Northern Ireland news

Remarkable tale of Co Derry orphan who became central figure in American Revolution

Charles Thomson is seen as one of the most important figures in US history

A DESTITUTE orphan from Co Derry who became a central figure in the American Revolution played a “critical role” in the history of the world, according to a new documentary.

Charles Thomson was born in the townland of Gorteade, near Maghera, in 1729.

But while he is seen as one of the most important figures in US history, his story is less well known in his native country.

Presented by Bruce Clark, a veteran foreign news reporter for The Economist and Financial Times who lives in Gortaeade, the BBC Northern Ireland documentary The Man Who Told The Truth charts Thomson's story from a 10-year-old penniless emigrant to his rise as an American revolutionary.

Its producer Kathryn Baird said Thomson “managed to achieve so much” despite his difficult early life.

“The facts of Thomson's life are remarkable: a 10-year-old orphan who had to fend for himself on arrival in the New World, he managed to join the elite of Philadelphia, became part of the revolutionary struggle and was one of the only two signatories to the original Declaration of Independence."

She said a classical scholar and teacher from Co Donegal, Francis Alison, played a key role in Thomson's early life and through him he met Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the US.

“He (Thomson) played a pivotal role in the young American republic and earned the respect of famous men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson,” she said.

“Franklin became a fatherly mentor and Jefferson a lifelong friend with whom Thomson corresponded over scientific, religious matters and slavery.”

Ms Baird said although tens of thousands of people from Ireland took part in the revolutionary campaign, “Thomson was the only one who gained acceptance by the inner circle of America's founders”.

“His last public act was a week-long journey from New York to Mount Vernon to break the news to George Washington that Washington had been chosen as the first President of the United States,” she said.

A polymath, Thomson designed the Great Seal of the United States, which is still used to authenticate important federal documents today.

And following his retirement from public life at the age of 60, he worked on a new translation of the Bible and a history of the American Revolution.

He later destroyed the history saying: “‘Let the world admire supposed great men of valour... I shall not undeceive future generations”.

Ms Baird also said she was fascinated by Thomson's support for Native Americans in their conflict with white colonists.

As a young teacher, he was struck by the plight of the Lenape people, who lost more than a million acres of hunting grounds in a land grab.

Ms Baird said Thomson saw the land grab as “a wilful abuse of power and, acting as adviser and secretary to the Indian chief, Teedyuscung, used his rhetorical skills to denounce it”.

Thomson was even adopted by the Lenape, who gave him the name ‘He Who Speaks the Truth'.

A confirmed abolitionist, he also disagreed with his friend Thomas Jefferson about slavery.

In a foretelling of the American Civil War, Thomson warned Jefferson that slavery was a “sickness” on the new country and it would only be stopped by “reason, by religion or by bloodshed”.

The Man Who Told The Truth will be screened tomorrow on BBC Two Northern Ireland at 10pm.

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