Painful beyond expression have been those scenes of blood and devastation which the barbarous cruelty of British troops have placed before our eyes. Duty to God, to ourselves, to posterity, ends forced by the cries of slaughtered innocents, have urged us to take up arms in our own defence…
– Matthew Thornton, First Official Statement as President of the New Hampshire Provincial Congress, 1775
The stories of many Scotch-Irish immigrants and their descendants follow the pattern of a rags-to-riches tale. Matthew Thornton’s story is one of the most interesting and remarkable.
Born in Lisburn, County Antrim in 1714, Matthew did not stay long on the Emerald Isle. When he was only three years old his parents, Ulster Scots James and Elizabeth Thornton, undertook the huge change of emigrating to New England along with around 300 other Scotch-Irish families seeking a better life across the Atlantic.
At first the Thorntons (sometimes transcribed as Thorningtons) settled in Wiscasset, in the territory that is now the state of Maine, but a few years later the settlement experienced an attack by a local Native American tribe which left their home on fire and their community scattered. The small family escaped by canoe to Casco Bay and from there travelled to Worcester, Massachusetts, where they were able to settle down and eventually enroll Matthew in school.
Matthew was a bright child who soon began to show talent in the field of medicine. After taking studies from Doctor Thomas Green in Leicester, he began his own medical practice in Londonderry, New Hampshire at only 26.
His reputation was such that five years later in 1745 he was appointed surgeon to the New Hampshire militia during King George’s War. His skill and versatility ensured that only a tiny number of troops died while he was providing medical care to the militia.
But Matthew Thornton’s ascendancy was only getting started.
As a highly successful doctor, he was wealthy enough to buy a substantial amount of land in Londonderry, and his reputation, influence, and personality combined to help him establish himself in the community. He became a member of the New Hampshire Assembly when it was formed in 1758, and also served as Justice of the Peace.
In 1760, he married Hannah Jack who was, like him, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian. They had five children, of whom four survived.
In the 1770s the relationship between the metropole and the colonies grew more and more fraught. By 1774 New England’s indignation against the taxes and laws of Old England became so serious that the thirteen colonies formed Provincial Assemblies or Congresses as local counter-governments, primed to resist the enforcing of unpopular or unreasonable rulings.
In June 1775, Matthew Thornton became the first president of the New Hampshire Provincial Congress when the previous governor, Sir John Wentworth, resigned his position and was forced to flee with his wife to Fort William and Mary. In May that year the Congress had raised a volunteer military force to help the revolutionary army already raised by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Also in May, the Congress had recognized the need to create a Committee of Safety to take care of province security by raising troops and stocking munitions. With the Revolution beginning to gather speed, it was imperative for each colony-state to be prepared to repel invasions and keep its people safe.
Once officially set up, the Committee of Safety in New Hampshire was given extremely wide jurisdiction and a great deal of discretionary influence — and it comes as no surprise that Matthew Thornton was appointed Chairman of this Committee. He also wrote New Hampshire’s first state constitution in 1776, when it became the first colony to set up an official government entirely independent of Britain (though Rhode Island was actually the first state to officially declare independence).
Was Thornton’s climb to power over? Far from it. In 1776, he began serving as Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in New Hampshire – even though he was not a lawyer and had no legal training – and in the autumn he was chosen to represent his people as a delegate to the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Because he did not arrive in Philadelphia until September, he was absent for the initial signing of the Declaration of Independence, but was allowed to add his signature ex post facto along with five others who had missed the signing but wished to add their names to the document that would make history for both America and Britain.
In 1779 he moved to Exeter, where he continued service as a judge, and continued his upward trajectory well into his seventies, becoming a member of the general assembly, serving in the State senate, and being elected State councilor.
Ten years after moving to Exeter he was finally ready to retire, and bought a farm in Merrimack, where he pursued agriculture and operated the ferry that came with the house. He also did a great deal of writing and philosophical study.
Matthew Thornton died in 1803 while visiting his daughter in Massachusetts. He was 89 and had lived a long and very full life, maintaining his reputation for honesty, dignity, and courage into his old age.
His eulogy ran as follows:
He was venerable for his age, and skilled in his profession, and for the several very important and honorable offices he had sustained; noted for the knowledge he had acquired, and his quick penetration into matters of abstruse speculation; exemplary for his regard for the public institutions of religion, and for his consistency in attending the public worship, where he trod the courts of the house of God, with steps tottering with age and infirmity. Such is a brief outline of one who was honored in his day and generation; whose virtues were a model for imitation, and while memory does her office, will be had in grateful recollection.
Thornton, Matthew (1714-1803), Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 2018. Available at: http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=T000242
Mark J Cole, Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor: The Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence, 2007.
“New Hampshire Patriot Matthew Thornton Dies on this day”, This Day in History, A&E Television Networks, 2018. Available at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/new-hampshire-patriot-matthew-thornton-dies