Appleton, he was engaged in the Spring of 1770 as a clerk.
The leisure which these successive relinquishments of commercial pursuits gave young Thompson, was diligently employed by him either in school-keeping, or in the cultivation of his own mind. In the winter of 1768-9, we find him teaching a school at Wilmington. And in the summer of 1769, he applied himself to the study of anatomy and physiology, under the direction of Dr. John Hay, a physician then resident in Woburn, with a view to qualifying himself for the practice of medicine.
In the summer of 1770, after quitting Mr. Capen's store in Boston, he and his friend and school-mate, Loammi Baldwin, obtained liberty to attend Professor Winthrop's course of lectures upon Natural Philosophy, delivered in Harvard College. This was a privilege which was highly appreciated by them both. In their attendance upon these lectures, they were accustomed to walk from Woburn to Cambridge; and upon their return, they would employ themselves in attempts to illustrate the principles which they had heard laid down in the lecture-room, by experiments and rude instruments of their own contriving.

In the autumn of 1770, he took charge of a school in Concord, N. H., (then called Rumford); and while fulfilling this engagement, he became acquainted with Mrs. Sarah Rolfe, daughter of Rev. Timothy Walker, the first minister of the place, and widow of Col. Benjamin Rolfe, one of the early settlers of Concord, and a gentleman of influence there, who deceased in 1770. This lady he married, in 1772, and came into possession by her of a large property. And attending with her, not long after their marriage, a military muster at Portsmouth, N. H., he was introduced to Gov. Wentworth, who conceived such an esteem for him, that he quickly after conferred on him the office of Major, in one of the New Hampshire regiments.
But this sudden military promotion was deeply resented by the officers over whose heads he had been unexpectedly elevated. Henceforth, they omitted no opportunity of doing him an injury. At the commencement of the Recolutionary War, they but too succesfully spread an insinuation that he was disaffected to the cause of his country; and that he held a criminal correspondence with Gov. Wentworth and Gen. Gage. To refute this latter charge, he solemnly averred that the correspondence he had holden with Gov. Wentworth was not of a political character, and was begun before the Governor avowed himself a tory, and while his administration was popular with all parties; and that his only letter to Gen. Gage consisted of six lines, requesting him to order that two deserters from the British army, in 1774, whom he had employed on his farm in Concord, N. H., and whom Gen. Gage had pardoned upon their return to their ranks, at the intercession of Maj. Thompson while in Boston, might not publicly reveal the name of their successful advocate with the General on their behalf.
But no defence he could make, no explanation he could offer of the charges alleged against him, could free him from public suspicion and obloquy. At Concord, he was not suffered to remain in safety and peace: and when he came to Woburn, he was on one memorable occasion in danger of personal violence, from which, probably, only the interposition of his friend, Baldwin, delivered him; and, on another occasion, he was arrested and tried in the meeting-house at Woburn, before the Committee of Correspondence, upon the charge of disaffection to the cause of his country. This trial resulted in his release from arrest, but a refusal on the part of the court to give him a full acquittal. Considering this refusal as unjust, he appealed to the Committee of Safety for the colony, which referred him to the Provincial Congress; and this body declined acting on the petition he presented them. Deeply resenting this treatment, and the insults to which he was constantly subjected, finding that the actual services he was occasionally enabled to render the popular cause were insufficient to secure him the public confidence, and that his repeated efforts to obtain a command in the army of his country were unavailing, he at length made up his mind to remove to a distance from this scene of trial. Accordingly, in a letter to his father-in-law, Rev. Timothy Walker, he assures him, that not being conscious of any feelings or acts in his political career that were inimical to the interests of the land of his birth, he could not conscientously make any confessions to his opponents, (as that gentleman had proposed he might do, for the sake of appeasing their animosity); he assigns reasons why he deemed it imperatively necessary to retire to some place at a distance from his friends in this vicinity; and earnestly and affectionately commends his wife and daughter to his care. And then collecting what money he could, from every resource at his command, and giving out, that having failed to obtain employment in the northern army, he was going south to find means of support, he left Cambridge, October 10, 1775; and going to the nearest post-town, accompanied by Josiah Peirce, Jr., (3d?) his half brother, he there dismissed him; and then went on his way, leaving his relatives and friends here in utter uncertainty where he was, how he was situated, and what he was doing, till the revolutionary struggle was over.


