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Who, you say?

Charles Thomas (Harriton House)

Perhaps readers in Pennsylvania are familiar with Charles Thomson, but despite encountering his name often in the course of doing research, I admit that until today, I had little idea of who he was. Thomson is perhaps best known for the fifteen years he served as the Secretary of Congress, from its inception as the Continental Congress in 1774 through its years as the Confederation Congress. I tweeted today (also on Facebook!) about his resignation at the start of the first federal Congress in 1789, which is what led me to this great little biographical monograph from 1900.

Lewis R. Harley’s The Life of Charles Thomson: Secretary of the Continental Congress and Translator of the Bible from the Greek uses letters and journal entries to delineate Thomson’s life and careers. As long as you read around the author’s biases (he has a profound appreciation for Washington’s prose, for instance, and certainly admires his subject), you get an interesting peek at the personal politics of the early Congresses. I didn’t read the entire book this morning, but here are some of the bits I collected as I searched for the information about his resignation as secretary, both from Harley’s book and elsewhere.

  • Thomson wasn’t born here; he emigrated with his father and brothers from Ireland when he was 11. Unfortunately, his father died during the voyage.
  • Thomson was initially housed with a blacksmith, but soon embarked on a classical education. Later, he became the first tutor hired by the Academy of Philadelphia, which later became the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Thomson was connected to Benjamin Franklin, which only aided his involvement in a variety of political causes, committees of correspondence, and protests against British impositions on the colonies. He was so involved in the fight for the colonies’ rights and independence that some called him “the Sam Adams of Philadelphia.”
  • Thomson wasn’t against altering the official journals of Congress, just a bit, if it helped promote a sense of unity (he only mentioned measures that were passed) or his own worth. (For instance, Harley quotes another researcher: Thomson was elected secretary on the first day of Congress’ meeting, but for some reason, he did not start recording the proceedings until five days later. When he took up his work, he amended various items in the written record. “The entry of his own election read originally ‘Charles Thomson, Secretary.’ This he changed to read, as we find it in the printed Journal, ‘Mr. Charles Thomson was unanimously elected Secretary’… p. 88)
  • Thomson labored 15 years for Congress, longer than any elected member. He was sometimes more familiar to foreign dignitaries and correspondents than the members were.
  • Thomson was quite proud of the Great Seal he designed for the US, which Congress adopted after rejecting other designs.
  • As the Confederation Congress drew to a close and the new federal Congress gathered in New York City, Thomson seemed to believe he would receive an appointment as Secretary of the Senate and even seemed to campaign for a more significant position such as Secretary of Congress and keeper of the Great Seal. Hurley suggests that it was this reach for greater power that kept Thomson’s friends from advocating for him, and Samuel Otis, who had served in Congress, became the Senate’s first secretary.
  • Thomson then retired to his wife’s estate in Pennsylvania and worked on two projects. The first was translating the Bible from Greek to English. The second was a detailed memoir of his years in Congress. Unfortunately for historians, he burned this manuscript and many of his papers after he concluded that it might damage the reputations of the men who conducted the Revolution.

And now we all know a little more about the actions of the man whose name crops up so often as mere recorder in the early Congressional journals.

For more information, click on the links in the post. Also see Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia.