J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 08, 2013

A New Look at Benjamin Thompson

This week HistoryTube.org announced [trademark symbol and all]: “A portrait of Benjamin Thompson, one of the most prominent scientists of the late 18th century, will be exhibited in the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown® galleries to help tell the story of Loyalists.”

The announcement included a biography of Thompson that I thought could benefit from some translation. It said:
In the 1770s he lived in Concord (earlier called Rumford), New Hampshire, and became an officer in the 2nd Provincial Regiment.
After Thompson at age nineteen married a rich widow, Gov. John Wentworth made him a major in the New Hampshire militia.
He developed close associations with prominent British officers, incurring the wrath of citizens opposed to British rule.
He enticed deserters from the British army to his farm, worked them very hard, and alerted the royal authorities to come collect them when they started to miss army life (probably just before he had promised to pay them). He had an affair in February 1775 with Patriot printer Isaiah Thomas’s wife. By May, Thompson was sending Gen. Thomas Gage spy reports written in invisible ink.
Thompson made the decision to leave America and had a successful career as a scientist and inventor in Britain and on the Continent, known principally for his work in thermodynamics.
Thompson slipped behind the British lines soon after Dr. Benjamin Church was detected as a spy. In November 1775 he wrote a detailed report on the American army for Gen. William Howe, then sailed for England. Thompson worked his way into the household and office of Lord George Germain, possibly through sexual favors, and by 1780 was a top bureaucrat in the British government. He returned to America as a British army officer very late in the war, then went back to Europe for good.

Thompson was indeed an inventive scientist, as well as a capable and visionary administrator in Bavaria. He co-founded the Royal Institute in London. He and his one legitimate child, Sarah Thompson, left some substantial bequests to American institutions, causing them to be remembered well—until Thompson’s early spy reports were identified in the 1920s.

I don’t know if this portrait had previously been linked to Rumford; I don’t recall ever seeing it before. The HistoryTube.org article concludes:
The 18- by 24-inch oil-on-canvas painting by an unknown artist dates to 1785, a fact revealed during conservation. The portrait was acquired by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation specifically for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which will replace the Yorktown Victory Center by late 2016.
Rumford was a brilliant, fascinating figure, but I hope no one visiting this new museum takes him to be a typical American Loyalist, or typical in any way.


Thomas Baker said...

Well said. I'm not exactly sure what criteria would suffice to establish "typicality" among any group.

Peter Fisk said...

Sarah (Walker) Rolfe Thompson, the first Countess Rumford, was a niece by marriage of Esther (Poole) Burbeen.

The countess's mother was Sarah (Burbeen) Walker, sister of Joseph Burbeen.