Dr Matthew Thornton
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Written by Peter E. Randall

M Thornton


Matthew Thornton signed the Declaration of Independence from NH. That is how history knows him. But he was also a doctor, too old to fight in the Revolution, and he was not born in America. What else was he? Read on.



The men who led New Hampshire's civil government during the Revolution have nearly been forgotten by historians and others who have chosen to write about those events of over 200 years ago. Military officers such as Stark, Dearborn and Sullivan and the flamboyant John Langdon have all been the subjects of books. But the men such as Matthew Thornton who toiled long hours in the court room, the Provincial Congress and the legislature have received only passing notice in short biographies.

Ireland to New Hampshire

Thornton is especially unusual for among the prominent New Hampshire individuals of this period, he alone was not a native born American. He was born in Ireland in 1714 and with his family came to Wiscasset, Maine about 1717. The Thorntons soon moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, which with Londonderry, NH, was a center of Scotch-lrish settlement in New England. Here Matthew studied medicine at the then famous Worcester Academy. In 1740, he opened his practice in Londonderry. Then a small, isolated settlement, it became by 1775 the second largest town in New Hampshire in both population and taxable wealth.

Skilled as a physician, well educated and from the same European stock as most of the townspeople, Thornton soon became both an important and a wealthy man of the town. He accompanied the New Hampshire regiment on the military expedition to Cape Breton, Canada in 1745. Although the army suffered greatly in capturing Louisburg, Thornton's medical skill held his regiment's losses to only six men.

He soon made a name for himself in civil matters, too, serving in a variety of town and provincial offices as both a legislator and a judge. He even received from Governor Wentworth a commission as a colonel in the Londonderry militia. In 1768 he and other members of his family were granted the township which still bears his name, Thornton, and he had interests in other towns as well.

The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of Worcester had been badly treated by the Massachusetts Congregationalists and partly for that reason, Thornton and others of his nationality had moved to Londonderry. Perhaps because of that unfair treatment, Thornton readily took the side of the people of his town and province over the increasingly harsh policies of the royal government during the 1760s and 1770s.

When the war began, he was 61 and too old to serve in the army (although he held the rank of colonel until 1779), but he readily served in the various provincial congresses, becoming president of the Fourth Congress on May 17, 1775. From this time on, the members of the Congress virtually ignored the remnant of the royal government in Portsmouth and they assumed the real authority for running the province. During this difficult period of transition from royal to provincial government, Thornton was the acknowledged leader of the government, acting as president of the Congress and chairman of the Committee of Safety throughout the rest of 1775.

He was also president of the Fifth Congress, which on January 5, 1776, adopted the first constitution in the colonies. He had also chaired the five man committee that drafted that document, Since this acceptance vote was not unanimous, New Hampshire wrote to the Continental Congress for an opinion of their actions.

Signs the Declaration

Starting in the early summer of 1776, the Continental Congress made a series of decisions which culminated in the Declaration of Independence. Thornton was not a member of the Congress when the Declaration was adopted, but by law was permitted to sign it on November 4, 1776, the day after he arrived in Philadelphia to begin the first of two terms in the Congress. Nearly 18 months earlier in a letter to the Congress, Thornton had first suggested complete independence from England, a view which at that time was not universally supported. It must have been with a great deal of satisfaction that he signed the Declaration, for by November of 1776, his signature certainly was not required.

After the adoption of the January 1776 constitution, Thornton was elected the first speaker of the house, then became a member of the council although Meshech Weare was named to head the council. Both Weare and Thornton were extremely able men and if times had been different, there might well have been a conflict between them. Whatever his personal feelings, Thornton set them aside and while he assumed a somewhat lesser role in the state, he was an active member of the Continental Congress from November 1776 through 1777.

Before being sent to the Continental Congress, Thornton had been appointed as a Superior Court justice and he continued to serve on various committees of the legislature and the Committee of Safety. He served six years on the Superior Court and as chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, but in 1782 declined reappointment to those posts.

In 1780, Thornton moved to Merrimack where he purchased the confiscated estate of Tory Edward Goldstone Lutwyche. After the war he represented that town in both the House and the Senate, and also served on the governor's council. The pressure of his many duties forced Thornton to end his medical practice in 1779 and after the war he became a gentleman farmer and owned the ferry at that place on the Merrimack River still known as Thornton's Ferry.

With the death of his wife in 1786 and of his son the following year and with increasing infirmities, Thornton resigned from public life. He died in 1803 while visiting his daughter in Newburyport, Mass.

Author and photographer Peter E. Randall has published over 300 books as the owner of Peter. E. Randall, Publishers.  This article originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commision, 1976. Reprinted by permission of the author. First published online here on SeacoastNH.com in 1997. Updated 2005.