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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 200 years ago. Military officers
such as Stark, Dearborn and Sullivan and the flamboyant
John Langdon have all been the subjects of various
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.
Irish to NH Doctor
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,
Me., about 1717. The Thorntons soon moved to Worcester,
Mass., which with Londonderry, N. H., 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.
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.
By Peter E. Randall
Originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles
Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commision, 1976.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com
List of Seacoast NH Framers of Freedom
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