Founding Fathers - Matthew Thornton

Matthew Thornton

Born: March 3, 1714 (Ireland)

Died: June 24, 1803 (Newburyport, Massachusetts)

I hope everyone who reads this had a tremendous Thanksgiving with your loved ones (at least those in the USA who celebrated it this past week), and that those of you from elsewhere are joining in as we begin to prepare for Christmas.  The focus of this week's study was a member of both of those two geographic groups, coincidentally, as he was one of eight individuals born overseas to sign the Declaration of Independence.  Matthew Thornton was born in northern Ireland, possibly on March 3, 1714, although that date is debated.  His family lived near the town of Derry, although other towns in the counties of Londonderry and Antrim have also been suggested as young Matthew's birthplace.  His parents were James and Elizabeth Thornton, and in 1817 they emigrated to the colony of Massachusetts.  They settled in the town of Wicasset, which is in the modern state of Maine, where they stayed until 1822 when they resettled in Worcester, MA, possibly due to an Indian attack that resulted in the burning of their home.  Matthew was just eight years old at the time, and the fact that his family finally settled gave him an opportunity to complete his education.  After learning medicine from a relative named Dr. Grout, Matthew became a physician himself in 1740 and moved across the border to New Hampshire to open his own practice.

Moving into the Scotch-Irish town of Londonderry, NH, was a somewhat ironic choice for the 26-year-old Matthew Thornton, given the name of his hometown in Ireland.  His medical practice quickly became a success and Thornton himself became quite popular.  As the French and Indian War carried on, he was called to serve as a surgeon for a British expedition force that ventured into French Nova Scotia and conquered the fortress of Louisbourg in 1745.  After returning home Thornton continued his business, purchased several tracts of land, and in 1758 began a public career by winning an election to the colonial assembly, a seat he held until the body was dissolved in 1775.  He married Hannah Jack in 1760, with whom he would have five children.  Thornton was held in high esteem among his peers, as evidenced by his many local civic roles which included selectman, justice of the peace, and militia colonel.  Despite holding such positions in the royal government of New Hampshire, he was quick to speak out against injustices, such as the Stamp Act in 1765.  By the time the first shots of the American Revolution had been fired, Thornton had already established himself as a champion of freedom, speaking out against the British Parliament and calling their actions unconstitutional and tyrannical.  As such, he was named to the Committee of Safety in 1775 where he drafted a plan of government for when the royal leadership was dissolved, and eventually was selected from 151 members of the provincial assembly to act as their president.  When his plan was ratified early in 1776, it became the first state constitution for New Hampshire.

Two months after the Declaration of Independence was ratified, Matthew Thornton was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress, but due to travel delays he did not arrive until November 4, 1776.  Despite not being present for the debates, votes, or signing, Thornton demanded that he be allowed to add his name to the document, insisting that he be given the same privilege to die for his patriotism.  His request was allowed as one of six men to affix their names after the signing was completed, and Thornton's name was the final signature included at the end of the list of signers.  Although he was asked to serve again in 1777, he resigned his position to return home where he had been named as an associate justice on the state's Superior Court, despite having no legal education.  Thornton served in this role until 1782, during which time he closed his medical practice and retired to a farm he had purchased in Merrimack, NH.  Despite spending his latter years farming and operating a ferry across the Merrimack River, he also served one final term in public service as a state senator from 1784-86, ending his political career the same year as his wife passed away.  Thornton spent his final years focused on agriculture and wrote a few political essays, before dying in 1803 at the age of 89 while visiting his daughter in Massachusetts.  His body was returned to New Hampshire where he is buried near the ferry that adopted his name: Thornton's Ferry.

The signature of Matthew Thornton can be found as the thirteenth (last) name on the sixth (farthest right) column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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