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Charles Thomson’s Secret Journal of the Confederation Congress, Including Detailed Description of the Great Seal and Negotiations for the Treaty of Paris to End the Revolutionary War
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The Devise for an Armorial Achievement and reverse of a great Seal for the United States.... The Escutcheon on the breast of the American bald Eagle displayed...and in his beak a scroll inscribed with this motto ‘E pluribus unum.’

This remarkable handwritten journal includes a description of the Great Seal of the United States; Thomson is now credited with being the final designer. There is also a crucial diplomatic report by Edmund Randolph entitled “Facts and Observations in support of the several claims of the United States not included in their Ultimatum of the 15 of June, 1781”; the text of the Preliminary Articles of Peace between the United States of America and Great Britain, signed on November 30, 1782; summaries of the treaties between Great Britain and France and Great Britain and Spain, signed on January 20, 1783; and correspondence in French between British negotiator Alleyne Fitz Herbert and American Peace Commissioners John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, also of January 20, 1783.

Randolph’s report comprises two thirds of the text in this journal and was not made public until 1820-1821, when the “Secret Journals” of Congress were first published under the direction of President James Monroe in conformity with resolutions of Congress.

CHARLES THOMSON. Manuscript Document, Journal as Secretary of Confederation Congress, 1782-1783. 104 pp., 6½ x 7⅞ in. Contemporary marbled boards; sympathetically rebacked; burgundy cloth chemise and slipcase, burgundy morocco spine lettered gilt. Together with: Mrs. Charles Thomson’s three calling cards.

Inventory #26592       Price: $925,000

Historical Background

The Great Seal
On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, who had recently served as members of a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, to devise an iconic emblem for the new nation. They turned to Philadelphia artist Pierre Eugene du Simitiere to assist them. Franklin and Jefferson drew on the Judeo-Christian Book of Exodus for images, while Adams favored a classical image of Hercules. Du Simitiere produced a more traditional heraldic design with a female figure representing Liberty and an American soldier. Congress rejected all of the elements of their design except the motto “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”).

Congress took no further action until March 25, 1780, when it appointed James Lovell of Massachusetts, John Morin Scott of New York, and William Churchill Houston of Virginia as a second committee. They turned to Declaration-signer Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, who was experienced in heraldry and did most of the work. Hopkinson developed two versions, and the committee presented one to Congress on May 10. Again, Congress rejected the design, though some elements, including the olive branch, thirteen stars, and a shield with red and white stripes on a blue field, were used in the final design.

On May 4, 1782, Congress again appointed a committee, consisting of John Rutledge of South Carolina, Arthur Middleton of South Carolina, and Elias Boudinot of New Jersey. They consulted with Pennsylvania attorney and heraldic expert William Barton to contribute to the design. Barton quickly prepared two designs, but the first was too complex, and the committee submitted the second design to Congress on May 9, 1782. Congress took no action on this design, but one month later, on June 13, 1782, Congress gave its Secretary Charles Thomson the materials submitted by each of the three committees in 1776, 1780, and 1782. Thomson took elements from each committee and produced a new design that provided the basis for the final design.

On the obverse, Thomson used Barton’s bald eagle as the sole supporter of the shield and holding in its claws an olive branch and a bundle of thirteen arrows. A scroll in the eagle’s beak bore the motto “E Pluribus Unum” from du Simitiere’s design. On the reverse, Thomson kept Hopkinson’s and Barton’s pyramid design but added a triangle around the Eye of Providence and added the mottoes “Annuit Cœptis” and “Novus Ordo Seclorum.” Thomson sent the design to Barton, who made some final alterations and wrote the “blazon” or written description of the seal and accompanying explanation included here. Barton returned them to Thomson on June 19. The following day, Thomson submitted a slightly modified version of the written description without illustration to Congress, which adopted it the same day.

Within a few months, an engraver cut the first die from brass, and Charles Thomson, as Secretary of the Confederation Congress, had custody of the seal. He used the seal and its press for the first time on September 16, to seal a document authorizing George Washington to negotiation and sign an agreement with the British for the exchange, subsistence, and better treatment of prisoners. Since 1789, the Secretary of State has been the steward of the Great Seal of the United States. It is impressed upon documents such as treaties and commissions, and is also found on documents such as U.S. passports and the back of the $1 bill.

Officially Ending the Revolutionary War
During the summer of 1781, the French minister to the United States informed Congress that Great Britain might accept the empress of Russia and/or the Holy Roman Emperor as mediators of the revolutionary conflict. During May and again in September, Congress debated the ultimata that would be necessary in a peace treaty. They included the right of American and French fishermen to use the offshore fishing banks of North America but largely left the issue of western boundaries to the discretion of the peace commissioners and made the free navigation of the Mississippi River a desirable but not essential component of the peace.

