Monday, September 20, 2021

Timothy Matlack, Scribe of the Declaration of Independence

From Journal of the American Revolution:

On October 25, 1774, the First Continental Congress resolved to send a formal address to the king asking for his royal attention to “the grievances that alarm and distress his Majesty’s faithful subjects in North America.”[8] Secretary Charles Thomson assigned the urgent task of engrossing two copies of the address to Timothy Matlack. Matlack had these ready to sign the next day, the last day of Congress. In January 1775, the first copy was laid before the House of Commons and the second copy laid before the House of Lords. Both were promptly ignored.

The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, and five days later Samuel Ward of Rhode Island noted, “The Secretary allowed to employ Timothy Matlack as clerk under an oath of secrecy.”[9] On June 15, Congress appointed George Washington to be general and commander-in-chief of the army of the United Colonies, and Matlack penned the formal commission. Besides being busy in Congress, Matlack was also a rising local leader: that summer, he was elected to Philadelphia’s powerful committee of inspection. This was one of the bodies that formed across the colonies, by order of the first Congress, to enforce the boycott of British goods. Matlack was also named secretary of the committee of militia officers.

In December 1775, Congress took steps to build a naval fleet for “the Defence of America.” The marine committee’s secretary, the ubiquitous Timothy Matlack, worked on specifications for a fleet of gunships. He was also employed by the committee of claims. On January 20, 1776, the member from New Jersey, Richard Smith, noted that, “Some Powder was ordered for the Companies of Maxwell’s who are ready to march to Canada and Tim. Matlack was directed to furnish them with Ball and Flints. Tim is a Commissary and Clerk in Chief to our Committee of Claims.”[10] Smith was amazed that “this person who is said was once a Quaker Preacher and is now Col. of the Battalion of Rifle Rangers at Philadelphia.” (Matlack was not a preacher, of course, but just a member of the Society of Friends.) Early that month the city had added two more battalions to its militia brigade for a total of five. Matlack had been elected colonel of the fifth battalion of riflemen. A year later, he and his men would find themselves facing British regulars on a frozen battlefield.

Also in January 1776, Matlack was named an officer of Philadelphia’s committee of inspection. His promotion came at a critical moment. By now, some in Congress thought autonomy was inevitable. The next step, they realized, was an assertion of separation from Great Britain. Thomas Paine’s widely disseminated pamphlet Common Sense shifted a large swath of the population in the same direction. But a unanimous declaration of independence by Congress would require striking the Pennsylvania Assembly’s instructions to its delegation to “utterly reject” any such proposal. Defying heavy pressure, Assembly leader John Dickinson said he had no intention of removing his prohibition. Yet Matlack’s committee of inspection was gaining power by force of the militia and the people at large. In late February, his board announced a convention that would authorize new Assembly seats and write new instructions. Philadelphia’s elite was shocked by this volley. Joseph Shippen complained:“Tim Matlack and a number of other violent wrongheaded people of the inferior class have been the Chief Promoters of this wild Scheme; and it was opposed by the few Gentlemen belonging to the Committee—but they were outvoted by a great majority.”[11] (Read more.)


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