Charles Thomson, the Epitome of the Success of the Scots Irish

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), February 10, 2018 | Go to article overview

Charles Thomson, the Epitome of the Success of the Scots Irish


The talks at Stormont are in a critical phase, with language and culture one of the key sticking points.

There is no more vital part of northern Protestant culture than Ulster's links with America.

Like many Ulster people, my great grandparents had Scottish sounding surnames such as Ferguson, Henderson, Wilson, Blair.

Yet I was not taught about the influence of the Scots Irish in America at school, or if so only fleetingly (my primary school visited Omagh's Ulster American Folk Park).

Even though I attended two post primary schools that were as British in outlook as exist in Northern Ireland, we were taught -- among other periods -- modern Irish history (using text books that were biased to a nationalist narrative, by emphasising past injustices).

Perhaps there are schools that teach a pro imperial view of the past, but not the ones that I attended in North Down and East Belfast.

By my mid teens I knew as much about the Catholic Irish influence in the United States, the Kennedys and so on, as I did about the Protestant Irish influence on that country.

It was with interest, therefore, that on Tuesday night I was at Blackstaff Studio, Belfast for the packed preview of a BBC film on Charles Thomson, an Ulsterman who influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States. 'The Man who Told The Truth', is shown on BBC Two tomorrow night.

Thomson signed the American declaration of independence. As secretary to the 1776 Continental Congress, his name appears below John Hancock, congress president.

His name is also visible in the famous News Letter of late August 1776 that reports that July 4 declaration. We were not, as the charming myth goes, the first newspaper in Europe to report that dramatic document, but we are one of the only newspapers that did report the declaration and is still in publication today (The Times of London was not launched until 1785).

As the documentary puts it, men such as Thomson were signing their death warrant if America's revolution against the British crown failed (the Presbyterian United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken, grandson of News Letter founder Henry Joy, was hanged in Belfast after the faliled 1798 rising).

Thomson was known as the man who told the truth because he was an early critic of slavery.

The declaration of independence famously declares not only that all men are created equal, but that that is a "self evident" truth.

The only way to reconcile that statement with the fact of slavery is that the Founding Fathers, for all their brilliance, did not consider negroes, as they would have called them, to be men. Thomson saw the nonsense of this, before even William Wilberforce abolished UK slave trade in 1807.

He also saw the injustices done to native Americans and helped them against Pennsylvania's rulers.

This latter insight is all the more noteworthy when you consider the context in which Thomson grew up.

Born in Maghera parish in 1729 he travelled to the American colonies in 1739 after his mother died.

Native Americans and settlers were at that time often in conflict.

The first surviving Belfast News Letter dates from that era, October 1738, and it reports on how four more families in Virginia have been "murdered by Indians" and describes how the colonists were in "in great apprehension" of natives.

The Belfast News Letter of 1739 possibly even reports on the boat that took Thomson to America. …

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