North American Scholar

THOMSON, Charles

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1729-11-29
  • Born City: County Derry
  • Born State/Country: Ireland
  • Parents: John Thomson & wife.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1824-08-16
  • Death City: Lower Merion
  • Death State/Country: PA
  • Married: Ruth Mather (d. 1770); Hannah Harrison, 1 Sept. 1774.
  • Education:

    Academy of Dr. Francis Alison, New London, Chester Co., PA.

  • Publications:

    Alienation of the Delaware and Shawnee Indians (London, 1759); The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Covenant, Commonly Called the Old and New Testament (Philadelphia, 1808). Papers: New York Hist. Soc.

  • Notes:

    Charles Thomson, teacher of Latin in Pennsylvania, produced the first English translation of the Septuagint. Born in Ireland, Thomson arrived in America as an orphan at the age of ten. His talents being quickly recognized, he was enabled to study at the Academy of Francis Alison. Like many educated Americans, he taught school to tide himself over before embarking on a permanent career. For a few years, he conducted a private school until through the influence of Benjamin Franklin he was appointed tutor of the Latin School of the Academy of Philadelphia. In 1760 he resigned from teaching to go into business, also becoming active in colonial politics. Called "The Sam Adams of Philadelphia, the life and cause of liberty" by John Adams, he served devotedly as "perpetual secretary" of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789. In 1782 Thomson was charged with preparing the official seal of the United States, and he, together with William Barton, designed it, using classical iconography and quotations from Virgil; the Great Seal is best known from the reverse of the dollar bill. As a member of the American Philosophical Society he directed his interests also to science. After Washington's inauguration, Thomson retired to his estate in Harriton, near Philadelphia, where he devoted the rest of his long life to his first love, Greek. In retirement he produced his elegant and scholarly translation of the Septuagint, as well as a version of the New Testament. His work drew high praise from Jefferson, who admired "the stamp of that accuracy which marks everything from you." Ashbel Green, president of Princeton, eulogized Thomson as "one of the best classical scholars our country has ever produced."

  • Sources:

    E. C. Burnett, DAB 18:481-2; Lewis R. Harley, The Life of Charles Thomson (Philadelphia, 1900); J. Edwin Hendricks, Charles Thomson and the Making of a New Nation 1729-1824 (Rutherford, NJ, 1979); Thomas H. Montgomery, A History of the University of Pennsylvania from Its Foundation to A.D. 1770 (Philadelphia, 1900) 147-9; Cyril M. White, "Charles Thomson: The Irish-Born Secretary of the Continental Congress 1774-1789," Studies [Ireland] 68 (1979) 33-45; WhAmHS 600-1.

  • Author: Meyer Reinhold