Maj. Thompson himself proceeded directly to Newport; and finding there the next day a boat belonging to the British Frigate Scarborough, he was conveyed in it to the frigate, which took him on board; and after remaining in it a few days, he was landed at Boston, which was still occupied by Gen. Gage, and his army. And when Gage's successor, Gen. Howe, evacuated Boston, in March following, he sent his despatches containing the news to England by Thompson, who re-embarked in the ship which had conveyed him to Boston, while Gen. Howe himself with his army sailed for Halifax.
The despatches borne by Thompson were directed to Lord George Germaine, Secretary of State for the department, to which the affairs of the colonies were intrusted. By this powerful minister, he was very graciously received, and immediately offered employment in his own department, which Thompson thankfully accepted, and entered at once on the discharge of his official duties. and in this employment he acquitted himself with so much ability and faithfulness, that within four years from his arrival in England, he was advanced to the dignity of "under Secretary of State."

Early in 1784, being on a tour to the continent, Col. Thompson received a flattering invitation from Charles Frederick, Elector and reigning Duke of Bavaria, to come and reside with him at Munich his Capital, with encouraging assurances of advantageous employment. Being inclined to accept this invitation, he went back to England shortly after receiving it, to obtain permission from the King to enter into the service of a foreign prince. Such permission was readily granted him. And, as a testimonial of the royal approbation of his labors while in England, the king conferred on him the honor of knighthood, accepted his resignation as a colonel of dragoons, (an office with which he had been recently invested,) and allowed him to retain the half pay of his military rank; a privilege which was continued to him through life.
Going from England to Munich, before the close of the year 1784, he found an honorable post assigned him near the person of the sovereign; and there he at once commenced a series of exertions and labors, which proved very successful, and higly beneficial both to the government and to the public. He effected very important reforms in the military establishment of the country. He brought about arrangements, by which the soldiers were better fed, clothed and paid; were encouraged in various industrial pursuits for the benefit of themselves and families: schools were founded, in which they and their children were instructed gratis in the rudiments of learning; and workshops were provided, in which their uniforms were made, and military equipments were wrought by their own hands and those of their wives, the State furnishing the raw materials.

He adopted measures likewise, by which mendicity, that had grown to be an enormous evil in Munich, was utterly abolished there. But while he put down beggary in Munich, he instituted means, by which, through the voluntary contributions of its inhabitants, and the countenance and aid of the principal officers of State, and by a council chosen by them from among the people, the poor were in all respects amply provided for, were trained and inured to habits of honest industry, and were led to cherish sentiments of self-respect, which fostered in them both the desire and the ability to get their own living, and to make themselves independent of the public aid. These benevolent, disinterested labors of Sir Benjamin Thompson for the poor of Munich kindled in them the warmest sentiments of veneration, gratitude, and love; sentiments of which they repeatedly gave public unmistakable tokens. On occasion of being once seized with a dangerous illness, while he had the management of the workhouse established for their benefit, "its inmates," we are told, "went in procession to the cathedral, where, at their request, divine service was performed, and public prayers offered for his recovery: and four years afterwards, when the news of his being ill at Naples reached Munich, they voluntarily set apart an hour each evening, to join in supplications for his restoration to health."
Nor was it by the poor only that he was honored, revered, and caressed. Many were the tokens conferred on him of the high esteem in which he was held for his abilities and worth by his noble friend, the Elector, and by the literati of Bavaria, and other countries of Germany. Among the numerous honorary distinctions awarded him, was his admission "as a member of the Academy of Science at Berlin;" his appointment of "Councillor of State" to the Elector; Lieut.-General of the Army of Bavaria; "Commander-in-chief of the General Staff;" "Minister of War;" "Superintendent of the Police of the Electorate;" and to crown all, "in the interval between the death of the Emperor Joseph, and the coronation of his successor Leopold," his friend, the Elector, becoming Vicar of the empire, availed himself of the prerogatives of that office, to make him "a Count of the Holy Roman Empire." "In receiving the last dignity, he chose a title in remembrance of the country of his nativity, and of the place endeared by recollections both of pleasure and pain; and was thenceforth known as Count of Rumford, from one of the names by which the residence of his wife had been distinguished."

After a residence of about ten years in Bavaria, his health became impaired, and he sought relief in a journey to Naples. But this expedient proving ineffectual, he, on his return to Munich, obtained leave to visit England again, which he did in 1795, after an absence of eleven years. Here he received great attention from his former friends and associates, was consulted in almost all schemes for the promotion of public benevolent ends, and published his essays for the improvement of fireplaces, and the cure of smoky chimneys. And now having recovered his health, (his principal inducement for making this visit to England) he was enabled advantageously to pursue his philosophical inquiries and experiments both in England and in Ireland, when alarming intelligence from the Electorate hastened his departure from London to Munich. Arriving in that city early in 1796, he found it in a state of terror and consternation. The war between France and Austria, which followed the French Revolution, had brought an army of each of the contending parties into the neighborhood, or to the very walls of the city. And the Elector, alarmed for his own safety, fled from his capital, eight days after the arrival of Rumford, having first appointed him head of the Council of Regency, during his absence. Availing himself of the power conferred on him by this appointment, Rumford put himself at the head of the Bavarian forces, and by his resolute yet prudent management, he induced both the opposing armies to desist from their threatened hostile purposes, and to retire; thus averting the danger which threatened the city, and opening a way for the Elector's return. For this, his services, the inhabitants of Munich gave Rumford unequivocal tokens of their gratitude. And the Elector loaded him with new honors, and permitted him to settle one-half of the pension which he allowed him on his daughter, (who had accompanied him thither from England,) and extended its term to the duration of her life.


