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Thomson, Charles (1729–1824), revolutionary politician in America, was born in November 1729 in the townland of Gorteade, Maghera, co. Londonderry, the third of the six children of John Thomson (d. 1739), probably a flax grower, and his wife (d. 1739), both probably of Scottish birth. Following his mother's death he left for America in 1739 with his father and two or three brothers, but his father died at sea. The impoverished sons were dispersed at New Castle, Delaware. About four years later Thomson commenced several years of classical education at Francis Alison's academy at New London, Pennsylvania, and in 1750 he became a Latin tutor at the Philadelphia Academy.

Thomson's appointment in 1755 as head of Latin at the Friends' public school in Philadelphia brought him to the attention of the Quaker Friendly Association, which was actively opposing the Indian policy of Pennsylvania's proprietors. Thomson was secretary to the Delaware Native Americans in meetings with colonial officials in 1757 and 1758. His Enquiry into the causes of the alienation of the Delaware and Shawanese Indians from the British interest (1759) fitted well the political policy of Benjamin Franklin, with whom Thomson had struck up a close relationship. He remained in broad sympathy with Franklin's objectives until the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, when Thomson emerged a conspicuous leader of Philadelphia's Sons of Liberty. After marrying in 1758 Ruth Mather (bap. 1732, d. 1770) he had, in 1760, ceased teaching; first he established an unsuccessful dry goods business in Philadelphia and then he invested in land. His hectic political and business activities apparently caused Thomson and his wife to separate in 1769. She became mentally deranged following the deaths of their infant twin children and soon died, probably by her own hand.

Upon the breakdown of his marriage Thomson had briefly turned to rum distilling; following his wife's death he moved, in 1770, to New Jersey as business manager of an iron works of which he was part owner. By autumn 1772 he had returned to Philadelphia, and the following year he resumed his role as political agitator; he wrote inflammatory handbills in support of resistance to the landing of East India Company tea. During the decade preceding the outbreak of the War of Independence, Thomson was a member of more extra-legal committees than any other Pennsylvanian. John Adams called him the ‘Sam. Adams of Phyladelphia’ (Schlenther, Charles Thomson, 119). However, when on 1 September 1774 Thomson married a wealthy Quaker, Hannah (1731–1807), the daughter of Richard Harrison, and days later became secretary to the Continental Congress, he attempted to shake off his noted reputation as a ‘rash man’, freely boasting of having been elevated to a ‘station in the higher ranks of life’ (ibid., 104, 150).

Thomson served as secretary to the first, second and confederation congresses for fifteen years. During the War of Independence he took a direct role in the conduct of foreign and domestic affairs, in the process gaining a depressing array of enemies who thwarted his desperate desire for office under the new national government. This was particularly galling for one who passionately pursued status. However, he was also concerned for the rights of Native Americans and Quakers and was firmly opposed to slavery. Thomson boasted a distinctively prominent nose, once being described in print as ‘old nosey Thomson’ (Schlenther, Charles Thomson, 214). He struck many as haughty.

Thomson retired, financially comfortable, to his wife's estate, Harriton, near Philadelphia, in 1789. In 1787 he had published Notes on Farming, and he took a keen interest in agriculture. However, retirement was marked by his translation of the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) and the New Testament, published in four volumes as The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Covenant, Commonly called the Old and New Testament (1808–9). This was followed by A Synopsis of the Four Evangelists (1815). Thomson was a Presbyterian of the non-revivalist school who managed to combine a high regard for biblical authority with a generally rationalistic approach to religion. The last decade of his life was a slide into senility; he died at Harriton on 16 August 1824, where he was buried two days later.

Boyd Stanley Schlenther

Sources  

B. Schlenther, Charles Thomson: a patriot's pursuit (1990) · K. Bowling, ‘Good-by “Charle”: the Lee–Adams interest and the political demise of Charles Thomson’, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 100 (1976), 314–35 · B. Schlenther, ‘Training for resistance: Charles Thomson and Indian affairs in Pennsylvania’, Pennsylvania History, 50 (1983), 185–217 · P. Smith, ‘Charles Thomson on unity in the American revolution’, Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, 28 (1971), 158–72 · ‘The papers of Charles Thomson, secretary of the continental congress’, Collections of the New York Historical Society (1878), 3–286 · The papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. L. W. Labaree and others, [35 vols.] (1959–) · P. H. Smith and others, eds., Letters of delegates to congress, 1774–1789, 26 vols. (1976–2000)

Archives  

Dietrich American Foundation, Philadelphia, daybook · Harvard U., papers · Hist. Soc. Penn., papers · L. Cong., papers · New York Historical Society, papers · NYPL, papers · Princeton University, New Jersey, letters |  Hist. Soc. Penn., Gratz collection; society collection · National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, Continental Congress MSS


Likenesses  

P. E. Du Simitière, engraving, c.1780, Hist. Soc. Penn. · C. W. Peale, oils, c.1781, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia · M. Pratt, oils, c.1794, Frick Art Reference Library, New York · C. W. Peale, oils, 1819, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia