When you go to the National Archives and look at the document today, you won’t find his signature on it. But without him, the Declaration of Independence may never have been written at all.
Charles Thomson was born in County Londonderry, Ireland, in 1729. When he was ten years old, his mother died. His father took him and his brothers and set sail for America. But within sight of land, his father died, leaving the boys orphaned and penniless. He was raised by a blacksmith in Delaware, and then sent to the Philadelphia Academy (the forerunner of UPenn). He was a fine student, particularly good at languages, and became a tutor in Latin. He was one of America’s earliest and most noteworthy revolutionaries. He was friends with Ben Franklin; he was a leader of the Sons of Liberty; John Adams called him the “Sam Adams of Philadelphia.”
All of which prepared him for the role of his life: Secretary of the Continental Congress. When the founding fathers arrived in Philadelphia – hot, grumpy and squabbling – Charles Thomson was their daddy. He was responsible for holding order, and for fairly recording what was said and done. (A pretty stressful job, considering the topic at hand was the commitment of treason against the most powerful empire on earth.) On several occasions, brawls broke out between the delegates; Thomson himself got into a cane-fight with another delegate over the accuracy of the minutes that drew blood from both men. But through it all, Thomson’s steadiness, accuracy and diplomacy helped hold them together.
When the Declaration of Independence was completed, 200 broadside copies were quickly printed and distributed. It was read aloud in at least 4 places. But on that day, July 4, 1776, only two Americans officially laid their necks on the line. Those earliest copies – known as the Dunlap Broadsides – were signed only by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, and attested by Charles Thomson, Secretary. It wasn’t until a month later that all the founding fathers signed the larger, official version; Charles Thomson was not one of the signers.
For the next 13 years, Charles Thomson was the glue that held Congress together. He designed the Great Seal of the United States. He provided a steady hand during the difficult negotiations over the new Constitution. Once that was approved and adopted, the new government of the United States began. Charles Thomson resigned as Secretary, and the Continental Congress was officially disbanded.
In the end, perhaps Charles Thomson’s greatest contribution as an American was what he did NOT do. When pressed later in life to write a book and “spill the dirt” on the founding fathers, he refused. He said, “We are wholly indebted to the agency of providence…Let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men. Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them, and thus good may be done.”
Amen to that. To Charles Thomson, patriot: Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah.