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
This biography is in the
"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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."