Essay 34 – Guest Essayist: Tom Hand

Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire was a man who excelled in all that he did, as a physician and surgeon, in the New Hampshire legislature, and as a judge. We are also indebted to Thornton for his efforts to help America gain her independence from England, including his signing of the Declaration of Independence.

This accomplished patriot was born in Lisburn, County Antrim, Ireland on March 3, 1714 to James and Elizabeth Thornton, Scotch-Irish Presbyterian farmers. Interestingly, Matthew was one of three signers of the Declaration of Independence born in Ireland, James Smith and George Taylor, both of Pennsylvania, being the other two.

In 1717, when Matthew was three years old, James emigrated his family to America in the present-day state of Maine. There, in 1722, Matthew’s young life almost ended when Indians attacked their settlement and the family had to flee in a canoe. Having enough of the wilderness, James moved his family to Worcester, Massachusetts.

It was here, at the Worcester Academy, that Matthew received his classical education. He did well in his studies and decided to pursue a life in medicine. While continuing to help his father on their farm, Thornton began his medical studies in nearby Leicester under the direction of Doctor Grout, a relative of the family.

At the young age of 26, Thornton moved to Londonderry, New Hampshire and set up a medical practice as both a physician and surgeon. His hard work and ability soon gained him an excellent reputation and his business flourished.

In 1745, he was appointed as a surgeon in the New Hampshire militia to accompany an expedition to capture Louisbourg, a French fortress in Nova Scotia. Under Thornton’s care only six men died of disease on this mission, a remarkably low number for that time period, and he was praised by his superiors.

For the next decade or so, Thornton applied himself to his medical practice in New Hampshire. By the mid-1750s, he was becoming more prominent in the community and began to think of life outside his work.

In 1758, Thornton’s life in public affairs began when he was elected as a delegate of Londonderry to the colonial assembly. Two years later, at the age of 46, he enhanced his personal life when he married 18-year-old Hannah Jack, a great beauty from Chester, New Hampshire. They had five children together, three boys and two girls.

As relations between England and America grew strained in the 1760s, Thornton was a vocal opponent of several British policies, including the Stamp Act of 1765. In 1775, following the fight at Lexington and Concord, New Hampshire’s Royal Governor, John Wentworth, fled the colony and Thornton was elected President of the Provincial Congress.

He soon was selected to lead a committee to draft a constitution for New Hampshire and their proposal was adopted by the legislature on January 5, 1776. Importantly, New Hampshire’s constitution was the first one adopted by any of the thirteen colonies. Thornton was then elected to be Speaker of the new state legislature.

In September of that year, Thornton was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was officially seated on November 4, 1776 and signed the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence (the formal document on parchment paper), making Thornton one of six men who signed the document after the initial signing date of August 2.

Interestingly, the order of the signatures on the Declaration of Independence was determined by the location of each state. Specifically, the signers were arranged from the northernmost state, New Hampshire, to the southernmost, Georgia. Because Thornton was a late signer, there was no room for him to sign near the other men from New Hampshire and, consequently, he signed beneath the Connecticut delegation.

Due to health issues arising from a reaction to a smallpox vaccine he received, Thornton resigned from the Continental Congress and returned home to New Hampshire in the spring of 1777. He resumed his duties as an associate justice of the state Superior Court, a position he held until 1782, despite having no law degree. Finally, in 1784, at the age of 70, Thornton was elected to the New Hampshire Senate.

Thornton fully retired from the public eye in 1786 and spent the last years of his remarkable life on a farm he purchased on the banks of the Merrimac River, near Exeter, New Hampshire. There, besides managing his farm, he operated a ferry across the Merrimac.

WHY IT MATTERS: So why should Matthew Thornton and what he did for America matter to us today?

By all accounts, Matthew Thornton was highly regarded by his contemporaries. In fact, his original gravestone was inscribed “An Honest Man.”  Besides being a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Thornton was a talented surgeon, served in the Second Continental Congress, was a judge, a Colonel in the militia, and both a state Representative and Senator.

Matthew Thornton spent the greater part of his life serving the public in some capacity. Starting with his time in the New Hampshire militia in 1745 until he retired from the state Senate in 1786, Thornton did what he could to make New Hampshire and his country a better place. A life like that is worth remembering.

SUGGESTED READING: The book Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire is an older book, written in 1903, by Charles Thornton Adams. It can be found on-line and is a nicely written, thorough account of Thornton’s life.

PLACES TO VISIT: The New Hampshire State House in Concord, New Hampshire, is one of the most beautiful state houses in the country. It is built in the Greek Revival style and topped with an incredible golden dome. It is open for tours and well worth a visit.

Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae,” Love of country leads me.

Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.


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2 replies
  1. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    The state of medicine was very primitive, Washington was bleed to death when he had an illness and died early. Another doctor signer was Benjamin Rush whose statement has become more popular since this last year. He said, we must have a declaration in the Constitution about health or soon we will have a medical tyranny. Is that not what has happened? Lock downs, experimental shots/vaccines, disregarding and even censorship of any dissenting voices.

  2. Barb Zakszewski
    Barb Zakszewski says:

    Excellent essay.. all of these about the signers have been fascinating and looking forward to learning more!


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