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Charles Thomson – Who as Secretary to Congress Was One of Only Two Men to Sign the Declaration on July 4, 1776 - Here Signs Congressional Ordinance Defining His Duties
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As secretary of Congress nine years earlier, Thomson and Congress President John Hancock had been the only two men to sign the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Thomson played a key role in the new national government, as the secretary of the Continental and Confederation Congress from 1774 to 1789.

CONGRESS OF THE CONFEDERATION. CHARLES THOMSON. Printed Document Signed, “An Ordinance for the Regulation of the Office of the Secretary of Congress,” March 31, 1785. 1 p., 7¾ x 12¾ in.

Inventory #24779       Price: $8,500

Excerpts

He shall carefully preserve the journals of Congress, and all other papers committed to his charge; and such as are secret in their nature, or by special order, shall not be communicated by him to any person, except members of Congress, and such persons as may be entitled thereto by special resolutions.

He shall keep a daily account of all memorials, petitions and communications received by Congress, noting therein their object, and the steps taken respecting them; and lay the said account or register every day on the table in Congress, for the inspection of the members.

He shall transmit to the several states, all acts, ordinances, resolutions and recommendations of Congress—correspond with the states, for the purpose of receiving communications from them, relative to the execution of the same, and make report to Congress—keeping a book in which shall be entered copies of all such letters and communications.

He shall authenticate all acts and proceedings of Congress not specially directed to be authenticated by their president—and keep a register of all treaties, conventions, ordinances and permanent acts of Congress.

He shall keep the great seal of the federal union, and cause the same to be affixed to every act, ordinance, or paper Congress shall direct. He shall superintend the printing of the journals and other publications ordered by Congress.”

[Signed:] “Chas Thomson Secy

Historical Background

In 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation after sixteen months of debate. Ratified by all of the states by March 1781, the Confederation was inherently flawed in several ways. There was no separation of powers. Each state, no matter its size, had one vote in Congress. Any act of Congress required the approval of nine states, rather than a simple majority. There was no chief executive. Perhaps most importantly, Congress could not levy taxes, instead having to resort to seeking requisitions from the states and loans from abroad.

The Continental Congress also lacked the authority to establish uniform regulations for foreign and domestic commerce. States went their own way in setting import duties and in paying down the revolutionary debt. The inconsistent polices increased tension between the states and deteriorating financial prospects for the Congress, which defaulted on Revolutionary War loans from Dutch and French bankers.

When the Annapolis Convention of 1786 convened to work toward new commercial agreements between states, nationalists Alexander Hamilton and James Madison called for a broader convention, to be held in Philadelphia in 1787 to discuss constitutional amendments. Congress concurred, calling on the states to send delegates, who quickly agreed on the need to discard the Articles of Confederation and to draft an entirely new frame of government.

Charles Thomson of Pennsylvania served as Secretary of the Confederation Congress throughout its entire fifteen-year existence. His role was more than merely clerical, and some considered him as essentially the “Prime Minister of the United States.” This ordinance, passed after Thomson had held the position for more than a decade, specified his duties, perhaps in an attempt to limit his power. Because the Secretary of Congress was to “authenticate all acts and proceedings of Congress,” Thomson signed the ordinance.  The endorsement on the verso, “31st March 1785 / Secy’s Office” suggests that this was Thomson’s copy.

Under the new federal government, the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the United States House of Representatives assumed many of Thomson’s functions as the Secretary of the Congress of the Confederation. The Secretary of State became the keeper of the Seal of the United States.

Charles Thomson (1729-1824) was born in Ireland to Scots-Irish parents. After his mother’s death, his father took his sons to the British colonies in America. His father died at sea, and Thomson and his brothers were separated in America. A blacksmith in Delaware cared for him, and he received an education in Pennsylvania.  In 1750, he became a Latin tutor in Philadelphia. Thomson became a leader of Philadelphia’s Sons of Liberty.  Most importantly, he served as secretary to the Continental Congress through its entire history, from 1774 to 1789. Thomson and Congress President John Hancock were the only two men actually to sign the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. In 1782, Thomson took the work of three previous committees to create a final design for the Great Seal of the United States. Thomson remained the keeper of the seal until the creation of the new Federal government, when the role passed to the Secretary of State. In April 1789, Thomson notified George Washington of his election as the first president of the United States. Thomson resigned as secretary of Congress in July 1789, and political disagreements kept him from a position in the new federal government. He spent the next two decades preparing the first English translation from the Greek Septuagint of the Old Testament and the first American translation of the New Testament. It was published in 1808.


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