Charles Thomson

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Charles Thomson
Charles Thomson full portrait - Joseph Wright (frame cropped).jpg
Charles Thomson by Joseph Wright
Secretary of the Continental Congress
In office
September 5, 1774 – July 25, 1789
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Personal details
Born(1729-11-29)November 29, 1729
Maghera, County Londonderry, Ireland
DiedAugust 16, 1824(1824-08-16) (aged 94)
Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Resting placeLaurel Hill Cemetery
Hannah Harrison
(m. 1774)

Charles Thomson (November 29, 1729 – August 16, 1824) was an Irish-born Patriot leader in Philadelphia during the American Revolution, and the secretary of the Continental Congress (1774–1789) throughout its existence.

Early life[edit]

Thomson was born in the town of Maghera in County Londonderry, Ireland to Scots-Irish migrants.[1][2] After the death of his mother in 1739, his father, John Thomson, emigrated to the British colonies in America with Charles and two or three brothers. John Thomson died at sea, his possessions stolen, and the penniless boys were separated on arrival at New Castle, Delaware. Charles was first cared for by a blacksmith in New Castle, Delaware, and was educated in New London, Pennsylvania. In 1750 he became a tutor in Latin at the academy affiliated with what is now known as University of Pennsylvania.

Political career[edit]

Hannah Harrison Thomson by Joseph Wright

During the French and Indian War, Thomson was an opponent of the Pennsylvania proprietors' American Indian policies. He served as secretary at the Treaty of Easton (1758) and wrote An Enquiry into the Causes of the Alienation of the Delaware and Shawanese Indians from the British Interest (1759), which blamed the war on the proprietors. He was allied with Benjamin Franklin, the leader of the anti-proprietary party, but the two men parted politically during the crisis over the Stamp Act 1765. Thomson became a leader of Philadelphia's Sons of Liberty. In September 1774, he married Hannah Harrison, daughter of prominent Quaker Richard Harrison.[3] He was inducted into the American Philosophical Society around 1750.[4]

Thomson was a leader in the revolutionary crisis of the early 1770s. John Adams called him the "Samuel Adams of Philadelphia". Thomson served as the secretary of the Continental Congress in its entirety. Through those 15 years, the Congress saw many delegates come and go, but Thomson's dedication to recording the debates and decisions provided continuity. Along with John Hancock, the president of the Congress, Thomson's name (as secretary) appeared on the first published version of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

Thomson's Great Seal proposal; a modified version was accepted.

Thomson's role as secretary to Congress was not limited to clerical duties. According to biographer Boyd Schlenther, Thomson "took a direct role in the conduct of foreign affairs." Fred S. Rolater has suggested that Thomson was essentially the "Prime Minister of the United States."[5] Thomson is also noted for designing, with William Barton, the Great Seal of the United States, which played a prominent role in the January 14, 1784 (Ratification Day), when the Treaty of Paris was ratified.[6] Britain's representatives in Paris initially disputed the placement of the Great Seal and Congressional President Thomas Mifflin's signature until they were mollified by Benjamin Franklin.[7]

However, Thomson's service was not without its critics. James Searle, a close friend of John Adams, and a delegate, began a cane fight on the floor of Congress against Thomson over a claim that he was misquoted in the "Minutes" that resulted in both men being slashed in the face. Such brawls on the floor were common, and many of them were prompted by argument over Thomson's recordings. Political disagreements prevented Thomson from getting a position in the new government created by the US Constitution. Thomson resigned as secretary of Congress in July 1789 and handed over the Great Seal, bringing an end to the Continental Congress.

He spent his final years at Harriton House in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, working on a translation of the Septuagint version of the Bible. He also published a synopsis of the four evangelists in 1815.[8] In retirement, Thomson also pursued his interests in agricultural science and beekeeping.


As Secretary of Congress, Thomson chose what to include in the official journals of the Continental Congress.

He also prepared a work of over 1,000 pages that covered the political history of the American Revolution. After leaving office, he chose to destroy the work in an effort to preserve the myths of War of Independence leaders as heroes and stated that his desire to avoid "contradict[ing] all the histories of the great events of the Revolution. 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."[9][10]

According to the publisher's note of the Historical Printing Society edition of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1894), edited by John Leicester Ford, Thomson contributed a 25-page appendix to the original English publication, published by John Stockdale of London in a run of approximately 200 copies. In 1853 JW Randolph and Company republished the work and incorporated various materials from the Estate provided by Jefferson's literary executor, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. The new publication corrected some errors in the original Stockdale publication, including an error in the original publication which Jefferson made note of in a 1785 missive to Thomson: "Pray ask the favor of Colo Monroe in page 5, line 17, to strike out the words 'above the mouth of the Appomattox,' which makes none sense of the passage...". The Historical Printing Society publication removes Thomson's notes from the appendix and instead offers them in footnote form throughout the work, according to the original plates to which they refer.

Later life[edit]

Charles Thomson Memorial in Laurel Hill Cemetery

According to Thomas Jefferson, writing to John Adams in 1822, Thomson became senile in his old age and unable to recognize members of his own household. "Is this life?" Jefferson asked. "It is at most but the life of a cabbage; surely not worth a wish."[11]

He died on August 16, 1824. He is interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.[12]

Portrayal in fiction[edit]

He was portrayed in the 1969 stage play and the 1972 film 1776 by Ralston Hill.

Honors and memberships[edit]

  • Thomson is depicted on the seven-cent postal card (and postal reply card), Scott Nos. UX68 and UY 25, issued in 1975.
  • Thomson was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1813.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kelly, Joseph J. (1999). "Pennsylvania". In Glazier, Michael (ed.). The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 762. ISBN 978-0268027551. Charles Thomson, from Maghera, County Derry, called 'the Sam Adams of Pennsylvania' by John Adams, was secretary of the Continental Congress.
  2. ^ McCarthy, Joseph F. X. (1999). "The Declaration of Independence". In Glazier, Michael (ed.). The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 205. ISBN 978-0268027551. Another late signer was Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737–1832), the only Roman Catholic signer.
  3. ^ "Charles Thomson". University of Pennsylvania Archives & Records Center. Retrieved May 4, 2021.
  4. ^ Bell, Whitfield J., and Charles Greifenstein, Jr. Patriot-Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society. 3 vols. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997, I:21, 106, 150-51, 175,178, 183,183-96, 209, 224-25, 251, 257, 270, 275, 339, 345, 362, 403, 415, 440, I I:19,37, 80, 282, III:8, 27.
  5. ^ Rolater, Fred S. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 101, 1977
  6. ^ Yale Law Avalon Project, Treaty of Paris Ratification
  7. ^ The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Vol. 6 Franklin to Hartley, Passy, June 2, 1784.
  8. ^ A synopsis of the four evangelists by Charles Thompson
  9. ^ Bowling, Kenneth R. (1976). "Good-by "Charle": The Lee-Adams Interest and the Political Demise of Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, 1774-1789". The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 100 (3): 314–335. JSTOR 20091077.
  10. ^ Nathaniel Philbrick, "Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution," (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p. xiii-xiv
  11. ^ Jefferson, Thomas (June 1, 1822). "From Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1 June 1822". Letter to John Adams. The University of Virginia Press.
  12. ^ Princeton University Library Special Collections
  13. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]