"...My Zeal for Liberty"
by Carl G. Karsch
In any who's who of the Revolution, one name is unfortunately omitted — Charles Thomson. He is remembered — when recalled at all — by the simple title, "Secretary of the Continental Congress." But luminaries such as Washington, Adams and Franklin who now overshadow Thomson would hardly consider him a footnote to American history.
On September 5, 1774, a sultry Monday morning, the First Continental Congress convened at Carpenters' Hall. Agenda item number one was election of the president, or presiding officer, Peyton Randolph of the Virginia delegation. Next, according to the Minutes, "Mr. Charles Thomson was unanimously chosen Secretary." In fact, conservative delegates opposed the choice; it would not be the only time the Minutes were altered to polish the Congressional image.
For the next decade and a half, until Congress convened in New York under the new Constitution in March, 1789, Thomson remained as secretary. An ever-changing kaleidoscope of 342 delegates represented their states in this period; only one served 11 years. The average length was just two. There were 14 presidents of Congress. Occasionally, Thomson had to fill this largely ceremonial office in the absence of a president. He was the only one present from formation of the Congress, through the Declaration and the nation's longest war, to the peace treaty, the Constitutional Convention, and finally, transition to the new government.
Three committees having failed to agree on a design for the Great Seal of the United States, Thomson developed one adopted by Congress in 1782 — one year after the battle of Yorktown — and added the inscription "E Pluribus Unum" (Out of many, One). He jealously guarded this badge of office, affixing the seal to all official documents.
Thomson kept four journals: a "rough journal" of the day's session, a transcript for printing the annual Proceedings, and two secret journals. He developed ciphers (codes) for use by diplomats and the military. Correspondence by Congress with the states and foreign governments had to pass through his hands. Thomson, in the eyes of foreign representatives, became more than the secretary of Congress. By the nature of his duties and longevity in office, he embodied the United States itself.
His last official act, in April 1789, was to notify Washington of his election as President and escort him to New York for the inauguration. It was a seven-day trip to Mount Vernon on horseback, he recorded, "much impeded by tempestuous weather, bad roads, and the many rivers I had to cross." The return, lasting eight days, became a triumphal procession, with each town vying to outdo the others.
Philadelphia, skilled at throwing parties, did it best. At Chester, PA, Washington traded his carriage for a white horse. He traveled north along the Old Southern Post Road (now Woodland Ave.), crossing the Schuylkill River at Grays Ferry. Along today's Grays Ferry Ave. to the city itself — a distance of several miles — Washington's party was accompanied by two City Troops of Horse, a detachment of artillery, a corps of infantry, and Philadelphians beyond counting. The next morning, following fireworks and a gala dinner at the City Tavern, Washington, Thomson and the rest departed on the last leg of the journey to New York.
Up from poverty. In many ways Charles Thomson exemplifies an American ideal: the penniless immigrant lad who by hard work, careful choice of friends (including his wife) and good luck rises to prominence. Charles, the third of six children, was born in 1729 to Scots parents encouraged to settle in northern Ireland. By age 10, when his mother died, Charles had learned from his father to detest domination by Great Britain, which he considered foreign and unresponsive. This "zeal for liberty," as he later called it, governed his 95-year lifespan.
John Thomson decided to join Ulstermen by the thousands sailing to America, most of them to Pennsylvania where they settled the western frontier. The magnet was land. Here a farmer could purchase an acre of land for the cost of a year's land rental in Ireland. But tragedy struck as the ship bearing the Thomsons neared Delaware bay. The father died; to avoid the costs of burial, the captain slid the body overboard and pocketed what little money the family possessed. After docking at the thriving port of Newcastle, Delaware, the children were scattered. Charles was given to a blacksmith, a friend of the ship's captain. One night, Charles later recalled, he overheard the smith discussing plans to indenture him as an apprentice. That news sent him fleeing north toward Philadelphia. The next morning good fortune came to his rescue when a woman, hearing of his narrow escape, offered to aid his education.
The school, a college-level academy in southern Chester County, Pennsylvania, had recently been established by Presbyterian congregations in opposition to the "Log College" in New Jersey, forerunner of Princeton University. From an outstanding scholar the boys mastered the elements of a classical education: Greek, Latin, English literature, science and mathematics. Its graduates included five future physicians, four members of the Continental Congress and its secretary, four signers of the Declaration of Independence and five senators or members of the House of Representatives. Only a few became Presbyterian ministers, the academy's purpose.
On to Philadelphia. More good luck. Now 21, Thomson landed his first job as a tutor of Greek and Latin in the Philadelphia Academy founded by Benjamin Franklin, who became not only a close friend but a political ally. Five years later he resigned when the academy officially became a college and an Anglican was named provost of the future University of Pennsylvania. An Anglican was too much for an ardent Presbyterian.
