History is the telling of the tale of notable people. But in this narrative, there are nearly forgotten individuals who also made significant historic contributions.
Charles Thomson is one such individual.
Secretary to the First and Second Continental Congresses, he edited the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and, along with one other, signed it.
He is the only individual to see, hear and record all of the deliberations and decisions as the American Colonies in 1776 sought to articulate and then proclaim their independence from Great Britain.
The Rise of Revolution
After Lexington and Concord in April 1775, leading colonists convened the Second Continental Congress a month later in Philadelphia.
Debate about independence ensued, but by mid-1776 there was general consensus that independence should be declared.
On June 7 Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, introduced the Lee Resolution that made clear that the “United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States ….”
Congress decided to vote on the resolution in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Robert Sherman – the Committee of Five – were appointed on June 11 to produce a draft version of a formal declaration of independence.
Jefferson was assigned the task.
Retiring to his room at the Graff House, the 33 year old Jefferson put pen to parchment for several weeks in writing the very first draft. When he finished, he gave it to Adams and Franklin to edit.
On June 28 a fair copy (a new, clean writing) was presented to and read in Congress. Satisfied with the work, on Tuesday, July 2, 1776 the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain.
After the vote, the delegates discussed and debated Jefferson’s work. Their talks continued for the rest of the day, into the next day and ended on the morning of July 4th.
Throughout it all, Thomson took notes on, revised and edited the 86 changes made to the document.
On the afternoon of the Fourth, John Hancock, the President of Congress, and Charles Thomson, Secretary, were the only two to sign this first copy of the Declaration of Independence.
The Printer’s Work
Early that evening, Congress instructed the Committee of Five to have the document printed by John Dunlap, the official printer to the Continental Congress.
On the morning of July 5, an estimated 200 copies were sent to members of Congress, various states’ assemblies, and commanders of Continental troops.
Soon after, copies of the declaration appeared in colonial newspapers.
The Engrossed Declaration of Independence
On July 19 Congress resolved that the declaration passed fifteen days earlier be “fairly engrossed on parchment … and that the same, when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.”
To engross means to copy in large, legible script to create an official copy of a document. The person tasked to engross the copy of the Declaration of Independence was Thomson’s assistant, Timothy Matlack.
He completed his work on August 1, and the document was scheduled for signing the next day.
Signing the Declaration of Independence
A sense of somberness reigned in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on that Friday, August 2.
John Hancock, the President of Congress, signed first with his famous large signature. As the roll was called, forty-eight others affixed their names; seven others would add theirs later.
While present to witness the historic signing of what is the official Declaration of Independence – a turning point in history in which he had actively participated – Thomson was not invited to sign this copy.
In an 1811 letter to John Adams, Benjamin Rush wrote, “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress, to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?”
After the Signing
The Declaration of Independence was then entrusted to Thomson who kept it in his possession as the Continental Congress moved multiple times during the course of the American Revolution.
In 1790 Thomson presented it to the care of the nation’s first Secretary of State and coincidentally the document’s author, Thomas Jefferson.
History rightly remembers Jefferson, but it should also remember the nearly forgotten Charles Thomson for his contributions to the creation of what we celebrate today – a Declaration of Independence.