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June 1776 Charles Thomson Signed Continental Congress Resolution Defining Treason
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This resolution of the Second Continental Congress, approved days before it adopted the Declaration of Independence, defines a person as guilty of treason if they “levy war” against any of the united American colonies or give “aid and comfort” to any of their enemies. This resolution was the first public act to declare King George III the enemy and was a de facto declaration of independence.

CHARLES THOMSON. Manuscript Document Signed, Copy of Resolution Extracted from Minutes Journal as Secretary of Confederation Congress, June 24, 1776, Philadelphia. 2 pp., 6⅜ x 8 in.

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Complete Transcript

In congress, 24 June, 1776

            Resolved, that all persons abiding within any of the united colonies and deriving protection from the laws of the same owe allegiance to the said laws, and are members of such colony; and that all persons passing through visiting, or making a temporary stay in any of the said colonies, being intitled to the protection of the laws during the time of such passage, visitation, or temporary stay, owe during the same time allegiance thereto.

            That all persons members of or owing allegiance to any of the united colonies as before described who shall levy war against any of the said colonies within the same <2> or be adherent to the king of Great Britain or others the enemies of the said colonies or any of them within the same giving to him or them aid and comfort are guilty of treason against such colony.

            That it be recommended to the legislatures of the several united colonies to pass laws for punishing in such manner as to them shall seem fit such persons before described as shall be provably attainted of open deed by people of their condition of any of the treasons before described.

                                                                        Extract from the minute,

                                                                        Chas Thomson Sec[y]

Historical Background

At the urging of General George Washington, the Continental Congress appointed on June 5, 1776, a five-member “Committee on Spies” to declare “what is proper to be done with persons giving intelligence to the enemy, or supplying them with provisions.” The committee included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Rutledge, James Wilson, and Robert R. Livingston, all attorneys. Three members—Adams, Jefferson, and Livingston—were soon simultaneously serving on the committee to draft a declaration of independence.

The Committee on Spies submitted its report on June 17, but Congress did not consider it until a week later, when it passed these resolutions and one additional resolution: “That it be recommended to the several legislatures of the United Colonies, to pass laws for punishing, in such manner as they shall think fit, persons who shall counterfeit, or aid or abet in counterfeiting, the continental bills of credit, or who shall pass any such bill in payment, knowing the same to be counterfeit.”

All of the colonies except Georgia followed the advice of the Continental Congress and adopted laws defining and punishing treason. Nine colonies enacted statutes that generally followed the wording of this resolution. Thomas Jefferson also participated in drafting the Virginia treason statute of October 1776. Three states—Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina—adopted treason laws that did not follow the language recommended by the Continental Congress.

Essentially the same definition made its way into Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, which declares, “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” James Wilson, who had served on the Committee on Spies in 1776, helped frame the Constitution eleven years later. The Founders defined treason narrowly because the charge had been repeatedly abused to quell any political dissent or to punish political opponents. It is the only crime specifically defined in the Constitution. It is also the only crime for which a native-born citizen can be expatriated.

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.