At the urging of the French, the Confederation Congress on June 15, 1781, appointed Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson to join John Adams as American peace commissioners in Paris (Jefferson declined the appointment on August 4). On the same day, Congress also passed a set of instructions for these commissioners, declaring that “we wish for nothing more ardently than to terminate the War by a safe and honorable Peace” and promising that “we will accept, ratify, fulfil & execute whatever shall be agreed, concluded and signed by our said Ministers plenipotentiary.”[1]

The Continental Army under General George Washington and the French Army under Comte de Rochambeau trapped the British Army under Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, in September 1781, and began a siege. A critical victory by the French fleet under Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse over a British fleet led by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves on September 5 near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay prevented the British Royal Navy from reinforcing or evacuating Cornwallis. The American/French siege persisted for three weeks before the British agreed to surrender. This stunning victory led to negotiations between the United States and Great Britain to bring the Revolutionary War to an end.

Most active fighting ceased with the surrender at Yorktown, and Washington returned with the Continental Army to New Windsor, New York, fifty miles north of New York City, but the danger of renewed hostilities remained. The British still held New York City, Charleston, and Savannah.

On November 17, 1781, the delegates from Massachusetts submitted to Congress an act passed by the legislature of their state on October 27 that drew attention to the question of the claims of American citizens to access to certain fisheries in the North Atlantic Ocean. Congress referred the act to a committee consisting of James Lovell of Massachusetts, Daniel Carroll of Maryland, and James Madison of Virginia. The committee chose Madison to draft the report. This committee made a report to Congress on January 7, 1782, which joined stipulations regarding the western boundaries of the United States and free navigation of the Mississippi, favored by southerners, with stipulations regarding fishing rights demanded by New Englanders. The committee recommended that the American peace commissioners explain the importance of these claims to the King of France and urge him to make them a part of the demands against Great Britain.[2]

On January 22, 1782, Congress referred the first committee’s report to a new committee consisting of Daniel Carroll of Maryland, Edmund Randolph of Virginia, and Joseph Montgomery of Pennsylvania. Before he left Congress on March 19, Randolph drafted this report. On June 17, James Madison and John Witherspoon of New Jersey tried to revive the earlier report by making a motion for the appointment of a committee to “propose & report to Congress the information & instructions proper to be transmitted to the Ministers Plenipo: for negociating peace, the better to enable them to support the several claims of the U.S. not included in their Ultimatum.”[3] The motion failed and several other members of Congress attempted to renew the issue over the next several weeks.

On August 8, Congress appointed James Madison, James Duane of New York, John Rutledge of South Carolina, Jonathan Jackson, and James Witherspoon as a committee to report to Congress on “the most adviseable means of securing to the United States the several objects claimed by them and not included in their ultimatum of the 15 day of June, 1781.” On August 15, the committee submitted a brief recommendation that Congress instruct them to submit the previous committee’s report and any supporting materials to Secretary for Foreign Affairs Robert R. Livingston to be considered, completed, and transmitted to the American negotiators in Paris “for their information and use.” Theodorick Bland of Virginia objected that he wanted to know what the committee had collected, and Noble W. Jones of Georgia objected to Livingston’s sending material to the commissioners without the approval of Congress. Given the difficulty of communicating with the peace negotiators in Paris and the risk of derailing the peace process entirely, Madison insisted that the committee did not want Congress to give an opinion or judgment but that the material would go the commissioners as information rather than instructions.

On August 16, Joseph Montgomery informed Congress that before leaving his seat, Edmund Randolph had collected a series of “Facts and Observations” in support of the several claims of the United States and had submitted them to their fellow committee member Daniel Carroll for comment. Carroll had made several remarks and observations and gave the document to Montgomery, asking him not to submit it to Congress until Carroll returned to complete his comments and add his objections, which was why the report had been delayed. That same day, Congress began listening to a reading of Randolph’s “Facts and Observations.”

The first portion deals with the claim of the United States to share in the Newfoundland fisheries, but most of the report focuses on the claims of the individual states to territory extending west and northwest to the Mississippi River. In his defense of these claims, Randolph wrote, “That if the vacant lands cannot be demanded upon the preceding grounds, that is upon the titles of individual states, they are to be deemed to have been the property of his Britannic Majesty immediately before the revolution and to be now devolved upon the United States collectively taken.” When this clause was first read, Theodorick Bland made a motion, seconded by Arthur Lee of Virginia, to have the clause “expunged.”

