Popular historian Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, notes a founding father who has largely been forgotten but would have been remembered as its first great historian:
Charles Thomson was uniquely qualified to write a history of his times.
As secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789, he had functioned as what one historian has described as the “prime minister” of the Congress.
While delegates came and went over the course of the War of Independence, Secretary Thomson was always there to bear witness to the behind-the-scenes workings of the nation’s legislative body during its earliest and most critical period.
According to his friend John Jay, “no person in the world is so perfectly acquainted with the rise, conduct, and conclusion of the American Revolution as yourself.”
Soon after his retirement in July 1789, Thomson set to work on a memoir of his tenure as secretary to the Congress, eventually completing a manuscript of more than a thousand pages.
But as time went on and the story of the Revolution became enshrined in myth, Thomson realized that his account, titled “Notes of the Intrigues and Severe Altercations or Quarrels in the Congress,” would “contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution.”
Around 1816 he finally decided that it was not for him “to tear away the veil that hides our weaknesses,” and he destroyed the manuscript.
“Let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men,” he wrote. “Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them, and thus good may be done. I shall not undeceive future generations.”
Historians do an incredible job with the sources they have to work with, even if they wish that invaluable resources like this still existed.
It’s a sobering reminder that unless something was written down—and preserved—it is often lost to history.
Thomson, though, had other writing plans. After retiring at the age of 60, he began a work of Bible translation, translating the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into English and translating the Greek New Testament into English. He completed it by himself 19 years later, and it was published as a four-volume set in 1808.
In 1815, at the age of 86, he published A Harmony of the Four Gospels.
With his original vocation, therefore, we have only his journals and no longer his history. But he bequeathed to the church and to the academy the first English translation of the Septuagint, in a work that was referenced by Bible translators for centuries to come.
As librarian John Lyons noted in an article on the translation, “It is evident that by scholarship, financial independence, the love of truth, and longevity Thomson was fitted to render a conspicuous contribution to the world in the pursuance of his avocation.”