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, the Philadelphia “Quaker,” became a household name. Charles Thomson (1729-1824), the Philadelphia Presbyterian, did not, and that’s a shame.
Charles Thomson was the Secretary of the First and Second Continental Congress, a quiet Founder 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.
He held the office of Secretary from 1774 throughout the American Revolution until the adoption of the Constitution. Thomson’s correspondence with his friend Benjamin Franklin is learned and passionate. His translation of the Bible and the Septuagint from Greek into English is the first English Bible published in America. Thomson’s love of language and range of literature is evident in his letter to Franklin.
Charles Thomson Letter to Benjamin Franklin
“When I look back,” wrote Thomson to Franklin in London, “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, Thomson changed the “Cato” text from singular to plural to suit the circumstances that enraged him. “Blast the Man” (the king) became “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 have changed, but Charles Thomson’s unusual outburst is as fresh today 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 spin; 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 for 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 2022 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.