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I’m working on a book about the American Revolution, so I’ve been doing a lot of research lately. The history itself is incredibly compelling, but my reading has also illuminated something interesting about the way America’s story was written – not just who got to tell the story, but what story they told.
The only person who was really in a position to know – and tell – the true story of America’s founding fathers, was a guy you’ve probably never heard of named Charles Thomson. He was the one and only Secretary of Congress for their entire first fifteen years, the crucial time from 1774 to 1789, when the country was born. He was in the room where it happened when everything was happening, starting before Lexington & Concord, all the way through the War, up to, and including, the ratification of the Constitution. And, I should point out, one of the first orders of business of the very first Congress, was to swear themselves to secrecy. They, and all subsequent meetings of Congress, would make a strict point of keeping every window shut, even during the sweatiest Philadelphia summers, to make sure no one else heard what was said when the Delegates were in session.
But Thomson heard it all. Apparently he never got sick, because he attended every session, every secret committee report, every debate and (occasionally violent) argument. He himself was caned by one delegate and returned the same salute! As Secretary, Thomson was the guy who decided what went into the official record – and what didn’t – and he left out a lot, but he remembered it all. He knew where every skeleton was buried – some not even buried, just left to rot with the rest of the glorious Revolution’s dirty laundry.
When the Constitution was finally adopted in 1789, Thomson campaigned to become America’s first Secretary of State, and he had an impressive resume. In addition to taking notes, scheduling sessions, wrangling Delegates who sometimes could barely achieve a quorum, attesting and publishing every act and resolution, conducting investigations and writing reports on numerous failed operations (like the invasion of Canada), organizing and maintaining the Congressional archives as de facto first Librarian of Congress, he also: issued letters of marque authorizing privateers and supervised enforcement of their compliance by the states, negotiated treaties with foreign representatives, and coordinated American foreign policy between Congress and their scattered diplomats, including Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens and Thomas Jefferson. A Greek and Latin scholar before the war, Thomson also learned to speak Indian dialects as Secretary and advisor to the Delaware tribe, negotiating treaties with them and the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. He was extremely sympathetic to the Delaware tribe’s point of view, and even wrote a book about their politics. A radical activist from the start, he was an anti-Stamp Act, Non-Import/Export enforcer when many of the Delegates were still in diapers. John Adams called him, “the Sam Adams of Philadelphia”. Talk about your forgotten founder! He was also an outspoken opponent of slavery. But, instead of Thomson, Congress appointed Jefferson as the first Secretary of State.
Denied any post of meaningful status, Thomson resigned as the Secretary of Congress, although not before designing the Great Seal of the United States. Congress’ parting gift to him was an urn. Feeling, perhaps, just a little bitter, he retreated to his wife’s country estate where he started writing a memoir entitled, “Notes of the Intrigues and Severe Altercations or Quarrels in the Congress.” He worked on his tell-all manuscript for a decade, until it grew to over a thousand pages – and that’s a lot of skeletons – but by the time he finally ‘finished’ it in 1808, a kinder, gentler, more noble, origin story was being told about the young country.
A generation had passed since the war, the painful realities had faded, and Americans were coming to believe (and cherish) the iconic legends of honest George Washington and the triumph of patriotic citizen-soldiers in a bloodless rebellion against Tyranny, with Liberty and Justice for all (naturally, excepting women, slaves, mulattos, Indians, Jews, etc.). The story of America was already cast with good guys, and bad guys. And these good guys weren’t just good, they were saintly beings exalted by Divine righteousness. American self-awareness was still in its infancy, or so it seemed to the leading historians and politicians of the day, (in a strikingly early example of white male fragility), and a sanitized, idealized origin story was needed to unite the United States.
Ultimately, Thomson himself decided that it would be better if America never knew about all the Intrigues and Severe Altercations, n-words left un-printed, in bitter debates left un-settled, or papered over by expedient compromises then, that still haunt us now.
“It is not for me to undeceive future generations,” he reportedly said*, “Let the world admire our patriots and heroes.”
And so he surrendered Truth to the power of the patriotic narrative and burned his manuscript – yes, really, all 1000+ pages of it! – thereafter devoting himself to translating the Biblical Septuagint from the original Greek into English.
Charles Thomson decided that We, the People, couldn’t handle the Truth; that America’s story would be more inspirational if it was based on myths and fairy tales, and the flawed, complicated truth should be buried forever. And so, the “official” Story of America was allowed to take root, unchallenged by one of the few people with the credibility to do it. Even though he knew it was a gross distortion of the messy reality, he let it stand because it made a ‘better’ story.
But, as every writer, and historian, knows, any story can be re-written.
P.S. – If you’re a history geek like me, or just interested in the way Fake News has become historical ‘fact’, you might be interested in these articles:
* Naturally, there are several competing versions of Thomson’s exact words, but I thought this one made a good story.