The scribe of the Declaration of Independence—and perhaps the first man to read it in public—was born on March 28, 1736 in Haddonfield, New Jersey. His family moved to Philadelphia eight years later. At the age of thirteen, Timothy Matlack began an apprenticeship under a prosperous Quaker merchant named John Reynell. Looking forward to a bright future, Matlack enthusiastically signed his contract with characteristic looping flourishes. But then disaster struck his family. His father, Timothy Sr., was a brewer who fell into debt, and the court ordered the seizure of his brewery and household goods. A last-minute agreement allowed the continued use of the property but with a new man in charge: Timothy’s half-brother, Reuben Haines. Timothy’s father drank himself to death soon thereafter and his younger brothers were admitted to a charity school as “poor scholars.” After completing the term of his apprenticeship in 1758, Timothy Matlack married Ellen Yarnall, the daughter of a Quaker minister. Matlack became such a devout Quaker that some people considered him a candidate for the ministry. Timothy and Ellen had four children, the youngest of whom would be killed in a battle at sea during the Revolution. In 1759, Benjamin Franklin, as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, hired Matlack to transcribe onto parchment a massive petition to the King-in-Council regarding Indian affairs. In 1760, Matlack opened a mercantile (selling cloths and hardware).
In 1765 the Society of Friends complained that Matlack had become negligent in attending meetings for worship, instead “frequenting company in such a manner as to spend too much time away from home.” His new companions kept him away from not only home and church, but also work. He was disowned by the Quakers and his business failed. He was in debtor’s prison on two occasions, each for about a month. Matlack had been raised to live with Quaker simplicity and earn a living in a lucrative trade. But he found himself more interested in the weight of a prize cow, or the length of a racecourse, than the price of linen in London. After his father’s business failure and untimely death, he had found consolation in his faith. But now, after his own fiasco and his mother’s death, he filled the emptiness in the taverns. Yet he did not fall into the abyss. In the alehouses he found an appealing world where men talked trade, politics, and sport over rounds of beer, wine, and rum punch. This was a time of fascination with the public world, and Matlack eagerly joined in these discussions. His friendly manner earned him popularity and acceptance. He discovered an identity which saved him from this second crisis. He was becoming a public man. Matlack’s embrace of public life led to his leadership role in town meetings and committees during the climactic years leading to the Revolution. The first Continental Congress was only ten years away.
Fortunately, Timothy’s half-brother Reuben transformed the old Matlack operation into Haines and Twells, the largest brewery and malt house in Philadelphia. Timothy had his own brewery and bottled beer operation at the “old Brew-House” on Sixth Street, near the State House. He stamped his corks TIM MATLACK PHILAD.
Quakers condoned the moderate consumption of beer, which was made from their barley. But they complained bitterly about “the increase in vice occasioned by the enormous increase of taverns and tippling houses.” The Society of Friends ordered its members not to run horse races or gamble on sports, “for our time swiftly passes away.” For Timothy Matlack and his friends, horse racing was a passion. In the taverns, horse talk reached a fever pitch in the days before Philadelphia’s spring and fall races, which attracted aristocrats from New York and Maryland. A sport equally popular in the middle and southern colonies, among rich and poor alike, was cockfighting. In 1770 Philadelphia hosted a big intercolonial cockmain that pitted a wealthy visitor against a local man of humble origins. On Tuesday, March 6, a clear sunny day, “James Delancey Esq from New York, and Timothy Matlack, had a great cockfight at Richeson’s on Germantown road.” Spectators drank and gambled, and the day ended in a massive brawl. Throughout his political career, Matlack’s enemies took every opportunity to remind people of his link to this discredited sport, as well as to the Black men who were also enthusiastic participants. As the Tory poet Jonathan Odell ridiculed, “game-cocks and negroes were his whole delight.”
Nevertheless, Matlack’s central role in this infamous cockfight earned him a high approval rating across a large swath of regular Philadelphians. His newfound popularity also created social opportunities. In February 1774, he officiated at a patriotic gathering at a slaughterhouse. Timothy recorded the exact weight of each section of a prize steer owned by his friend Jacob Hiltzheimer, and authenticated those figures with the notation that the cow had been “weighed and measured in the presence of T Matlack.” Two days later, the Hiltzheimers and Matlacks dined on beefsteaks. Matlack’s toast was as follows: “Let the friends of America be fed on such beef and may her enemies long for it and be disappointed.”
The Revolution in Philadelphia
On October 25, 1774, the First Continental Congress resolved to send a formal address to the king asking for his royal attention to “the grievances that alarm and distress his Majesty’s faithful subjects in North America.” Secretary Charles Thomson assigned the urgent task of engrossing two copies of the address to Timothy Matlack. Matlack had these ready to sign the next day, the last day of Congress. In January 1775, the first copy was laid before the House of Commons and the second copy laid before the House of Lords. Both were promptly ignored.
