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The Remarkable American Count
Brilliant Benjamin Thompson won world fame as Count Rumford the scientist but never dispelled his countrymen’s suspicions
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
Before the end of the war, Thompson returned to England, but he did not linger. He stayed only long enough to obtain his promotion to colonel and to secure his half-pay pension for life. Then he announced his intention of becoming a soldier of fortune and of offering his sword to the Austrians in their struggle with the Turks. He crossed the Channel with Edward Gibbon, a singularly unprepossessing little man, bulbously fat and under five feet in height but of the first rank as a historian, and Henry Laurens, late president of the American Congress. “Mr. Secretary, Colonel, Admiral, Philosopher Thompson,” as Gibbon dubbed him, was still a young man—barely thirty years old. Arresting in his appearance, he had the ease and grace of a courtier, the erect carriage and clipped speech of a soldier, and the air of one accustomed to command. With these assets, he set out unhurriedly for Vienna.
Thompson never missed an opportunity of meeting and cultivating persons who might be useful to him. When he learned at Strasbourg that the garrison was to be reviewed by Prince Maximilian of Deux-Ponts, he resorted to the same stratagem he had employed successfully years before with Governor Wentworth. He appeared on the Strasbourg parade ground astride a showy charger in the conspicuous uniform of his former regiment, the King’s American Dragoons. Maximilian invited this distinguished foreigner to join him and was captivated. He gave the Colonel an enthusiastic letter of introduction to his uncle, Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria, and urged him to stop at Munich for a visit.
The Bavarian Elector was so favorably impressed that he invited the visitor to enter his service. Thompson hesitated for a time, continued his trip to Vienna, and then accepted—subject to the approval of his own sovereign. For this permission he had to return to England.
In view of George III’s expressed lack of enthusiasm for the man, his reception in London was surprising.
He was granted permission to enter the Bavarian service, and more—he was knighted. He returned to Munich as Sir Benjamin Thompson. The reason for this striking honor was partly to give him an English rank commensurate with his new office. But there was something else in the picture too. Even as he accepted service with the Elector, he made explicit arrangements with Sir Robert Murray Keith for the secret exchange of intelligence.
The fifteen years that followed were full of opportunity and achievement in both public administration and science. As grand chamberlain, lieutenant general, minister of war, and minister of police, he became the Elector’s most trusted adviser. He worked effectively to establish order and efficiency in the badly disordered state of Bavaria. Many of his reforms affected primarily the army but he had a lasting impact upon the populace as well—particularly the poor of Munich.
The multitude of diseased and importunate beggars in Munich had long been a public scandal-in all of Europe only Rome was reputed to have more. This condition struck Sir Benjamin with more force than could have been felt by any European because beggars were virtually unknown in America. By ordering the arrest in a single day of 2,600 beggars, he eradicated mendicancy and its attendant evils at a stroke. Instead of being jailed, they were ordered to report to the newly prepared House of Industry where warm rooms, warm food, training, and productive work awaited them. The experience had a remarkable effect upon the former beggars. Many were returned to respectable private employment. The others earned a satisfactory living at the same time that they produced shoes and clothing for the army at a profit to the state.
“It has always been assumed,” Sir Benjamin remarked, “that vicious and abandoned persons must be reformed before they can be made happy. Instead, why not make them happy before trying to reform them?”
With only slightly less success, he reorganized the Bavarian Army, whose efficiency and morale had fallen almost to the vanishing point. Here also he thought in terms of giving work to men who were required to serve but were seldom engaged in warfare or in any other occupation. He raised the pay of the troops, greatly improved their rations, uniforms, and quarters, established vocational schools, organized sports and competitions, and gave the men land for gardens and vacations with their families. In a short time a sullen, discontented rabble had been transformed into an effective soldiery.
One entire army corps was set to work to provide a public park for all classes of people and, incidentally, to demonstrate Thompson’s talents in landscape gardening. The Elector having placed at his disposal 600 acres of swamps and waste lands in the environs of Munich, he drained them and laid out the famous Englischer Garten, one of the most beautiful public parks in the world.
In recognition of his services to Bavaria, the Elector bestowed on him the highest honor he could give a foreigner by creating him a count of the Holy Roman Empire. This he was able to do in his capacity as viceregent of the empire during the brief interval after the death of the old emperor, Leopold, and the crowning of the new. It is indicative of Thompson’s feeling for America that he chose for his title, Rumford, the name of the obscure New Hampshire town where he had taught school and married and where he had escaped tarring and feathering only by flight.