Monday, July 4, 2016

We Hold These Truths: Timothy Matlack and the Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, 
that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, 
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Timothy Matlack
Portrait by Rembrandt Peale
Today we celebrate the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most iconic of all American documents. As we look at these words today, we know that in writing "all men", author Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration were not being inclusive. "All men" did not include, of course, women, African Americans or Native Americans. The founding fathers were not so much radicals as they were entitled members of the new American merchant/landed class seeking redress from an unfavorable business environment enforced by King George III of England.

There is evidence, however, that at least one of the men wandering the halls and grounds of the Pennsylvania State House was, indeed, for his time, a radical. Timothy Matlack, a Philadelphia brewery owner and a lapsed Quaker, served as the clerk to the secretary to the Second Continental Congress, Charles Thompson. Matlack got the job after selling a few cases of Madeira wine to his neighbor, Benjamin Franklin, who, discovering Matlack's facility with calligraphy and penmanship, hired him as a scrivener. 

Matlack was unlike the others gathered to declare independence from England. He was far from elite or wealthy. He was drummed out of the Quakers because of his penchant for gambling, horse racing, cockfighting, public brawling and failure to pay his debts. His debtor status landed him in prison twice. Matlack further alienated himself from the wealthy Quaker businessmen of Philadelphia by publicly criticizing them for holding slaves. Finally, of course, Matlack favored war with England, while Quakers abjured all wars.

Matlack was a rabble rouser. In 1773, he led an angry protest of Philadelphia brewers against the Philadelphia elite who controlled commerce in the city. More importantly, he led a revolt against the conservative leadership of Pennsylvania who opposed independence and he eventually helped have the more conservative Pennsylvania delegation replaced by those pushing for independence. Later, Matlack served as a colonel in the Continental Army and fought alongside George Washington at Trenton and Princeton. He was an elected representative to the Continental Congress, and he helped write the new constitution of Pennsylvania, which was the most radically democratic of all the new States' constitutions. The Pennsylvania constitution, unlike all others, called for the direct election of representatives. It was a people's constitution.

Matlack's enthusiasm for rebellion was palpable. When the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Timothy Matlack, serving as clerk, grabbed the text, ran to the steps of the State House and read the proclamation aloud to a gathering of  citizens of Philadelphia. This was the first public presentation of the decision of the Continental Congress. Two weeks later, after the New York delegation finally assented to the Declaration, Timothy Matlack, known to the Congress for his expert penmanship, was assigned the task of "engrossing" the official document. Matlack finished the task in short order and on August 2, the final document - the one that was sent to King George III and the one that is on display in the National Archives in Washington, DC - was signed by John Hancock and the rest of the founding fathers.

Timothy Matlack is my sixth great grandfather. I wanted to tell his story because I think it represents all the small voices that have had a hand in the great legacy of this country - the singular idea that all human beings have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It really is the small voices, the unknown names, the people living and working and loving and striving and protesting that make this country what it is. We have been very imperfect in our pursuit of the ideal of liberty and justice for all, but those of us who keep trying to foster that ideal are living up to the words of the Declaration of Independence.

In 2004, Timothy Matlack was briefly rescued from historical obscurity when his name showed up in the movie National Treasure. A clue that the movie's characters find reads: "The legend writ, the stain affected, the key in silence undetected, fifty five in iron pen, Mr. Matlack can't offend." The clue leads to the Declaration of Independence and a map on the back supposedly placed there by Matlack.

Timothy Matlack offended many in his day. He does not fit comfortably alongside our other founding fathers, but if today we are going to continue the fight for true equality, true democracy, we, like Matlack, are going to have to offend many, too.

Happy 4th of July!