By. S.F. Pells
Charles Thomson was a contemporary and a friend of George Washington, and not a whit behind in nobility of character that great man who was to be, but who then was but a delegate to that first Continental Congress, which began the session which was held in the Carpenters' Hall, Philadelphia, at 10 o'clock on the morning of the 5th September, 1774, to which Charles Thomson (although not a delegate) was chosen Secretary.
Philadelphia at this time was the most important place on the American Continent, and had an extensive trade with England.
It had been laid out with striking regularity in 1682 under the direction of William Penn, who had given it the Greek name meaning "Brotherly Love." Penn was a devout follower of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, and the new city on the Delaware river soon became the head-quarters in America of the Quakers, the Society of Friends in London sending to it many persons from time to time.
In 1774 Philadelphia had about twenty thousand people, the majority of whom were Quakers.
Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress, was greatly beloved by the people of Philadelphia, where he had lived for many years. He had come to America in 1730 a poor Irish lad of eleven years, had acquired a fine classical education, had been Master of the Friends' Academy, had translated the Greek Testament, and had taken so earnest a part in Colonial affairs that he was called "the life of the cause of liberty." He was also named by the Delaware Indians, with whom he had dealings, "Weh-wo-la-ent," or "The Man who speaks Truth," and it is related that while he was Secretary of Congress it was the custom of the members "to call upon him to verify disputed points, by saying, 'Let us have truth or Thomson,' his word being considered equal to any other man's oath."
Mr. Thomson was a tall, slender man, with a long, thoughtful face, sparkling eyes, and white hair combed straight down upon his head. He had not expected to be Secretary of Congress, and how he obtained the position he has related in one of his letters.
"I was married to my second wife on a Thursday; on the next Monday I came to town to pay my respects to my wife's family. Just as I alighted in Chestnut Street the doorkeeper of Congress (then first met) accosted me with a message from them, requesting my presence. Surprised at this, and not able to divine why I was wanted, I, however, bade my servant put up the horses and followed the messenger to the Carpenters' Hall and entered Congress. There was, indeed, an august assembly, and deep thought and solemn anxiety were observable on their countenances. I walked up the isle, and, standing opposite to the president, I bowed and told him I awaited his pleasure. He replied, 'Congress desire the favour of you, Sir, to make their minutes.'"
And at the desk Secretary Thomson remained all through the period of the Continental Congress, almost fifteen years, having been unanimously chosen Secretary each session. At the close of the first session he was presented by the delegates with a massive solid silver urn, inscribed, "In testimony of their esteem and approbation."
Charles Thomson was still Secretary to Congress when, on that memorable day in December, 1783, General Washington, escorted by his staff officers, gave in his resignation. "He was met by Secretary Thomson, who led the party to seats."
Six years later—namely, April, 1789—Charles Thomson, the greatly esteemed Secretary of the Continental Congress, was sent to carry the certificate of election, as President of the United States, to General Washington at Mount Vernon. Although Thomson started on Tuesday, the 7th April, and made the journey as speedily as possible, we are told that it took him an entire week to reach Mount Vernon.
When Washington received the notification of his election to the Presidency, he said he was much affected by this fresh proof of his country's esteem and confidence, and announced that he would be ready "to set out the day after to-morrow." He made a farewell visit to his aged mother, and received her blessing; and on the 16th of April, in company with Mr. Thomson and Colonel David Humphreys, he departed for New York, to assume the exalted office to which a grateful country had called him.
The journey northward was one long ovation, so much so that on one occasion, we are told, Washington was affected to tears.
Some of the chairs and tables used in the Congress have been preserved, and are shown in the venerable building. ("The American Congress, 1774-1895," by Joseph West Moore. Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1895.)