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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Wednesday, January 05, 2022

The Ninety-Four Years of Charles Thomson

Portrait of Charles Thomson, wearing a white wig and brown coat and holding a leatherbound book, painted by Joseph Wright
The second person to sign the Declaration of Independence, after John Hancock, was Charles Thomson.

Thomson wasn’t a delegate to the Continental Congress, and thus didn’t sign the famous handwritten copy of the Declaration.

Rather, he was the Congress’s secretary, chosen unanimously in the first week of meetings and serving fifteen straight years to the launch of the federal government in 1789. He co-signed all the body’s official pronouncements before sending them to the printer.

Last month the American Philosophical Society ran a blog post by Michael Miller about Thomson, inspired by some recently acquired manuscripts from his later years.

Charles Thomson had a remarkable early life—straight out of a melodramatic novel if we believe the details in John Fanning Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia (1830), which I’ll put in brackets. He was born in Londonderry in 1729, and his mother died when he was ten. His father decided to move the family to America but died on the voyage over [within sight of the coast!]. The kids were then split up [after the captain took all their father’s money!], but they remained in touch.

Charles was placed in a blacksmith’s household. [After watching the man make a nail, he pounded out one himself! Overhearing the smith and his wife talk about legally making him an apprentice, Charles ran away! He met a kind anonymous lady who sent him to school!] By 1743, when he was fourteen, Charles was attending Francis Allison’s academy in New London, Pennsylvania, with support from one of his older brothers.

On coming of age in 1750, Thomson moved to Philadelphia. With the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, he became a tutor in languages at the Academy. He joined some of the city’s intellectual societies, eventually serving as corresponding secretary of the A.P.S., and the Presbyterian Church. He became involved in political matters like the colony’s Indian policy, and after the Stamp Act he allied himself with John Dickinson and other organizers of resistance to Crown taxes.

In September 1774 Thomson married Hannah Harrison, daughter of a wealthy Quaker. This cemented his position in the top echelon of Philadelphia society. That was also when the First Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia and, as I said, the delegates chose Thomson to be the secretary. Anyone who’s seen 1776 can recall how big a presence Thomson was, as played by Ralston Hill—and that was just handling official business.

Since Thomson maintained the Congress’s official records, he exercised influence behind the scenes as well, and he managed a lot of official correspondence, foreign and domestic. When he got fed up with delegates not deciding on the design of an official seal for the U.S. of A., he created the eagle symbol the country still uses. Thomson’s power annoyed some people, and he once got into a physical altercation with delegate James Searle.

The A.P.S. blog post focuses on Thomson’s big post-Congress project:
Upon retiring from politics in 1789, at age 60, Thomson devoted himself to studying the Bible in Greek. He acquired a 1665 copy of the Septuagint edited by the English theologian John Pearson. When New Testament writers quoted Scripture, they used the Septuagint, more often than they used Hebrew sources. In order to better understand the Greek text himself and to share his work with an American audience, Thomson saw the merit in translating the Septuagint into English for the first time.

Thomson completed his translation of the Bible, both Old Testament and New, in 1808. His rendition is titled The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Covenant, Commonly Called the Old and New Testament: Translated from the Greek. Only a thousand copies were printed; most went unsold and ended up as scrap paper.
Undaunted, seven years later Thomson published A Synopsis of the Four Evangelists, a summary of the four canonical gospels into one unified text.

Thomson lived to be ninety-four, dying just a couple of weeks short of the fiftieth anniversary of the First Continental Congress. By that time, Thomas Jefferson had heard, the former secretary had senile dementia and could not recognize family members; “It is at most but the life of a cabbage,” Jefferson wrote. Still, Thomson had outlived all but three of the other men who signed the Declarationa after him.

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