Saturday, July 05, 2008

Happy Independence Day from a Daughter of the New American Revolution

Greetings, freedom-lovers everywhere!

Welcome to the last Fourth of July that will be sullied by this evil and putrid Administration.

I plan to use this day to think about what the founders of our nation sacrificed to bring forth the United States of America, and why they decided it was worth putting everything they had on the line to break free from tyranny. Many of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence lost their health, money, property, and families because they chose to challenge the status quo.

I will be thinking in particular of the last man to put his signature to that document, Matthew Thornton. My paternal grandmother always asserted that we were related to him in some way, but the connection was somewhat hazy. She thought that the first McCracken (my maiden name) to come over from Scotland married Dr. Thornton's daughter, but a quick scan of the history books put the kibbosh on that, so I thought it was more wishful thinking than anything else. However, once I got hooked a couple of months ago on my new crack,, I found that although we were not directly descended from Thornton, we were indeed related - my great-great-grandfather George Washington McCracken's wife Mary Edgerly Thornton was the great-great-granddaughter of William Thornton, brother of Matthew Thornton. I wish my grandmother had lived long enough to find that out (although she was alive both times the Red Sox won the World Series!)

It's a revelation to go back and read the history of the Revolution within the context of having a relative involved, and realizing how determined these men (and women) were to forge their own destiny, and fight their oppressors. Matthew Thornton was born in Ireland of Scottish descent; the Scots-Irish (Northern Ulster Presbyterians or 'Orangemen' as they were known, to differentiate them from Celtic Irish Catholics) who came to America around that time were fiercely committed to the cause of independence. His father James Thornton brought his young family to America in 1718, settling in Brunswick, Maine; on July 11th, 1722, a band of Native Americans attacked the town. The Thornton family fled from their burning home and escaped by canoe. Narrowly escaping death they made their way initially to Casco Bay Maine. From there they moved to the Scots-Irish settlement of Worcester, Massachusetts, where my father's people have lived ever since.

From an article by Alister J. McReynolds:
In Worcester Matthew Thornton received a classical education at the Worcester Academy. The family subsequently left Worcester as a result of the bad treatment meted out to the Scots Irish of the town by the Congregationalist Puritan burghers. Matthew Thornton completed his studies in Medicine in Leicester and then in 1740 opened up his medical practice in Londonderry New Hampshire. This proved to be a position which was financially lucrative and Thornton became a wealthy citizen. Londonderry was relatively small at this time but by 1775 it had grown to become the second largest town in New Hampshire in both populationand taxable wealth.

In 1745, five years after he had hung out his Doctor’s slate in Londonderry, Matthew Thornton was still a bachelor and decided to volunteer his services as a military surgeon on the ‘Fort Louisburg’ expedition to Cape Breton. This was a major British campaign against the French and ended with the taking of the aforementioned French fort at the mouth of the St Lawrence waterway.During this campaign Matthew Thornton’s skill as a surgeon was particularly noted. In spite of the magnitude of the operation, consequent from the fighting only 6 lives were lost on the British side. After this ‘tour of duty’ Matthew Thornton returned home to Londonderry New Hampshire where he remained in the local militia and eventually in 1775 received a commission as a Colonel from Governor Wentworth. Realistically however at 61 he was too old for active service. We have descriptions of Dr Matthew Thornton in 1750’s which portray him as tall, clear-eyed and handsome and added to this possessing a charm and storytelling capability that kept his friends enthralled for hours on end.

Matthew Thornton was 46 years of age when he married Hannah Jack in 1760 and the couple were to have five children*. From the outset Thornton took an active part in the overthrow of the British governance in New Hampshire and was prominent in his opposition to the Stamp Act. In 1768 Matthew Thornton and the other members of his family were granted the township which still bears his name – Thornton.

In 1775 Matthew Thornton was elected President of the Convention and over the next decade held a series of positions as Chairman of committees and President of the Constitutional Convention. Subsequently he became President of the fifth Congress which adopted the first Constitution of the Colonies on January 5th 1776. He also chaired the 5 man committee which drafted the document.

Although not elected until November 4th 1776 and thus after the passage of the Declaration of Independence, Matthew Thornton was allowed to sign the engrossed copy of the document. He had attested and it had been fully accepted that retrospectively he was fully in accordance with the voting on the issue. Thornton arrived in Philadelphia just one day before he signed the Declaration and commenced his two year stint in Congress. Some 18 months prior to his arrival in Philadelphia Matthew Thornton had written a letter to Congress advocating complete independence from Great Britain. This was a view that was not universally supported at the time. However by November 1776 it was the almost unanimous viewpoint of the activists in the Colonies.

*A story told in the History of New Boston NH states, "she was a beautiful young girl of eighteen (when they married), whom he had promised, when a child, to wait for and marry, as a reward to her taking some disagreeable medicine."

In a book written about the signers in 1823, the section on Matthew Thornton ends thusly:

The grave of this eminent man is covered by a white marble slab, upon which arc inscribed his name and age, with the brief but noble epitaph— "AN HONEST MAN."

I hope that we can take heart and courage from the example that our founding fathers gave us, and I hope that we can find the fortitude to do whatever is necessary to keep that flame of freedom burning. Are we, like they, ready to "pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor"? If not, we may find that most or all of it will be taken from us anyway.