November Highlight: Charles Thomson

Research Highlights LogoCharles Thomson. He was the first and only Secretary of the Continental Congress. His name is on the first printing of the Declaration of Independence. The manuscript Journals of the Continental Congress are in his hand. He created the final, approved design for the Great Seal of the United States, still in use today. He was the “Sam. Adams of Phyladelphia.” And yet, his name carries a fraction of the recognition of Washington, Hancock, Jefferson, or Adams (neither John nor the original “Sam. Adams”). Thomson’s obscured legacy was partly his own doing, as he apparently destroyed the bulk of his papers concerning the American Revolution, and party because he spent the last third of his life removed from the political sphere. For this month’s Research Highlight, we selected ten interesting aspects of Thomson’s life and character.

Vignette of Charles Thomson in John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

He became an orphan en-route to America.

In 1729, Charles Thomson was born into a family of Ulster Scots in Gorteade, in County Londonderry, Ireland. His mother died during or shortly after the birth of Thomson’s youngest sibling in 1739. Within a few months, the family patriarch, John Thomson, sailed across the Atlantic with several of his sons, including Charles. But, as biographer Boyd Stanley Schlenther describes it, not everyone survived the voyage: “Just as the ship drew within sight of land after a very difficult crossing, John Thomson died. Charles later recalled: ‘I stood by the bed-side of my expiring and much loved father, closed his eyes, and performed the last filial duties of him.’ The ship was just off the capes of Delaware, moving slowly into Delaware Bay...”

Separated from his brothers and placed in the care of a blacksmith in New Castle, Delaware, where the ship hand landed, Thomson had a stroke of remarkable luck in the wake of tragedy. He was admitted to Francis Alison’s school in New London, Pennsylvania. Within a few years, he would make the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, and would become a tutor himself at the Philadelphia Academy, which would evolve into the University of Pennsylvania.

He was secretary to the “King of the Delawares.”

Teedyuscung (ca. 1700-1763) represented the Lenape (Delaware) in eastern Pennsylvania, and styled himself as “King of the Delawares.” In 1758, Teedyuscung and British representatives of Pennsylvania convened in Easton to resolve conflicts persisting since the Walking Purchase of 1737, an agreement between the Penn family and the Lenape. At the time, Thomson was teaching at a Quaker school, and must have caught the attention of Israel Pemberton and the Friendly Association. Pemberton and others seemingly convinced Teedyuscung that he needed his own secretary for the negotiations.

Thomson recounted his experience as Teedyuscung’s clerk in An Enquiry into the Causes of the Alienation of the Delaware and Shawanese Indians from the British Interest, And into the Measures taken for recovering their Friendship, published in London in 1759:

“Before the public Business began, Teedyuscung applied to the Governor to allow him the Liberty of appointing a Person to take down the Minutes of the Treaty for him with the Secretary appointed by the Governor. He had seen the Secretary of the Province, at the last Easton Treaty, throw down his Pen, and declare he would not take Minutes when Complaints were made against the Proprietors. he did not know but the same Thing might happen again, as the same Complaints would be repeated... Four Days being spent in this Debate, the public Treaty began next Day, Teedyuscung having first nominated a Person to take Minutes of the Proceedings for him. The Person he nominated was one Charles Thomson, who had, at the particular Request of Mr. Peters, taken Minutes at the last Easton Treaty, and of whom, it is likely, the Indians had conceived a good Opinion from the close Attention he gave to the Business when the Secretary of the Province seemed confused and threw down his Pen.”

As the existence of Thomson’s Enquiry might suggest, he disagreed with British and Quaker treatment of the Lenape and believed Teedyuscung was being manipulated. He did not shy away from placing blame on the government, as in the following passage:

“As the Indian King had been for four or five Days (viz. from the Day before the publick Treaty began, to the Time of his delivering this Speech) kept almost continually drunk, it is not to be wondered that several Parts of his Speech, as it stands in the Minutes, appear dark and confused, as they did to the Governor; more especially as the Interpreter, at the Time the Speech was delivered, was dozen at the Time the Speech was delivered, was dozed with Liquor and Want of Sleep.”

