“The Sam Adams of Philadelphia”

So wrote John Adams in reference to Charles Thomson, one of Montgomery County’s most famous residents.  Thomson was a scholar, teacher, and early industrialist, who served as secretary to the Continental Congress, and in that role, signed the Declaration of Independence.

Born in what is now Northern Ireland in 1729, Thomson emigrated with his father and brothers in 1739 (his mother had died while he was very young).  Thomson’s father, unfortunately, did not survive the voyage, and the captain of the ship placed the boys with different families.  Upon learning that the blacksmith with whom he had been housed was planning on making him an apprentice, young Charles ran off in the night.  In the morning, a woman stopped him and asked where he was going, and he honestly told her of his situation and expressed an interest in becoming educated.  This women introduced him to Dr. Francis Alison, who ran a school in New London, Chester County.  Dr. Alison was one of North America’s leading Greek scholars, and in his career as an educator, he taught four governors, eight congressmen, and four signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomson worked hard and benefited greatly from his time with Dr. Alison, becoming one of the foremost Greek scholars in the Philadelphia region.  After he left school, he taught at the Philadelphia Academy (later the University of Pennsylvania) for a time.  In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Thomson worked with others to galvanize public opinion in Philadelphia.

When the Continental Congress convened in 1774, Thomson was unanimously elected its secretary.  He would hold that position for fifteen years until the congress dissolved in 1788.  In 1789, it was Thomson who traveled to Mount Vernon to inform George Washington that he had been elected President of the United States.  Though Washington would ask him to take on roles in government, Thomson stayed out of the public sphere for the remainder of his life.

In 1789, Thomson and his wife moved out of Philadelphia to Lower Merion, to live at Harriton, the large estate inherited by his wife.  There he dedicated himself to scholarly pursuits, including the first English translation of the Greek Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament).  He wrote several books, corresponded with Jefferson, and was active in the Philosophical Society.

Thomson died at Harriton in 1824 at the age of 95.  He was buried with his wife in the small cemetery at Harriton, but in 1838, Laurel Hill Cemetery petitioned to move their bodies.  While the heirs residing at Harriton refused, one nephew, John Thomas gave his permission, and the bodies were quickly removed to Laurel Hill.

Thomson’s will, made out in 1822, remained on file with the Montgomery County Register of Wills until 1965 when members of the Historical Society of Montgomery County petitioned the court to have the will transferred to the society’s care.  Pennsylvania state law allows for this sort of transfer of wills of historical interest so that they can be displayed to the public.

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Since Charles Thomson and his wife had no children, Harriton was left to a great-nephew of Mrs. Thomson.

Washington perhaps described Charles Thomson best in a letter of 1789, “Your services have been important, as your patriotism was distinguished.”