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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
Please to inform me in what manner fire opperates upon Clay to Change the Colour from the Natural Colour to red and from red to Black &c and how it operates upon Silver to Change it to Blue
I am Your most Huml & obedient Servant Benjamin Thompson
God Save the King
Rumford invented the convertible sofa, improved the double boiler, and proselytized for coffee.
He and Baldwin walked from Woburn to Cambridge (no small ramble—a thirty-mile round trip) to listen to the lectures of the celebrated astronomer John Winthrop. Later, when in England, he would help create the Royal Institution for the “edification and instruction” of the common man. And his essays are full of hortatory insistence on the value of experiment, promoting both trial and error and scientific self-reliance, those most American of virtues. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford would have found Thompson congenial; Luther Burbank and Buckminster Fuller might have recognized a kindred spirit in the count. So although he was an auto-didact and had not attended college, he showed a lifelong interest in and respect for the academy; there is still today at Harvard a “Rumford Professor of the Physical and Mathematical Sciences as applied to the useful Arts.”
His gift of maps and books and drawings to the Military Academy seems rather more surprising; it’s as if Benedict Arnold had bequeathed his papers to the library at Fort Ticonderoga. Major Thompson was a Tory, one of General Gage’s informers, and a military spy. Using a form of invisible ink—he called it “sympathetic ink” and fashioned it from an infusion of nutgalls—he wrote to the English general about the training, disposition, and preparedness of the American troops. When his double-agent dealings were about to be unmasked, he fled from Boston to London. He returned to these shores only once, as a lieutenant colonel in King George’s service, and earned a reputation for ferocity in war.
In Charleston, South Carolina, he engaged the troops of Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” beating them at Wambaw Creek; after that he sailed north. Camped in Huntington, Long Island, he slaughtered the farmers’ livestock, tore down their fences for kindling, and razed the local church. He requisitioned tombstones from the local cemetery and converted them into baker’s slabs. Legend has it that he made the citizens of Huntington eat bread with their relatives’ initials incised upon the crusts. So Ben Thompson was much hated in America. But he never quite could understand why his natal nation did not make him welcome home, and though it seems at best improbable that he would have been appointed to administer the army he had attempted to subdue, he once proposed himself as the military supervisor of West Point.
There’s something of the mercenary here—a selling to the highest bidder—and something also of Count Rumford’s lifelong love of order. The hierarchical arrangement of the British army must have seemed far more congenial to the young Tory than the higgledy-piggledy massing of the patriots’ militia. Also, the notion of national affinity—that cluster of emotions we now describe as love of country—was less well defined in the eighteenth century; men crossed boundaries at will and worked where they were paid. To be a “man without a country” was not necessarily to be an alien or alone. One has the sense that what this soldier most enjoyed was the chance to prance astride a horse, beribboned and bright-helmeted, approving a parade. He first attracted the attention of Gov. John Wentworth of New Hampshire by how well he sat his mount and wore his cloak; later he became the associate of Prince Maximilian des Deux Ponts for much the same reason, in Strasbourg. He ended his military career in the service of the Elector Palatine—and one of his first acts as chamberlain and general was to improve the costume of the Bavarian troops. He paid attention all his life to cockades, furs, silks, caps, and capes; in his old age he liked to go for carriage rides while wearing, entirely, white.
The career is rich and strange; it resists brief summary. Rumford’s published writings run to several thousand pages; his preserved letters are numerous also, as are contemporary accounts. His father died when he was young; his mother remarried a farmer, and he began with few advantages. Thompson was handsome, however, and tall and strong; he took French and fencing lessons and, in exchange for cut and delivered hardwood, bought a blue Hussar cloak. In this garment he went courting and won his first campaign. Further, he possessed an active—his enemies would call it opportunistic—imagination; he created himself from whole cloth.
When it came time to solicit a title in Britain, he enlarged upon his ancestors’ importance, conferring on them an invented relation to “the antient and respectable Family of Thompson of the County of York, from a constant Tradition that they derived their Descent from that Source. …” All his life he courted favor, from both male and female sponsors, and it helped if the sponsors were rich. Gov. John Wentworth, Lord George Germain, Prince Maximilian des Deux Ponts, the Elector Palatine, Countess Baumgarten, Mary Palmerston, and Mary, Countess Nogarola fell—turn by turn, and there were others—under his elegant spell.