This Day in History: Who was the “Samuel Adams of Philadelphia”?

On this day in 1789, President George Washington accepts a letter of resignation from someone you’ve never heard of. But maybe your schools should have told you about him?! Charles Thomson was the perpetual secretary of Congress throughout the American Revolution.

His job was to do much of the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work that made our Revolution possible. Yet most Americans have no idea he existed.

He’d come a long way to get there.

Thomson came to America as an orphan. He was already without his mother, but then his father also died on his family’s voyage from Ireland to America.

Can you imagine arriving in a new country, alone but for your brothers? Then working hard, grabbing opportunity, and succeeding?

Thomson was finally able to enter school when he was roughly 14. He later spent many years as a tutor, a teacher, and a merchant. He worked hard to build his businesses. He became a leading protestor against the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts.

In 1774, he married the daughter of a prominent Quaker. Hannah Harrison’s fortune surely gave Thomson even more freedom to pursue his own course, and he continued to be influential in many pre-Revolution events. For instance, he was secretary of a public meeting that called for a general congress in response to the Boston Port Bill, and he was a delegate in the Pennsylvania Assembly for a time.

John Adams described him as “Sam. Adams of Phyladelphia—the Life of the Cause of Liberty, they say.”

In September 1774, Thomson was appointed secretary to the Continental Congress. The vote was unanimous. He was the perpetual secretary of Congress for nearly 15 years. Delegates came and went, but Thomson stayed. He was present to see and hear the discussions at each stage of the war. He had to have been a walking encyclopedia of information about the Revolution, don’t you think? Indeed, one French chaplain stated that Thomson was “the soul” of the Continental Congress.

Thomson finally resigned after the new government was elected and took their seats. It seems that he’d hoped for a position in the new government, but none was offered. His last official act was to notify Washington of his election and to accompany him to his inauguration. Several months later, apparently conceding that he had no further role in the new government, he submitted his resignation.

Afterwards, Thomson cared for his family’s farm and made a translation of the Bible. He also made himself available for various projects when a personal recollection of some aspect of Revolutionary history was needed. For instance, he spoke with John Trumbull, who needed authentic details for his painting of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomson was encouraged to write his own history of the American Revolution, but he ended up destroying his notes. Apparently, he knew some unflattering facts about some of the Founders.

He thought it best not to say anything at all.

Too bad! He surely would have written a very interesting history of the Revolution. Maybe he should have trusted future generations to understand that even great leaders are allowed to be fallible human beings.

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