Page references are to The New Nation, by Merrill Jensen.
The story we learn of the American Revolution is one of tea parties, Paul Revere, taxation without representation, all men created equal, Patriots against Loyalists, heroes without self-interest.
The reality, for those interested and willing to dig a little deeper, is a little different – most easily understood if one accepts that the men of the revolutionary generation were not saints. They were men with different interests, different reasons for desiring independence, and different interpretations of what independence meant for them and for their fellow travelers on the continent.
Believe it or not, many of the key players saw revolution as an opportunity to secure political advantage for themselves in place of the crown. Shocking, I know….
There was one person in a position to do a completely thorough job of telling the story of the revolution, as he had first-hand knowledge of every political action taken and attempted by the principle actors of the time:
The one figure who, more than any other, represented continuity throughout the Revolution was Charles Thomson, the Irish-born “Sam Adams of Philadelphia.” He was elected secretary of the First Continental Congress by the radical element which had immediately sensed in him a fellow spirit. (Page 361, emphasis added)
What does Jensen mean by “radical element”? Throughout the book, Jensen describes a key philosophical divide between two factions of revolutionaries – and it is the divide that played out throughout the period of the Confederation, to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, and through the first half of the nineteenth century – finally culminating in complete victory for one side.
On one side, the revolutionaries consisted of true federalists (wrongly labeled “anti-federalists”) – those who looked to independence from England as a means to independence for each of the several states. It is this group that Jensen refers to as the more radical throughout the book and it is this group that aligned more with the idea of self-government (or state sovereignty). Jensen places Thomson in this camp – just as he does Sam Adams, to whom Thomson is favorably compared.
On the other side were the nationalists (popularly, but incorrectly, labeled “federalists”) – those that wanted a strong, coercive central government. They wanted independence from England because they wanted to keep the fruits of coercive central government to accrue to themselves. This group ultimately prevailed – through incremental steps such as the Constitution, larger steps such as Lincoln’s war, and ultimately at the turn of the twentieth century with empire, central banking and war as key foundations.
Charles Thomson had a front row seat to the political doings of all of the actors from both sides of this divide.
Thomson kept the Journals and all the other papers of Congress and saw to their printing…. His office carried out correspondence between Congress and the state governments; his signature and seal were placed on the official versions of ordinances, commissions, and treaties. (Page 361)
The most thorough online source I have found regarding Thomson’s life is here:
While a student [at The New London Academy], Thomson made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, and frequently sought his advice in regard to the prospects of a suitable vocation in Philadelphia. Being President of the Board of Trustees of the new Academy of Philadelphia, Franklin secured a position for Thomson at the school.
For an immigrant orphan, he certainly fell into good company!
Charles Thomson was active in colonial resistance against Britain for decades.
This is an understatement, based on various accounts in this source.
Thomson broke with Franklin on account of the Stamp Act of 1765:
The passage of the Stamp Act brought him into the arena of politics. He was allied with Benjamin Franklin, the leader of the anti-proprietary party, but the two men parted politically during the Stamp Act crisis in 1765. Thomson threw his whole soul into the cause of the colonists, laboring with so intense a zeal that he became known as "The Sam Adams of Philadelphia."
Thomson was an active revolutionist, and a forceful tax resister:
Thomson took an active interest in preventing John Hughes, the new stamp collector, from entering upon his duties in Philadelphia. He was present at a meeting of the citizens assembled at the State House on October 5, 1765, and was appointed on a committee with James Tilghman, Robert Morris, Archibald McCall, John Cox, William Richards and William Bradford to demand Hughes' resignation. The committee called upon Hughes about three o'clock in the afternoon, while he was lying sick in bed, and obtained from him a pledge that he would not attempt to perform the functions of his office. The next day Hughes sent for Thomson and asked him if the committee were sincere the day before. Thomson said he was sincere and could only answer for himself.
Thomson became a leader of Philadelphia's Sons of Liberty. Thomson's letters at this time give an excellent account of the excitement prevailing in the colonies as a result of the Stamp Act. On November 9, 1765, he wrote to Messrs. Cook, Lawrence and Co.:
The confusion in our city and province, and indeed through the whole colonies, is unspeakable by reason of the late Stamp Act. The courts of justice and the offices of government are all shut; numbers of people who are indebted take advantage of the times to refuse payment and are moving off with all their effects out of the reach of their creditors. Our ports are shut, except to such vessels as were cleared before the 1st inst. Thus credit is gone, trade and commerce at a stand. That peace which we ardently wished by one fatal act only presents us with a prospect of confusion and beggary."
