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Matthew Thornton was the son of James Thornton, a native of Ireland, and was born in that country, about the year 1714. When he was two or three years old, his father emigrated to America, and after a residence of a few years he removed to Worchester, Massachusetts.
Here young Thornton received a respectable academical education, and subsequently pursued his medical studies, under the direction of Doctor Grout, of Leicester. Soon after completing his preparatory course, he removed to Londonderry, in New-Hampshire, where he commenced the practice of medicine, and soon became distinguished, both as a physician and a surgeon.
In 1745, the well known expedition against Cape Breton was planned by Governor Shirley. The co-operation of New-Hampshire being solicited, a corps of five hundred men was raised in the latter province. Dr. Thornton was selected to accompany the New-Hampshire troops, as a surgeon.
The chief command of this expedition was entrusted to colonel William Pepperell. On the 1st of May, he invested the city of Louisburg. Lieutenant Colonel Vaughan conducted the first column, through the woods, within sight of Louisburg, and saluted the city with three cheers. At the head of a detachment, chiefly of New-Hampshire troops, he marched in the night, to the northeast part of the harbour, where they burned the warehouses, containing the naval stores, and staved a large quantity of wine and brandy. The smoke of this fire, being driven by the wind into the grand battery, so terrified the French, that, spiking the guns, they retired into the city.
The next morning, as Colonel Vaughan, with his men, consisting of only thirteen, was retiring, he accidentally discovered that the battery was deserted. Upon this, he hired a Cape Cod Indian to creep into an embrasure and open the gate. Thus he obtained possession of the place, and immediately dispatched a messenger to the commanding general, with the following note: "May it please your honour to be informed, that, by the grace of God, and the courage of thirteen men, I entered the royal battery about nine o'clock, and am waiting for a reinforcement and a flag."
In the mean time, the news of Vaughan's capture of the battery being communicated to the French, a hundred men were dispatched to retake it; but the gallant colonel succeeded in preventing their design, until reinforcements arrived.
The capture of Louisburg followed after a long and perilous siege. It was here that cannons were drawn by men, for fourteen nights, with straps over their shoulders, from the landing place through a deep morass, into which they sunk, at every step, up to their knees in mud.
Few expeditions in the annals of American history, will compare with this. Louisburg was the " Dunkirk" of America; yet it surrendered to the valour of our troops. It is recorded to the praise of Dr. Thornton, and as an evidence of his professional abilities, that of the corps of five hundred men, of whom he had charge as a physician, only six died of sickness, previous to the surrender of the city, although they were among those who assisted in dragging the cannon over the above mentioned morass.
Under the royal government, he was invested with the office of justice of the peace, and commissioned as colonel of the militia. But when the political crisis arrived, when that government in America was dissolved, Colonel Thornton abjured the British interest, and, with a patriotic spirit, adhered to the glorious cause of liberty. In 1775, the royal governor was obliged to flee from the province of New-Hampshire. A provincial convention was at this time in session at Exeter, for temporary purposes, of which Colonel Thornton was president. In this capacity we find him addressing the inhabitants of the colony of New-Hampshire in the following manner:
" Friends and brethren, you must all be sensible that the affairs of America have, at length, come to a very affecting and alarming crisis. The horrors and distresses of a civil war, which, till of late, we only had in contemplation, we now find ourselves obliged to realize. Painful beyond expression, have been those scenes of blood and devastation which the barbarous cruelty of British troops have placed before our eyes. Duty to God, to ourselves, to posterity, ends forced by the cries of slaughtered innocents, have urged us to take up arms in our own defence. Such a day as this was never before known, either to us or to our fathers. You will give us leave, therefore, in whom you have reposed special confidence, as your representative body, to suggest a few things, which call for the serious attention of every one, who has the true interest of America at heart. We would, therefore, recommend to the colony at large, to cultivate that Christian union, harmony, and tender affection, which is the only foundation upon which our invaluable privileges can rest with any security, or our public measures be pursued with the least prospect of success."
After enjoining an inviolable observance of the measures recommended by the Congress of 1774, lest they should cross the general plan, he proceeds to recommend, "that the most industrious attention be paid to the cultivation of lands and American manufactures, in their various branches, especially the linen and woollen[sic], and that the husbandry might be managed with a particular view thereto; accordingly, that the farmer raise flare and increase his flock of sheep to the extent of his ability.