But Thomson’s Enquiry also provides early evidence of his skills as a secretary – his attention to detail, and his dedication to providing a record of all sides in a debate. Later, Thomson provided extensive commentary on Jefferson’s description of Native Americans in Notes on the State of Virginia, and having “too much merit not to be communicated,” Jefferson included Thomson’s observations as an appendix.

Engraving of Charles Thomson by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, 1783, NYPL
Engraving of Charles Thomson by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, ca. 1783 (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

He married his second wife and became Secretary of the Continental Congress in the same week.

On August 30, 1774, John Adams recorded in his diary, “We had much Conversation with Mr. Charles Thompson, who is it seems about marrying a Lady a Relation of Mr. Dickensons with 5000£. st. This Charles Thompson is the Sam. Adams of Phyladelphia—the Life of the Cause of Liberty, they say.” The “Relation” of John Dickinson was Hannah Harrison, cousin of Dickinson’s wife Mary. The conclusion of Thomson’s first marriage to Ruth Mather is one of many events erased in the destruction of his papers, but in any event, she died in 1770. Biographer Boyd Stanley Schlenther thinks it probable that the Dickinsons then set up Charles Thomson and Hannah Harrison, who married on Thursday, September 1, 1774. The following Monday, September 5, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, and unanimously selected Thomson as Secretary.

He was custodian of the engrossed and signed parchment Declaration of Independence for 13 years.

From the moment it was engrossed on parchment, the Declaration of Independence became part of the records of the Continental Congress, and, as Secretary, Charles Thomson was responsible for all of the records. Besides the engrossed and signed parchment, Thomson was also the recorder and keeper of the Journals of the Continental Congress, the minutes of every session. His manuscript journal for 1776 included his handwritten version of the Declaration of Independence.

It is assumed that, from 1776 through 1789, wherever Thomson went, so too went the papers of the Continental Congress. We therefore track the movements of the engrossed and signed parchment based on Thomson’s own movements as he accompanied the Congress.

When the new federal government was established in 1789, Thomson transferred all of the papers of the Continental Congress to the Department of State. In a letter written July 24, 1789, Washington instructed Thomson “to deliver the Books, Records & Papers of the late Congress—the Great Seal of the Federal Union—and the Seal of the Admiralty, to Mr Roger Alden, the late Deputy Secretary of Congress; who is requested to take charge of them until farther directions shall be given.”

Attestation of Charles Thomson on the Dunlap Broadside

He attested to numerous resolutions of the Continental Congress, including the Declaration of Independence.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “attest” as “to bear witness to, affirm the truth or genuineness of.” Charles Thomson’s attestation of the Declaration of Independence, in the Dunlap broadside and subsequent printings, was an affirmation of both the text and the act of declaring independence. But the Declaration was far from the only Congressional resolution to bear Thomson’s name. Almost any resolution pulled directly from the minutes of the Congress was also accompanied by Thomson’s name, confirming its authenticity.

Detail from 1776 Resolution Signed by Charles Thomson, NYPL
Detail, Resolution of November 27, 1776 (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

It is worth noting that, until Mary Katherine Goddard’s 1777 broadside, Hancock and Thomson’s names were the only ones officially connected to the Declaration of Independence. 

He was slashed in the face during a cane fight with a delegate to Congress.

In January 1780, Pennsylvania delegate James Searle claimed that Thomson misquoted him in the minutes of the Continental Congress, and a cane fight between Searle and Thomson ensued. Fellow delegate Samuel Holten recorded the event in his diary: “Yesterday Mr. Searle cained the secy. of Congress, & the secy returned the same salute.”

Searle wasn’t the only delegate with whom Thomson had difficulty getting along. John Fell, delegate from New Jersey, recorded that on August 31, 1779, the day was “spent in a disagreeable complaint of Mr Lawrence against Secretary Thompson, others Join’d, at last a Committee was appointed to hear the Parties.” “Mr Lawrence” was Henry Laurens, former President of the Continental Congress. According to Thomson biographer Boyd Stanley Schlenther, “The incident was a piece of congressional high farce, wherein the two men physically wrestled with a copy of the printed Journal in front of the whole Congress.”

