Matthew Thornton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in Ireland in 1714 and immigrated with his father to America when he was only two or three years old. His father first settled at Wiscasset in Maine and then moved to Worcester in Massachusetts a few years later. There he arranged for his son to receive an academic education in preparation for a profession. Matthew chose the medical profession, and when finished with his studies, he set up his office in Londonderry, New Hampshire, where he became a well-known and successful physician.
Thornton was appointed in 1745 to be the surgeon for the New Hampshire troops and accompanied them in their battle against Louisburg during the French and Indian War. Louisburg was a French fortress upon the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which was considered to be one of the strongest fortifications in North America. Upon his return from this expedition, he was appointed by Governor Wentworth, the royal governor, to be a Colonel of Militia and a Justice of the Peace. When he joined the cause of liberty for the colonists, he became obnoxious to the governor. He was so popular among the people that he caused the chief magistrate to feel jealousy and alarm.
Upon the abdication of Governor Wentworth, the provincial government of New Hampshire was organized and Dr. Thornton was elected to be its president. He was chosen to be Speaker of the House when the provincial Congress was organized. He served as an elected member of the Court of Common Pleas, and in January 1776, he was appointed to be a judge of the Superior Court of New Hampshire. In September 1776, he was appointed to be a delegate to the Continental Congress for one year. He was permitted to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence when he was seated in November. Dr. Thornton was not the only one who was so indulged. Several members who were absent when the vote was taken to adopt the Declaration of Independence on July 4 later signed their names to the document. In December 1776 he was again elected to the general Congress for one year beginning January 23, 1777. He retired from Congress at the end of his term. He engaged in public affairs as judge when required, but he resigned his judgeship in 1782.
Dr. Thornton purchased a farm in Exeter in 1789 and resided there until his death. He was visiting his daughters in Newburyport, Massachusetts when he died on June 24, 1803, at age 89.
“Dr. Thornton was greatly beloved by all who knew him, and to the close of his long life he was a consistent and zealous Christian. He always enjoyed remarkably good health,” but he was plagued with a weakness of the lungs and a tendency toward pulmonary disease after a severe attack of whooping cough at age 81. He practiced the virtues of temperance and cheerfulness and lived to a “patriarchal age” (Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 21).
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