" We further recommend a serious and steady regard to the rules of temperance, sobriety, and righteousness; and that those laws which have, heretofore, been our security and defence from the hand of violence, may still answer all their former valuable purposes, though persons of vicious and corrupt minds would willingly take advantage from our present situation.
"In a word, we seriously and earnestly recommend the practice of that pure and undefiled religion, which embalmed the memory of our pious ancestors, as that alone upon which we can build a solid hope and confidence in the Divine protection and favour, without whose blessing all the measures of safety we have, or can propose, will end in our shame and disappointment."
The next year he was chosen a delegate to the Continental Congress, and took his seat on the fourth of November following. He was, therefore, not a member of that illustrious body which planned and published the Declaration of Independence. This was true, also, of Benjamin Rush, George Clymer, James Wilson, George Ross, and George Taylor. But all these gentlemen acceding to the Declaration, were permitted to affix their signatures to the engrossed copy of that instrument.
During the same year, he was appointed chief justice of the court of common pleas; and not long after was raised to the office of judge of the superior court of New-Hampshire, in which office he remained until 1782. In 1780, he purchased a farm, pleasantly situated on the banks of the Merrimack, near Exeter, where, in connection with his other diversified occupations, he devoted himself to the business of agriculture. Although advanced in life, he cheerfully granted his professional services, whenever they were required, and they were at all times highly appreciated. In the municipal affairs of the town, he took a lively interest. Of the general court he was a member for one or two years, and a senator in the state legislature, and served as a member of the council in 1785, under President Langdon.
Dr. Thornton was a man of strong powers of mind, ad on most subjects to which he directed his attention, was able to elicit light and information. In private life, he was peculiarly instructive and agreeable. The young were delighted with his hilarity and humour. His memory was well stored with entertaining and instructive anecdotes, which he was able to apply upon any incident or subject of conversation. He often illustrated his sentiments by fable. He delighted to amuse a circle of an evening by some fictitious narrative, in which he greatly excelled. At such times, placing his elbows upon his knees, and supporting his head with his hands, he would rivet the attention of his auditors, and astonish them by his powers of invention. In satire he was scarcely equaled. And though he sometimes employed his power immoderately, he was universally beloved, and occupied a large share of the confidence of his neighbours. A single fault of his character should not pass unnoticed. It is asserted, that he betrayed some traits of an avaricious disposition, and sometimes enforced his rights, when if justice did not require, charity dictated a relinquishment of them. If, however, he was severe in his pecuniary claims, he was also strict in the payment of his debts.
The powers of Dr. Thornton's mind continued unusually vigorous to a late period of his life. After he was eighty years of age, he wrote political essays for the newspapers, and about this period of life prepared for the press a metaphysical work, comprised in seventy-three manuscript pages in quarto, and entitled, "Paradise Lost; or, the Origin of the Evil called Sin, examined; or how it ever did, or ever can come to pass, that a creature should or could do any thing unfit or improper for that creature to do," &c. This work was never published; but those who have had access to the manuscript, pronounce it a very singular production.
It is not a little remarkable, that, although a physician and consequently often exposed to the whooping cough, he did not take that disease until he had passed his eightieth year. Although at this time enfeebled by years, he survived the attack, and even continued his medical practice.
In stature, Dr. Thornton exceeded six feet in height, but he was remarkably well formed. His complexion was dark. and his eyes black and piercing. His aspect was uncommonly grave, especially for one who was naturally given to good humour and hilarity.
Dr. Thornton died while on a visit at Newburyport, Massachusetts, on the 24th of June, 1803, in the 89th year of his age. In the funeral sermon by Rev. Dr. Burnap, we are furnished with the following sketch. "He was venerable for his age, and skill in his profession, and for the several very important and honourable offices he had sustained; noted for the knowledge he had acquired, and his quick penetration into matters of abstruse speculation; exemplary for his regard for the public institutions of religion, and for his constancy in attending the public worship, where he trod the courts of the house of God, with steps tottering with age arid infirmity. Such is a brief outline of one who was honoured in his day and generation; whose virtues were a model for imitation, and while memory does her office, will be had in grateful recollection."
Source: Rev. Charles A. Goodrich Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 143-148. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)
See also:The biography of Hannah Jack Thornton, Matthew Thornton's wife
Designed and Edited by John Vinci
Last modified January 1, 2004