Talk about a government shutdown! Today, the loss of access to national parks is treated as a catastrophe. Thomson saw it all as principle; he certainly was not concerned about the impact to GDP!
Four years later Thomson still would be actively opposing any British taxation. To Franklin, he wrote November 26, 1769, commenting on England's policy of taxation:
How much farther they may proceed is uncertain, but from what they have already done, the colonies see that their property is precarious and their liberty insecure.
Thomson achieved his position with the assembling of the first Continental Congress:
The cause of the colonists had steadily advanced during the summer of 1774, and on September 5th of that year the first Continental Congress assembled at Philadelphia in Carpenters' Hall. Thomson was not present but Delegate Thomas Lynch proposed that Thomson should be appointed Secretary, which was done without opposition, although Mr. Duane and Mr. Jay were at first inclined to elect a man from their own body.
Duane and Jay were both nationalists, although Jay would later suggest to Thomson that he write the political history of the revolution.
Thomson knew better than any other man the secret history of Congress and the motives which influenced its members. In his position, he beheld the national consciousness slowly develop, and he was present at the dawn of independence. (emphasis added)
As the Revolution proceeded Thomson was required to perform many of the duties which are now more properly the business of the Secretary of State. He kept the ''Secret Journal of Foreign Affairs," and had charge of the correspondence with our representatives abroad.
For fifteen years, Thomson was the one constant in Congress – before, during and after the war, and until the time of the ratification of the Constitution. He was certainly knowledgeable of the political story of the revolution.
During his tenure – during the war, during the time under the Articles, and up to and including the ratification of the Constitution – Thomson had a birds-eye view of the actions of all of the key political actors, and his tenure saw both factions – federalists and nationalists – in positions of power at different times.
If one person could tell the tale, he could.
In 1783, John Jay urged Thomson to write a history of the Revolution so that posterity might have a true account of it. Leave the military history to the “voluminous historians,” said Jay. “The political story of the Revolution will be most liable to misrepresentation, and future relations of it will probably be replete both with intentional and accidental errors.” (Page 362, emphasis added)
These words, previously unknown to me, may be the wisest and most prescient words to come from any revolutionary figure.
No man of his times was better fitted to write such a history, and Thomson began the task. (Page 362)
By 1785, he claimed to have already written one thousand pages. (Page 363)
Sadly, we will never know.
If Thomson ever wrote such a history, it has been lost. There is only the barest beginning of a few pages labeled “History of the Confederation” in the Papers of the Continental Congress. (Page 363)
The cynic in me is struggling with this. Given that I have come to learn that much of what I have been taught about American history is fable, my suspicion is that something is being hidden from public view. But what? And by whom?
Thomson described his own political methods in a letter to Hon. J. Montgomery, August 22, 1784. He said:
I have received your favor of the 2d in which you seem to think hard of your not receiving an answer to your letter on C.'s affair. I thought by this time your experience had taught you that there are mysteries in government which little folks are not to be permitted to pry into, and which are only to be communicated to such as are deeply skilled in what the wise King James used to call kingcraft. (emphasis added)
Thomson seems to suggest that the story is not one to be made available to the general public. But why?
From this short biography, some evidence comes forward in answer to the mystery:
He made copious notes of the progress of the Revolution, and after retiring from public life, in 1789, he prepared a History of his own times. But his sense of justice and goodness of heart, would not permit him to publish it; and a short time before he died, he destroyed the manuscript. (emphasis added)
The manuscript wasn’t lost; Thomson destroyed it! Because of justice and a good heart? What dastardly secrets did he hide?
He gave as a reason, that he was unwilling to blast the reputation of families rising into reputation, whose progenitors were proved to be unworthy of the friendship of good men, because of their bad conduct during the war. (emphasis added)
Thomson destroyed his history because the facts would have been damaging to the reputations of the descendants of the founding generation.
The founding fathers were scoundrels!
Perhaps nothing more need be said.