George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Charles Thomson, 23 July 1789

From Charles Thomson

[New York] July 23. 1789


Having had the honor of serving in quality of Secretary of Congress from the first meeting of Congress in 1774 to the present time, a period of almost fifteen years, and having seen in that eventful period, by the interposition of divine Providence the rights of our country asserted and vindicated, its independence declared acknowledged and fixed, peace & tranquility restored & in consequence thereof a rapid advance in arts, manufacturing and population, and lastly a government established which gives well grounded hopes of promoting its lasting welfare & securing its freedom and happiness, I now wish to return to private life.

With this intent I present my self before you to surrender up the charge of the books, records and papers of the late Congress which are in my custody & deposited in rooms of the house where the legislature assemble, and to deliver into your hands the Great Seal of the federal Union, the keeping of which was one of the duties of my Office, and the seal of the Admiralty which was committed to my care when that board was dissolved.

Before I retire I beg leave to recommend to your favour Mr Roger Alden who was appointed, by the late Congress, deputy Secretary & whom I have found an able & faithful assistant,1 and Mr John Fisher who has served as a clerk in the office for several years with diligence and fidelity & who alone remains unemployed.2

And now with most sincere and ardent wishes for the prosperity of our country and a fervent prayer for your health and happiness I bid you an affectionate Farewell.

Chas Thomson

ALS, DNA:PCC, item 49; copy (facsimile), in Thomson’s writing, NcD.

Charles Thomson (1729–1824), born in county Derry, Ireland, came to America around 1739, was educated at an academy in New London, Pa., taught school briefly, and in 1760 became a merchant. An outspoken advocate of the break with Great Britain, Thomson began his long service as secretary of the Continental Congress in 1774. In this capacity he notified GW of his election as president in April 1789. See Address by Charles Thomson, 14 April 1789, and GW’s reply, same date. Although Thomson did not apply to GW directly for a post in the new government, it was clear that he hoped to be retained in some capacity and that he possessed considerable support in Congress. As early as the fall of 1788 Thomson was seriously considered for the post of secretary of the Senate, but his apparent lack of interest, reinforced by the opposition of the Lee-Adams faction to his appointment, threw the competition for the secretaryship open to such other candidates as William Jackson, Samuel Allyne Otis, Roger Alden, and John R. Livingston. In the course of the close voting in the Senate, Thomson made known his willingness to accept the position, but the support for him was weakened by his demands for a deputy (“so that I may not be under the necessity of attending except on special occasions”), for the same salary he had enjoyed under the Confederation Congress, and for the designation of “Secretary of the Senate and of the United States or Congress,” as well as control of the papers of Congress and the Great Seal (Thomson to Robert Morris, 7 April 1789, DLC: Thomson Papers). William Maclay noted that in the voting on 7 April the Senate “made a Tryal for a Secretary we were told that Mr Thomson would serve if elected. He was put in nomination accordingly. Unless this office could be secured for him, It seems likely that he will be lost to the publick. And yet we consider it as in some Measure his own fault, for if he had come forward heartily for the office, we beleive he would have succeeded the Senate were twice fairly divided 6 for him and 6 for Mr Otis of Boston. Major Jackson was tryed but we could carry him no length” (Maclay to Benjamin Rush, 7 April 1789, DLC: Rush Papers). Samuel Allyne Otis was appointed secretary on 8 April (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 1:12; Otis to John Langdon, 9 April 1789, in Letters by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Others to John Langdon, description begins Letters by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Others, Written during and after the Revolution, to John Langdon, New Hampshire. Philadelphia, 1880. description ends 92). Divided sentiment in Congress concerning Thomson was indicated by his deliberate omission from the ceremonies attending GW’s inauguration. For his outraged protest, see his statement, c.May 1789, in Burnett, Letters, description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed. Letters of Members of the Continental Congress. 8 vols. 1921–36. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass., 1963. description ends 8:833–35. Thomson’s ambitions had all along clearly transcended the secretaryship of the Senate, a position he considered to be virtually a continuation of his earlier post. Writing to Richard Henry Lee in early May, Arthur Lee noted that “your friend Thomson is endeavoring to be appointed Secretary of State for the home department” (9 May 1789, ViU: Lee Papers). During his years with the old Congress, Thomson had been essentially responsible for handling what were to become the domestic duties of the State Department, and as long as debate continued in Congress over the establishment of a Home Office as well as a Foreign Office, Thomson entertained hopes that he would receive the appointment. The proposal for a Home Office was rejected by Congress on 23 July, and many of its intended functions were placed under the State Department (Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 1st Cong., 1st sess., 692–96). Since no offer of another post was forthcoming from the new administration, Thomson returned to Philadelphia in the summer of 1789 and settled at Harriton, his estate near the city, where he devoted his remaining years to scholarly pursuits. For GW’s later offer of the post of Indian commissioner, see his letter to Thomson, 31 Jan. 1793, and Thomson’s reply, same date. For an account of Thomson’s difficulties in securing employment in 1789, see Bowling, “Good-by ‘Charle.’” description begins Kenneth R. Bowling. “Good-by ‘Charle’: The Lee-Adams Interest and the Political Demise of Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, 1774–1789.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 100 (1976): 314–35. description ends

1Roger Alden (d. 1836) of Connecticut served in the Continental army as a major and aide-de-camp to Jedediah Huntington until he resigned in February 1781 to become Thomson’s assistant. He was briefly considered in April 1789 for the post of secretary of the Senate. See source note. In October 1789, when GW wrote to Thomas Jefferson informing him that he had appointed Jefferson secretary of state, he noted that “Unwilling as I am to interfere in the direction of your choice of Assistants, I shall only take the liberty of observing to you that, from warm recommendations which I have received in behalf of Roger Alden Esqr. Assistant Secretary to the late Congress, I have placed all the Papers thereunto belonging under his care” (GW to Jefferson, 13 Oct. 1789). In February 1790, in discussing appointments to the State Department, Jefferson wrote Jay that although he did not know Alden, he had “been proposed to me on ground that cannot but command respect” (14 Feb. 1790, in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 16:180–81). Alden held the post of chief clerk for the domestic section of the State Department until his resignation in 1790 (Alden to Jefferson, 25 July 1790, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

2Fisher may be the John Fisher of New York who was appointed a major in one of the New York regiments in 1776. He served as one of Thomson’s clerks in the late 1780s, and he is probably the Mr. Fisher who approached James Madison in the fall of 1789 to solicit his aid in obtaining a clerkship in the State Department. See Madison to Jefferson, 1 Nov. 1789, in Rutland, Madison Papers, description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series. 17 vols. Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962–91. description ends 12:439. It was soon evident that Fisher failed to merit Thomson’s good opinion. See Thomson’s letter to GW, 25 Dec. 1789, for a detailed account of Fisher’s embezzlement of congressional funds.

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