This motion led to extensive debate between members from states with fixed boundaries, who supported the clause, and members from states that claimed territory to the Mississippi River, who opposed it. Although from Virginia, a state with an undefined western border, James Madison supported the clause. Madison recognized thirteen independent sovereign states in domestic matters but insisted that the United States had to be united on international questions. Because the whole debate was out of order and to put an end to the debate, Congress adjourned for several days.

On August 20, Randolph’s “Facts and Observations” was read to Congress in its entirety. Arthur Lee again insisted that the reasoning of the clause to which he had objected four days earlier was “groundless” and the reasoning upon it “fallacious.” After more discussion, Congress voted to recommit the report to a committee consisting of John Rutledge, James Duane, John Witherspoon, David Howell of Rhode Island, and Joseph Montgomery. Apparently, this committee never reported, and Randolph’s “Facts and Observations” were not sent to the American commissioners in Paris.[4] A week later, Madison wrote to Randolph, “The consideration of your territorial report has been resumed  The expedient which was meant to conciliate both sides proved, as often happens, a means of widening the breach. The Jealousies announced on the side mentioned in my last were answered with reciprocal jealousies from the other, & the report between the two was falling to the ground when a committment [to yet another committee] as a lesser evil was proposed & agreed to.”[5]

On October 3, Congress approved a committee report that Congress, “considering the territorial claims of these states as heretofore made, their participation of the fisheries, and of the free navigation of the Mississippi, not only as their indubitable rights, but as essential to their prosperity,” expressed their confidence that King Louis XVI would make every effort to provide for and secure those rights. Congress also ordered the Secretary for Foreign Affairs to transmit a copy of the report to the peace commissioners and other ministers of the United States at foreign courts.[6]

On November 30, 1782, American peace commissioners John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens signed Preliminary Articles of Peace with Great Britain (copied in this journal). Richard Oswald signed them as the commissioner for King George III. They included an article that stipulated the general boundaries of the United States as the Atlantic Ocean on the east, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River on the north, the Mississippi River on the west, and the as the northern boundary of thirty-first degree of latitude and several rivers on the south. The Preliminary Articles also guaranteed fishing rights on the Grand Bank and other banks of Newfoundland to American and British fishermen and free navigation of the Mississippi River to citizens of either nation.

There were no major modifications between the provisions of the Preliminary Articles of Peace and those of the Definitive Treaty of Peace signed by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay on September 3, 1783, and ratified by Congress on January 14, 1784. Commissioners exchanged ratified versions of the treaty in Paris on May 12, 1784.

Charles Thomson (1729-1824) was one of only two men to sign the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776; he as Secretary of Congress and John Hancock as President of Congress, both attesting that it had passed. (For the engrossed Declaration, prepared for posterity the next month, the delegates affixed their own “John Hancocks,” and Thomson was not asked to sign. But when the first official copy went out actually naming the signers—the 1777 Goddard broadside—Hancock and Thomson were again the only two signers).

Thomson served as secretary to the Continental Congress for its entire fifteen years of existence, from its inception in 1774, through the ratification of the Articles of Association in 1781 (when it became the Confederation Congress), until the ratification of the Constitution and beginning of the federal government in 1789. His role was substantially more than clerical, especially between sessions of Congress, and he took a direct role in the conduct of foreign affairs. Some considered him as essentially the “Prime Minister of the United States,” and Thomson decided what to include in the official journals of the Continental and Confederation Congresses.

Thomson was born in Ireland to Scots-Irish parents. After his mother’s death, his father took his sons to the British colonies. Tragically, 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 New London, Pennsylvania. In 1750, he became a Latin tutor in Philadelphia and later a leader in the Sons of Liberty.

In 1782, Thomson took the work of three previous committees to create a final design for the Great Seal of the United States. In 1787, Thomson sent the proposed United States Constitution to the states for ratification. In April 1789, Thomson notified George Washington of his election as the first president of the United States. 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 old functions, including as the keeper of the Seal.

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, published in 1808.

Complete transcript available on request.

Sotheby’s, Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman, November 23, 2021, lot 53.
Sotheby Parke Bernet, October 3, 1978, lot 80.

[2] James Madison, Report on Instructions on Peace Negotiations, January 7, 1782, Papers of the Continental Congress, No. 20, I, 75-85, National Archives.

[3] James Madison, Motion Concerning Peace Negotiations, June 17, 1782, Papers of the Continental Congress, No. 36, I, 345, National Archives.

[4] James Madison, Instruction to Secretary for Foreign Affairs, August 20, 1782, Papers of the Continental Congress, No. 20, I, 87, National Archives.

[5] James Madison to Edmund Randolph, August 27, 1782, Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

[6] Gaillard Hunt, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 23 (August 12-December 31, 1782) (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1914), 633-37.

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