His last official act as Secretary was to inform Washington of his election to the presidency.

On March 23, 1789, Henry Knox informed George Washington, “At present it appears probable that Mr Charles Thomson will have the honor of announcing to the President his appointment.” Then, on April 6, John Langdon wrote a letter to Washington, “to transmit to your Excellency the information of your unanimous election to the Office of President of the United States of America.” Thomson delivered this letter to Washington at Mount Vernon on April 14, 1789.

Even though Thomson was not given a position in the new federal government, Washington clearly respected his service to his country. In his July 24, 1789 letter to Thomson, Washington wrote:

“I have to regret that the period of my coming again into public life, should be exactly that, in which you are about to retire from it. The present age does so much justice to the unsullied reputation with which you have always conducted yourself in the execution of the duties of your Office, and Posterity will find your Name so honorably connected with the verification of such a multitude of astonishing facts, that my single suffrage would add little to the illustration of your merits. Yet I cannot withold any just testimonial, in favor of so old, so faithful and so able a public officer, which might tend to sooth his mind in the shade of retirement. Accept, then, this serious Declaration, that your Services have been important, as your patriotism was distinguished; and enjoy that best of all rewards, the consciousness of having done your duty well.”

Thomson replied, “I cannot find words to express the feelings of my heart, on the receipt of your favour of yesterday, at this repeated instance of your goodness.”

He was painted by the same artist at age 53 and age 90.

Charles Willson Peale first painted Charles Thomson in 1781-1782, and the painting hung in Peale’s Philadelphia museum. Much later in life, he was painted again by Peale in 1819, as both men recounted stories of the revolution. Peale employed a similar tactic with another man tied to the Declaration of Independence: Timothy Matlack, the assumed scribe. He painted Matlack in about 1790 at age 60, and again in 1826 at age 96; Matlack died just weeks before Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

His mind deteriorated in old age, much to his (and Jefferson’s) dismay.

For years, Thomson’s brain held the best record of what really happened in the Continental Congress. He was literally in “the room where it happened” for fifteen years. In his memoirs, Benjamin Rush called Thomson “a man of great learning and general knowledge, at all times a genuine republican,” and recounted this story:

“He was once told in my presence, that he ought to write a history of the revolution. ‘No (said he) I ought not, for I should contradict all the histories of the great events of the revolution, and shew by my account of men, motives and measures, that we are wholy indebted to the agency of Providence for its successful issue. Let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men. Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them and thus good may be done. I shall not undeceive future generations.’”

Setting aside the accuracy of this account, it is true that other delegates to Congress believed Thomson to be the expert. Thomas Jefferson sent several individuals seeking to write their own histories to Thomson; in an 1813 letter to John Hopkins, Jefferson suggested, “if there by any body who possesses materials either written, or on memory, I should suppose it to be Charles Thomson, who is in your neighborhood. he must have retained many anecdotes at least.”

It came as a grave shock to both Thomson and his former colleagues, then, when Thomson’s health began to affect his mind. In their later years, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Thomson maintained an occasional correspondence, addressing each other in every letter with a variation of “my dear and antient friend.” In January 1816, Jefferson sent Thomson a copy of his “wee little book,” The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, and gave an account of his own health and habits: “I have given you this string of egotisms in the hope of drawing a similar one from yourself. I have heard from others that you retain your health, a good degree of vivacity & chearfulness of your mind. but I wish to learn it more minutely from yourself.” Thomson replied in May with a general description of his health at age 87, admitting, “I have been several times brought to the gates of death and have (I may say miraculously) recoverd and with returning strength have found the powers of the mind restored.” But in a letter received by Jefferson the following January, Thomson revealed that he had received Jefferson’s letter while he was recovering from a “paralytic stroke but not Sensible of it.” He couldn’t even recall the letter that he had sent in May. What followed was a devastating account of someone losing control of both mind and body:

“The powers of my mind were weakened to such a degree that I forgot the names not only of my neighbours but even of my family and even of what I myself had said or done but a few minutes before. After this stroke fell suddenly another on the powers of the body... One night (at what distance of time from the first stroke I do not recollect) I went to bed in usual health and in the morning I found I was struck dumb. I could not utter a sound from my mouth. When I attempted to speak a strange rumbling sound seemed to come out at the ear, but not a word could I utter from the mouth. My Appetite for food now failed and all my bodily powers (except the eye) became weaker and weaker til the first or second week in November, at the end of the 87th and beginning of the 88 year of my Age. The beginning of my recovery was as Sudden as the strokes I had received. One morning being unusually refreshed with sleep I awoke as from a transe and found a wonderful change in my whole System. From that time to this I have been gradually but slowly recovering the due exercise of the powers both of mind and body except the hearing which continues dull as it was.”

