America at the Precipice

Two American Founders

The Founders Archives of the National Archives preserves a letter to Ben Franklin eighteen months before the Declaration of Independence was issued. Ben Franklin became a household name. Charles Thomson did not, and that’s a shame. Thomson was the Secretary of the First and Second Continental Congress, a quiet leader on the road from colonial rule to an independent democratic republic. The official Declaration of Independence had only two signatures, the President and the Secretary of First Continental Congress: John Witherspoon and Charles Thomson.

Charles Thomson Letter to Benjamin Franklin

“When I look back,” wrote Charles Thomson, “and consider the warm affection which the colonists had for Great Britain till the present reign, the untainted loyalty unshaken fidelity and cheerful confidence that universally prevailed till that time, and then view the present heartburnings, Jealousies, gloom and despair, I am ready to ask, with the poet, ‘Are there not some chosen thunders in the stores of heaven armed with uncommon wrath to blast those Men,’ who by their cursed schemes of policy are dragging friends and brothers into the horrors of civil War and involving their country in ruin?”
Thomson Letter to Franklin, Nov. 1, 1774

Charles Thomson and Cato, A Tragedy


The poet whose words Thomson cited were from James Addison, the anti-royalist English poet-playwright, whose play,“Cato, a Tragedy” was widely read and often quoted by the Founders of the new nation. Whether intentionally or inadvertently — memory will do that to memory—Thomson changed the “Cato” text from singular to plural to suit the circumstances that enraged him. “Blast the Man” (the king) and “Blast those Men” (i.e. Parliament) who had violated the rights and freedoms of the American colonies’ rights and freedoms under British law.

Dragging their Country into Ruin

The circumstances of November 1, 1774, and January 6 and September 18,2021 are different, but Charles Thomson’s outburst is as fresh as the day he wrote to Franklin. The longing for a king exceeds the bounds of time. The anxiety that hangs over us makes our heads swim; we long for solid ground, something solid that does not change. So it is that a political party and a portion of the American public have come to mistake treason with patriotism, a bully with a savior, a quack with a swan, and have followed the strong man’s quackery into the halls and offices of the Congress that makes America a democratic republic. When we confuse patriotism with terrorism, Charles Thomson’s letter from the Founders Archives is more than archival.

Teetering on the Edge of the Precipice

When a hollow man and hollow party hollow out the core of what we have thought we valued, the question from Cato’s tragedy rumbles like thunder from the heavens. Charles Thomson’s renderings from Cato fit the eve of a threatened sequel to January 6, when the democratic republic once again “teeters on the very edge of the precipice.”

Toward Healing the Wounds

Will we in 2021 share the hope and prayer with which Charles Thomson ended his letter of November 1, 1774: “Even yet,” he wrote, “the wounds may be healed and peace and love restored; But we are on the very edge of the precipice. I am sir your affectionate Friend and humble Servant.– Chas Thomson”

--Gordon C. Stewart, Public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), September 17, 2021.

2 thoughts on “America at the Precipice

  1. After a mostly sleepless night, worrying about and anticipating a repetition of January 6, I want to believe “Even yet, the wounds may be healed and peace and love restored”. Your thoughts are welcome on a day that could have been worse. But the precipice still grows higher. Only true radical love will keep us from hurling ourselves from it.

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  2. Gordon, Thank you for the history lesson this morning. The level of peril for our democracy has never been higher save the Last Civil War.
    Those who took the colonies to was with Kin George may had flaws but none as grave as the 45th president in name only.
    Jefferson could write complete sentences. The travesty that is trump and this 70+ million members of his cult well may endure longer than the scars of our wars.
    PS Washington had his troops vaccinated against smallpox. The king and Trump’s troops not…….

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