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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Thursday, September 09, 2021

“To complete in a legal manner some domestic arrangements”

In late 1801, as I’ve been relating, Woburn native Benjamin Thompson, now a knight of the British Empire and Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire, traveled to Paris and made the acquaintance of the widow Marie Anne Lavoisier.

At the time, his country of Britain and hers of France were at war but talking peace. In March 1802, the two governments signed the Treaty of Amiens, ending the wars that had started with the French Revolution.

By that point Napoleon Bonaparte was firmly in control of France, and a bit more beyond. In August the country adopted a new constitution and made him First Consul for life.

In May 1803, however, Britain declared war on France again. Bonaparte quickly invaded Hanover, George III’s other kingdom. International affairs once again made Rumford and Lavoisier’s personal affair awkward.

Late in 1803 their friend Sir Charles Blagden (1748-1820, shown above) wrote to a colleague:
Count Rumford has sent me a letter from Mannheim dated the 13th of September. He had applied for leave to pass through France to England, but was refused. I suppose the French Government thought that he…would act the spy.
Rumford had indeed spied for the British army back in 1775.

In December 1803 Blagden told Rumford’s daughter Sally Thompson in New Hampshire:
Your father had applied to the French Government for leave to come to England through France, but was refused. In consequence he remained at Mannheim till the middle of October when, having by some means, I do not know how, induced the French Government to change their resolution, and allow him to travel in France, he set out for Paris; and I know that he was in that city on the 1st of November.

In the last letter I received from him, which was written the day before he set out from Mannheim, he said that he had great hopes of being in England before the end of this year. Since that time I have heard nothing from him.
This was the same letter in which Blagden told Sally Thompson that her father planned to “marry the French lady.” In January 1804 the count told her himself, as I quoted back here.

But of course the lady had a say in the matter. Blagden’s next letter to Sally was dated 12 Mar 1804:
The last account I received of your father was dated the 19th of January. He was then at Paris very assiduous in his attentions to the French lady, with whom, indeed, he spent most of his time. But I believe she had not then determined to marry him, and I am still inclined to think she never will.

In the meantime he is entirely losing his interest in the country [i.e., his standing in Britain]. His residence at Paris this winter, whilst we were threatened with an invasion, is considered by everyone as very improper conduct, and his numerous enemies do not fail to make the most of it. He has quarrelled with Mr Bernard and others of his old friends at the Royal Institution, and they do all they can to render him unpopular.
The fact that Lavoisier had turned down a proposal from Blagden himself may be one reason he believed she’d never remarry. He was also in the process of falling out with the count.

Unknown to Blagden, in February Count Rumford and Mms. Lavoisier had begun to spell out legal arrangements for a marriage. She ensured her financial independence by establishing an annuity for herself of 6,000 livres per year. She put another 120,000 livres in an interest-bearing account to go to whoever lived longest—herself, the count, or Sally in New Hampshire. Her house in Paris and his near London were likewise to go to the surviving spouse.

But then Napoleon Bonaparte came back into the picture. On 21 Mar 1804 he instituted a new Civil Code for France, what we call the Napoleonic Code. That gave Count Rumford more hoops to jump through. In a bit of a pet he wrote to his daughter on 2 July:
In order to be able to complete in a legal manner some domestic arrangements of great importance to me and to you, I have lately found, to my no small surprise, that certificates of my birth and of the death of my former wife are indispensably necessary. You can no doubt very easily procure them—the one from the town clerk of Woburn, the other from the town clerk of Concord. And I request that you would do it without loss of time, and send them to me under cover, or rather in a letter addressed to me and sent to the care of my bankers in London.
Rumford then wrote out how he thought each certificate should be worded. Plus, he needed to show the authorities “the consent of my Mother,” then seventy-four years old. He enclosed a form for her to sign in duplicate. I imagine him gritting his teeth as he wrote, “The new French Civil Code renders these formalities necessary.”

I suspect that Sally Thompson’s feelings were mixed. Her father had deserted her mother (“my former wife”) when she was an infant, and now he was asking Sally to obtain a death certificate so he could marry someone else. But Sally had come to admire her father. Once the letter reached her from across the Atlantic, she set about collecting all that paperwork.

TOMORROW: Second marriages and the Third Coalition.

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