Jefferson replied, “I learnt from your last letter, with much affliction, the severe and singular attack your health has lately sustained; but it’s equally singular and sudden restoration confirms my confidence in the strength of your constitution of body and mind...” Thomson’s body was indeed strong enough to hold on for nearly another decade, but his mind continued to fail. In 1822, Jefferson lamented to John Adams:

“Charles Thomson still lives... chearful, slender as a grasshopper, and so much without memory that he scarcely recognises the members of his household. an intimate friend of his called on him not long since: it was difficult to make him recollect who he was, and sitting one hour, he told him the same story 4. times, over. is this life? ... it is at most but the life of a cabbage, surely not worth a wish. when all our faculties have left, or are leaving us, one by one, sight, hearing, memory, every avenue of pleasing sensation is closed, and athsimy, debility and mal-aise left in their places, when the friends of our youth are all gone, and a generation is risen around us whom we know not, is death an evil?”

He outlived all but three of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

After his retirement from political life, Charles Thomson devoted his life to biblical translations. From 1789 to 1808, he worked on the first English translation of the Greek Septuagint. He also published a Synopsis of the Four Evangelists in 1815. Even John Adams – another delegate with whom Thomson butted heads – acknowledged the importance of Thomson’s contribution:

“I know of no Man who has spent the last thirty years of a long life in so much serenity, industry and utility as you have, Your translation of the Septuagint, your three translations of the new Testament, and this last effort the Synopsis, will raise a Monument to your name which can never perish but with religion and learning; What can be the reason that the Septuagint has never been translated into English before yours, at least I am so little of a learned Man, as never to have heard of any, I am ashamed to tell you, how idle, and inane, my Life has been, in comparison for the last five and twenty years.”

As noted above, Thomson was related to John Dickinson by marriage, but the two men were also close friends. In 1808, following the deaths of both his wife Hannah and his friend Dickinson, Thomson reached out to his “very dear, long and highly esteemed Friend” Jefferson. He attributed the peace he felt in these losses to the years he had spent at work on his translation, published that same year, and gave a fitting metaphor for the fading founding generation:

“I am thankful to that kind over-ruling Providence which direction my attention to this work. It has kept my mind employed so that I can say I have not during the last 19 years found one hour hang heavy on me. It has also contributed greatly to support me in the trial I had to undergo by the Removal of Mrs. Thomson who departed this life in Septr. last after a long & gradual decline. Mr Dickinson also is gone with whom I have had a long & intimate friendship & with whom I promised myself the pleasure of spending some week in the Spring. In short I seem to be like an old tree stript of its foliage standing in a forest with very few of its own age & growth about it. However I have this to comfort me that there is a plentiful supply of thriving saplings & well grown timber trees to occupy my room & fill up my space when I fall.”

Thomson died on August 16, 1824, outlived by Jefferson, Adams, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. An obituary in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, published in Philadelphia on August 18, recalled “the venerable CHARLES THOMSON, Esq.”:

“He was one of the most virtuous, stedfast, energetic and useful patriots of the Revolution. Few names connected with the history of American Independence deserve more honour than his in reference both to his public and private merits. He enjoyed, as sole Secretary of the Revolutionary Congress, the highest confidence of that body and of the country, and the personal friendship of the best and greatest of the Americans. He stood among them like the personification of probity, firmness, and regularity. He possessed a mind naturally strong and perspicacious, which he enriched with various learning, ancient and modern, that became a constant source of gratification and employment to him in his retirement.”

For more on Charles Thomson:

By Emily Sneff

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