The wonderful new BBC documentary on Charles Thomson
aired in February. Ask your PBS station to get it!
"Posterity will find your name so honourably connected with the unification of such a multitude of astonishing facts... Your services have been as important, as your patriotism was distinguished." George Washington
Charles Thomson Principal Designer of the Great Seal
Although few people today have heard of Charles Thomson (1729-1824), he was one of America's most significant and influential Founding Fathers a man very well qualified to translate the idea and ideals of America into symbolic imagery.
John Jay, who became the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1789, wrote in a letter to Thomson six years earlier: "I consider that no Person in the World is so perfectly acquainted with the Rise, Conduct, and Conclusion of the American Revolution, as yourself."
As the only Secretary of the Continental Congress for its entire fifteen years, Thomson was a tremendous unifying factor. He kept the minutes of all sessions of Congress, including special minutes of all the secret affairs. His journals and files became the archives of our nation.
Not Your Father's Secretary
Before the Constitution took effect in 1789, the Continental Congress was both the Executive and the Legislature. There was no President of the United States, only a President of Congress (elected by Congress).
Thomson's job combined what are now the domestic duties of the Department of State, the duties of the Secretary of the Senate. and the Clerk of the House of Representatives.
"It's as true as if Charles Thomson's name were on it."
As Secretary, Thomson's name was regarded as an emblem of truth. In all the factional disputes of the Revolutionary period, his judgment was respected. During the rumors and uncertainties of the Revolutionary War, Thomson helped the Continental Congress retain the faith and support of the people by insisting that full and honest reports be issued, under his signature, concerning all battles and engagements whether won or lost.
His reputation was such that his reports were in great demand. When a Congressional paper appeared containing his signature the expression was frequently heard, "Here comes the Truth."
Ranked closely to the President, Thomson stands to the right of John Hancock in the painting of the Declaration of Independence seen on the two-dollar bill. In fact, Hancock's and Thomson's are the only two names on the Dunlap broadside, the copy of the Declaration printed the night of July 4th the only version made public for the next six months.
John Adams said Charles Thomson was
"the Sam Adams of Philadelphia, the life and cause of liberty."
Thomson was keenly aware of the slavery problem.
Writing to Jefferson in 1785: "It grieves me to the soul that there should be such just grounds for your apprehensions respecting the irritation that will be produced in the Southern States by what you have said of slavery. However, I would not have you discouraged. This is a cancer we must get rid of. It is a blot on our character that must be wiped out. If it cannot be done by religion, reason, and philosophy, confident I am that it will be one day by blood.
A man of high intelligence, Thomson was avid promoter of useful knowledge. He was an active member of the American Philosophical Society and over the years served in various leadership positions.
Thomson was a good friend to the Indians.
Here he describes an experience he had at age 29.
"In the year 1757, happening to be present at a treaty held at Easton, in the State of Pennsylvania, with the Indians, who were commonly distinguished by the name of Delawares, for the purpose of making peace, and having by a concurrence of circumstances, gained the confidence of the Indians who came to treat, I was admitted into their council, and obliged to enter deep into their politics and investigate their claims.
"This led me to inquire touching the state of this nation, and to examine all the treaties and conferences held with them from the first settlement of the province; and having in the year following attended another treaty with the same at which were present the chiefs of the Six Nations, and still retaining the confidence of the Delawares, and being by a solemn act adopted into their nation and called to assist in their councils, I had an opportunity of presenting any inquiries, and gaining some knowledge of their internal policy, customs, and manners."
Thomson was an expert in Latin and Greek. After retiring from public office in 1789, he spent twenty years translating the Septuagint Bible from Greek into English.
Visit Harriton House, Thomson's home in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.