To recover his health, which was again giving way, he was induced, with the elector's leave, to make another journey to England, accompanied by his daughter, in 1798. While there, the fame of his attainments in learning, philosophy and usefulness having spread far and wide, he received a formal invitation from the government of the United States to revisit his native land. This invitation, his daughter was very urgent with him to accept immediately. He himself was strongly inclined to do so; and wrote to his friend, Col. Loammi Baldwin, of Woburn, Mass., to secure for him a house and land in the vicinity of Cambridge, which he might make the place of his residence on his arrival, and leave to his daughter for a home, when he had done with it. But being, in the mean while, earnestly solicited to assist in the estavlishment of the "Royal Institution," an institution patronized by the King, aided by liberal contributions of the wealthy, and designed, according to its charter, for "diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction of useful mechanical inventions and improvements, and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the useful purposes of life," he was reluctantly persuaded, from motives of duty, to postpone his intended visit to the United States, and never afterwards found it convenient to resume it.

The death of the Elector, Charles Frederic, Rumford's zealous patron, benefactor, and fast friend, in 1799, changed the whole future course of his life. For the Elector's nephew and successor, Prince Maximilian Joseph Deux Ponts, though the first to introduce Rumford to the notice of his uncle, and still friendly to him, was so wrought upon by his nobles, who were jealous of the fame and influence of Rumford, as to show himself indisposed to find him the employment which the old Elector had. This state of things, Rumford perceived upon his return from England to Bavaria. And, disappointed and mortified by the neglect he had to submit to, having first assisted in reorganizing "the Bavarian Academy of Sciences," he took his final leave of the Electorate.
But he did not go from it without leaving behind, in the hearts of the people, a grateful remembrance of his benevolent exertions, not only for the correction of great evils existent among them, and for the advancement of their highest and best worldly interests, but also for the promotion of their pleasure, entertainment and comfort, in their leisure moments. To use the words of his biographer, "In the immediate vicinity of Munich was a large extent of waste land, which had formerly been a hunting ground of the Prince: and although the game had long since been extirpated, and the forest had disappeared, it was still the property of the Elector. Rumford, who had in England imbibed a taste for the art of landscape gardening . . . . proposed to render this profitable, by converting portions of it into [an ornamental farm,] while other parts were laid out in walks and drives, for the recreation of the inhabitants of Munich. The circuit of the grounds was six miles, around which a road was constructed, embellished at intervals with picturesque cottages and dwellings, that were occupied by the tenants who cultivated portions of the ground, or by those employed in superintending and taking care of the grounds.
"To diversify the features of the ground, a space was excavated, which filled with water, formed a beautiful artificial lake, while the earth removed from it was employed to form a mount (mound ?). To accomodate the citizens in search of recreation, a public coffee-house was erected, and committed to the charge of a respectable keeper, while edifices intended for embellishment, afforded seats at the best points of view.
"After Rumford left Bavaria, the principal nobility and inhabitants of Munich chose to express their gratitude for his exertions in procuring them this place of recreation, by erecting a monument to commemorate his agency, on which they also caused to be recorded his services in rooting out mendicity and founding institutions for education."



After quitting Bavaria, having employed himself some time in travelling in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, Rumford arrived at length in Paris, where he was received with all due honor and distinction. His daughter had now left him, having returned to America about the time he gave up his projected voyage to his native land. And the Count himself becoming acquainted at Paris with the widowed lady of Lavoisier, the celebrated chemist, a mutual attachment between them ensued, which terminated in their marriage, as soon as the requisite certificates of his own birth, and of the death of his first wife (which he had written his daughter in July 1804 to procure for him) could be obtained from the United States. He now took up his abode in the village of Auteuil (near Paris), which had belonged to his wife's former husband, and been the seat of many of his important discoveries in physical and chemical science. And here Rumford himself continued to pursue his philosophical inquiries and studies, till death removed him from the world. His decease, occasioned by a fever, occurred August 21, 1814, at his villa in Auteuil, in the sixty-second year of his age, "depriving manking of one of its most eminent benefactors, and science of one of its brightest ornaments."






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