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Matthew Thornton - Second Last Signer of the Declaration of Independence

Updated on January 27, 2022
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A lifelong lover of history, I enjoy writing articles about the past and interesting political topics, especially when the two intersect.

Born in the North of Ireland

Eight of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Irish descent, but only three were actually born in Ireland. Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire was one of these while George Taylor and James Smith of Pennsylvania were the others.

Like Taylor and Smith, Thornton was of Scot Irish descent, hailing from the Protestant North of Ireland.

Thornton was born in Ireland in 1714 and three years later his family sailed to North America settling first in the Maine (which was part of the Massachusetts colony at that time) coastal town of Wiscasset before moving to Worcester, Massachusetts a short time later.

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Becomes a Doctor

At that time Worcester was the center of Scot Irish settlement in Massachusetts. Thornton grew up in Worcester and studied medicine at the Worcester Academy.

In 1740 he relocated to the small New Hampshire town of Londonderry and set up his medical practice. His practice was successful and he prospered and became active in civic life as the town grew and prospered itself.

By 1775 Londonderry had grown to become the second largest town in the colony in terms of both population and wealth.

Fights in King George's War and then Marries

In 1745, during King George’s War (known as the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe), Thornton joined the local militia in response to New Hampshire Governor Wentworth’s and Massachusetts Governor Shirley’s calls for an expedition against the French fortress at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island.

His unit became part of a 4,200 strong force of New Englander’s that set sail from Boston in March of that year.

As a doctor, Thornton was assigned as physician to his regiment. Despite heavy overall losses by the army to disease and gunfire, Thornton’s regiment only lost six men, thanks in large part to Thornton’s skill as a physician.

Some time around 1758 Thornton met and married Hannah Jack. Their marriage was blessed with five children. Despite his family and professional responsibilities, Thornton remained active in the civic life of his town and colony.

Second Last Man to Sign Declaration of Independence

As the political conditions in the colonies deteriorated and the demands of the crown became more burdensome, Thornton, like many of his contemporaries became increasingly involved to local revolutionary activities.

Following his service in King George’s War, Thornton had remained active in the militia and eventually rose to the rank of colonel. However, despite his position in the militia, when the war with England broke out in 1775 Thornton was too old for active duty.

While he remained on the militia roles until 1779 his contribution to the war effort was in the form of political rather than military activity.

He was a leader in the new revolutionary government of New Hampshire serving in both the legislator and as an active member of the state’s Committee of Safety.

In January 1776 he was the President of the convention that drafted the state’s constitution. As a member of the regional Committee of Safety he devoted considerable time to recruiting volunteers for local militias as well as obtaining armaments for them.

In September of 1776 he was sent to Philadelphia to join New Hampshire’s delegation to the Second Continental Congress.

Despite his late arrival, he was still able to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence in November of 1776 becoming its fifty-fifth signer. Only one other delegate, Thomas McKean, signed later than Thornton.

In December of 1776 he was re-elected to an additional term in Congress and served there until 1779 when he returned to New Hampshire to continue his work in local politics.

Remained Active in New Hampshire Until His Death

Despite his increasing age, Matthew Thornton continued to hold positions in various state and local offices as well as running his farm, starting a business as the owner of a ferry service and writing articles on politics for local newspapers.

However, the increasing ailments of old age along with the death of his wife, Hannah, in 1786 and his son a year later forced Thornton to continue to slowly reduce his political and business activities.

The articles for newspapers continued and he still remained active with his family. In his last years he also undertook the writing of a book on the origin of sin.
While he appears to have finished the book, the completed manuscript was never published.

Matthew Thornton died on June 24, 1803 while visiting his daughter in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Chuck Nugent


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