- Historic Sites
THE STRANGE FORGOTTEN LIFE OF AMERICA’S OTHER BEN FRANKLIN, BY AN AUTHOR SO FASCINATED HE’S WRITING A NOVEL ABOUT HIM
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
Funerary language is all too often excessive, but Baron Delessert told the truth when he said that this “rare genius” had been widely honored in Europe. The Royal Institution in London still displays its founder’s portrait in Albemarle Street, and he was the single American to be painted by Thomas Gainsborough. Rumford was an honorary member—no mean feat—of the Academy of Science in France; he rid Munich of its beggars, turning them from the “evils of mendicity” to profitable labor in a municipal workhouse.
For this and other services to a beleaguered Bavaria, according to a proclamation by “Carl Theodor, Elector at Rhine by the grace of God, Duke of Upper and Lower Bavaria, Lord High Steward and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire,” he was made a count on May 9, 1792. (It’s worth remarking here that the Empire was nearly defunct, a shadow entity, and that this was the sort of title available to foreigners.) The count’s statue presides over Munich’s Maximilianstrasse, and his monument over a corner of the English Gardens—a park he single-handedly designed. He was the subject of respectful rhyme and that form of backhanded compliment, caricature.
The “benefactor of humanity” left a will dated September 28, 1812; one of its witnesses was the Marquis de Lafayette. Included in the bequests were a plain gold watch for the chemist Humphry Davy and a gold-headed cane and gold-enameled watch, with the gold chain and seals attached, for the American Daniel Parker. To Benjamin, Baron Delessert, Rumford left a gold-enameled snuffbox, set around with diamonds, that had been given him by His Majesty Francis II, Emperor of Austria. The bulk of the estate, however, was set aside for a trio of beneficiaries: Harvard College, the United States Military Academy, and Rumford’s daughter, Sarah.
These three principal recipients tell an intriguing tale. They represent, turn by turn, the components—intellectual, military, domestic—of the “distinguished man’s” career. Yet Ben Thompson did not attend Harvard; he was a Tory sympathizer and a secret agent in the Revolution, and he and his daughter, whom he abandoned when she was an infant, rarely saw eye to eye. It’s true, of course, that legators may attempt to remedy by testament the real or fancied attitude of a legatee, to punish or reward an enemy or friend. So we can read a deathbed dispensation as a remedy for failure, a change of heart after the fact. But this testament is of a piece with the adventurer who made it, and it’s possible, therefore, to get some sense of the paradox inhering in Count Rumford’s life by starting at its end. How had he come to this pass?
Ben Thompson was a meliorist. His writings are full of a Franklin-like agenda for self-help and, by extension, the improvement of society; to understand a problem—according to this optimistic view of things—is to have it solved. As Rumford wrote in an essay proposing “the Excellent Qualities of Coffee,” “When the cause of any evil is perfectly known, it is seldom very difficult to find a means to prevent it.” He was persuaded that people could, should be improved, and the rational first step for any such improvement consists of education. Here is the course of study he prescribed himself when apprenticed to Dr. John Hay of Woburn, at sixteen:
His inclination was to lead away from medicine, but his first known scientific drawing represents a “monstrous child” born in Woburn on April 16, 1771. Ben Thompson displayed a precocious free-ranging intelligence. His experiments with gunpowder, which were to make him famous, began when he was fifteen years old and working for John Appleton, a merchant in the town of Salem. Later he would write, “The explosion of gunpowder is certainly one of the most surprising phaenomena we are acquainted with, and I am persuaded it would much oftener have been the subject of the investigations of speculative philosophers, as well as of professional men, in this age of inquiry, were it not for the danger attending the experiments; but the force of gunpowder is so great, and its effects so sudden and terrible, that, notwithstanding all the precautions possible, there is ever a considerable degree of danger attending the management of it, as I have more than once found to my cost.” While fashioning a set of rockets, young Thompson blew himself up. He returned to Woburn in order to recuperate; there he engaged in scientific discourse with his friend and neighbor Loammi Baldwin:
Woburn Aug 16th 1769
Mr. Loammi Baldwin Sir