Founding Fathers Fridays: Matthew Thornton
by Derrick G. Jeter
Matthew Thornton is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who was the leader of an independent “nation.”
Thornton wasn’t born in America. The son of Scotch-Irish stock, his family immigrated when he was four. The Thorntons were Presbyterians and the objects of persecution in Anglican England. Unfortunately, when the Thorntons came to New England they were met with Puritan persecution. Arriving in the dead of winter, the Thorntons found no place to lay their heads so they wintered on the ship. Eventually, they disembarked and moved from Boston to Maine to Worcester, Massachusetts.
Young Thornton grew up in Worcester and, like his future signing compatriot Josiah Bartlett, studied medicine by apprenticing with a local doctor. Once he began his practice, he settled in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Following the pattern of Bartlett, Thornton became a surgeon for troops during the French and Indian War and involved himself in colonial politics. He was appointed by the royal governor as a colonel in the militia and as a justice of the peace (just as Bartlett was). However, the Stamp Act changed everything.
As a member of the Committee of Safety, which was charged with protecting citizens, Thornton became a leading voice against the Stamp Act and Parliamentary encroachment on American affairs. Things boiled over in 1774 when a mob attacked the royal governor, John Wentworth, and took a cache of gunpowder and guns from the royal fort in Portsmouth. Wentworth, fearing the increased calls for independence, decided that he could only ensure the safety of his family by fleeing the colony. Taking his leave, Wentworth sailed for England, leaving New Hampshire without a government. To fill the void, Thornton’s Committee of Safety announced on January 5, 1775, the plans for a new government and Thornton was elected the colony’s president, making him the first executive of the de facto nation of New Hampshire.
The document Thornton and his committee developed became New Hampshire’s constitution—the first written constitution in America—when it became a state in the United States and remained so until 1783.
At the time Thornton was ruling the independent “nation of New Hampshire,” delegates from the thirteen colonies were arguing over independence in Philadelphia. Thornton didn’t receive his appointment to the Second Continental Congress until after the Declaration was voted on and approved, arriving in Philadelphia in September 1776, after most of the signers had put their names to the “engrossed” parchment.
Thornton already had his patriotic bona fides, but when it came to signing the Declaration he had to find a spot on the bottom right-hand corner. Samuel Adams, not know that New Hampshire was going to appoint another delegate after August 2, 1776, took what would have been Thornton’s spot under the other New Hampshire delegates. Because Thornton didn’t sign until November 1776, many believe his was the last signature. Wrong. Thomas McKean of Delaware was. McKean probably didn’t sign his name until 1781, though some say he signed much earlier, in 1777. In either case, McKean was the last to place his name to the Declaration, not Thornton.
Thornton remained a member of the Congress through 1776 and was elected in 1777 to continue as a Congressman, but a smallpox inoculation weakened his eyesight forcing his retirement. Though he served in the state legislature and as a judge for several years, he eventually moved back to his farm and took up the pen. When Thornton was in his eighties he wrote a treatise on sin, the title of which must have been longer than the document itself: Paradise Lost; or, the Origin of the Evil called Sin, examined; or how it ever did, or ever can come to pass, that a creature should or could do any thing unfit or improper for that creature to do.
Just reading the title could make you so tired you’d be too weary to sin! And it must have worn Thornton out to write it. He died at the age of eighty-nine in Newburyport, Massachusetts, while visiting his daughter. He was buried at Thornton’s Ferry Cemetery, Merrimack, New Hampshire; his grave marked with a marble stone that reads simply (and shortly): “An Honest Man.”