At his second and final teaching post, Thomson had a class of 38 boys in a Quaker school at 4th and Chestnut Sts., probably the location outlined by the brick wall adjacent to the west side of Carpenters' Hall. But politics became his passion as he fought for political change in the two decades preceding the First Continental Congress. By 1774, Thomson had either headed or belonged to more unelected, extra-legal committees than any Philadelphian. Guiding every act, however, was a consistent urgency: that Americans as a nation or as members of racial, ethnic or religious groups have the right to control their destiny. In a word — liberty.
- In the prelude to the French and Indian war, Indian tribes evicted from eastern hunting grounds into ridges of the Appalachian mountains took revenge on settlers. Thomson, sympathetic to tribal complaints of broken treaties, attended several conferences hoping to bring peace. A second goal, at Franklin's urging, was to pry loose the Penn family's grip on an Assembly which had negotiated the treaties and now refused to pay taxes for a militia to safeguard the frontier. Thomson's efforts failed. The experience, however, strengthened his distaste for foreign influence on colonial affairs.
- No colony in the British empire had a vote in Parliament on taxation. Nowhere was there more strenuous objection to this policy than in North America. In Pennsylvania Charles Thomson led the charge against taxation without representation. He forced resignation of the tax collector appointed to forward revenue from the Stamp Act, imposed not only on paper products but legal documents of all kinds. Boston had its "tea party" in 1773 but Philadelphia — again thanks to Thomson — was first to organize opposition to landing the forbidden cargo from the tea ship "Polly."
- The First Continental Congress owes its existence to the Committee of Correspondence, formed after a tumultuous public meeting in May, 1774, at the City Tavern. Joseph Fox, a member of the committee and "Master" (president) of the Carpenters' Company, hosted the weekly meetings at 4 P.M. in the Hall. Thomson was secretary. No surprise. The committee laid plans for the Congress's agenda and issued invitations to all the colonies for delegates.
- In August, 1777, as British occupation appeared inevitable, panic gripped the capital city. One result was arrest of 42 prominent Quakers — including Joseph Fox — who were accused of failing to support the war effort. Twenty were imprisoned in Virginia. Fox was among the fortunate placed under house arrest. Thomson, at great risk to his own reputation, worked for months to achieve their release.
- Pennsylvania's first constitution contained a loyalty oath for voters and, worse, a religious test for elected officials. Thomson found both an infringement on personal liberty and labored for their removal.
- Although not a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he met privately to urge creation of a strong central government which he felt essential to retain the nation's hard-won liberty.
- He penned these prophetic words on slavery: "a blot in our character which must be wiped out... If it cannot be done by religion, reason and philosophy, confident I am that one day it will be done by blood."
Thomson excelled at politics but failed as a businessman. When his first venture, a dry goods store on Market St. placed him in debt to British merchants, he sold it. He invested in a linen factory, a distillery and silkworm production. All went broke. The final enterprise, as part owner in an iron furnace in the pinelands of southern New Jersey, paid off handsomely during the Revolution. Owen Biddle, a Company member, was among those who hauled wagonloads of cannonballs from the Batsto furnace to Philadelphia. Thomson continuously urged Americans "to promote manufacturing among ourselves and to remove the necessity for being supplied by Great Britain." His creed has a familiar ring: that a nation cannot be politically independent and rely heavily on imports from abroad.
Thomson's true source of wealth was Hannah Harrison who, according to John Adams, was "worth 5,000 pounds, sterling." The civil ceremony took place September 1, 1774 — four days before Congress convened — at Somerville, Hannah's 200-acre estate in what is now the city's Spring Garden area. Three years later, during the British occupation, General Howe took revenge on local leaders of the Revolution by burning their homes. Somerville was on the list; so was the house of Joseph Fox.
A prickly nature, unbending principles and a generous portion of vanity yielded Thomson a host of enemies. Even Washington, while grateful for "so old, so faithful and so able public officer," failed to offer Thomson a job in the new government. Charles and Hannah retired to her farm, named Harriton, 12 miles west of the city near the suburb of Bryn Mawr. Two monumental writing tasks filled his days. Even before retirement, Thomson began a first-person account of the Revolution, based on "secret historical memoirs" omitted from the official journals of Congress. Eventually he burned the 1000-page document, writing that if he told about the "men, motives and measures of the Revolution... their laurels would be tarnished."
Thomson became the first American to complete an English translation of the Bible, a project he also began in New York. Working from ancient Greek texts and other sources, Thomson revised his manuscript four times before it was ready for the printer. Jane Aitken, who took over the business when her father died, is the only American woman to issue the Bible in English. One thousand copies were printed to sell for ten dollars. Few did. Most eventually were sold for scrap.
Hannah died September, 1807, five days after the couple's 33rd wedding anniversary. Charles lived until August 16, 1824. Had he survived three weeks longer, Thomson could have marked a happier occasion: his election 50 years earlier as secretary of the First Continental Congress.