The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, and five days later Samuel Ward of Rhode Island noted, “The Secretary allowed to employ Timothy Matlack as clerk under an oath of secrecy.” On June 15, Congress appointed George Washington to be general and commander-in-chief of the army of the United Colonies, and Matlack penned the formal commission. Besides being busy in Congress, Matlack was also a rising local leader: that summer, he was elected to Philadelphia’s powerful committee of inspection. This was one of the bodies that formed across the colonies, by order of the first Congress, to enforce the boycott of British goods. Matlack was also named secretary of the committee of militia officers.
In December 1775, Congress took steps to build a naval fleet for “the Defence of America.” The marine committee’s secretary, the ubiquitous Timothy Matlack, worked on specifications for a fleet of gunships. He was also employed by the committee of claims. On January 20, 1776, the member from New Jersey, Richard Smith, noted that, “Some Powder was ordered for the Companies of Maxwell’s who are ready to march to Canada and Tim. Matlack was directed to furnish them with Ball and Flints. Tim is a Commissary and Clerk in Chief to our Committee of Claims.” Smith was amazed that “this person who is said was once a Quaker Preacher and is now Col. of the Battalion of Rifle Rangers at Philadelphia.” (Matlack was not a preacher, of course, but just a member of the Society of Friends.) Early that month the city had added two more battalions to its militia brigade for a total of five. Matlack had been elected colonel of the fifth battalion of riflemen. A year later, he and his men would find themselves facing British regulars on a frozen battlefield.
Also in January 1776, Matlack was named an officer of Philadelphia’s committee of inspection. His promotion came at a critical moment. By now, some in Congress thought autonomy was inevitable. The next step, they realized, was an assertion of separation from Great Britain. Thomas Paine’s widely disseminated pamphlet Common Sense shifted a large swath of the population in the same direction. But a unanimous declaration of independence by Congress would require striking the Pennsylvania Assembly’s instructions to its delegation to “utterly reject” any such proposal. Defying heavy pressure, Assembly leader John Dickinson said he had no intention of removing his prohibition. Yet Matlack’s committee of inspection was gaining power by force of the militia and the people at large. In late February, his board announced a convention that would authorize new Assembly seats and write new instructions. Philadelphia’s elite was shocked by this volley. Joseph Shippen complained:“Tim Matlack and a number of other violent wrongheaded people of the inferior class have been the Chief Promoters of this wild Scheme; and it was opposed by the few Gentlemen belonging to the Committee—but they were outvoted by a great majority.”
The committee backed off when the Assembly agreed to add seventeen seats. John Adams hoped the byelection for these seats would “give a finishing Blow to the Quaker interest.” Matlack’s radicals were victorious in the western counties, but three of their four Philadelphia candidates were defeated. Matlack’s committee failed to gain control of the Assembly. In mid-May, Adams stepped up with a resolution in Congress that said any “authority under the said Crown of Great Britain should be totally suppressed.” Armed with this statement, Matlack’s committee organized a massive town meeting which authorized a provincial conference; a constitutional convention; and a vote for independence. Adams reported:
We have had an Entertaining Maneuvre, this Morning in the State House Yard . . . The Weather was very rainy, and the meeting was held in the Open Air, like the Comitia of the Romans . . . Coll. McKean, Coll. Cadwalader and Coll. Matlack the principal orators.
On June 7, Richard Henry Lee proposed that Congress declare the united colonies free and independent states. But Pennsylvania’s delegates requested a delay in voting. James Wilson explained that although the “majority of the People of Pennsylvania were in Favour of Independence . . . the Assembly . . . was against the proposition.” Under intense pressure, John Dickinson sent down new instructions the next day. But the move came too late to save his government.
On June 10, the Philadelphia militia staged meetings in support of democratic government in Pennsylvania. A published account focused on Colonel Matlack’s fifth battalion. To close the meeting, Matlack asked his men “whether they wished the province of Pennsylvania to be a free and independent State, and united with the other twelve colonies represented in Congress?” The vote in favor was unanimous and all joined in three huzzas. And so—as all read in their newspapers—Col. Timothy Matlack’s battalion voted for independence on June 10, 1776.
On June 14, the Assembly adjourned for lack of quorum and was permanently quashed. The conference of committees, with Matlack in attendance, opened on June 18. The conference soon announced “That they appoint Monday the 8th Day of July next for electing said Members” to the Pennsylvania constitutional convention. In closing their meeting on June 25, the conference addressed Pennsylvania’s militia (known as the Associators) to explain why it had called up 4,500 men. The speaker spoke to the men in local terms:
You are about to contend for permanent Freedom, to be supported by a government which will be derived from yourselves, and which will have for its Object not the Emolument of one Man, or class of Men only, but the Safety, Liberty, and Happiness of every individual in the community.
And he also spoke to them in global terms:
The present campaign will probably decide the Fate of America. It is now in your Power to immortalize your Names, by mingling your Achievements with the Events of the Year 1776—a Year which we hope will be famed in the Annals of History to the End of Time
Congress declared independence on July 4, 1776 and Matlack may have been the first to read the Declaration in public that day. After New York agreed to independence on July 9, Congress ordered the Declaration “fairly engrossed on parchment” and “signed by every member of Congress.” Secretary Thomson assigned this to Timothy Matlack. The result was the famous signed Declaration of Independence.
Harvard professor of political science Danielle Allen spoke of the elegance of Matlack’s work in creating the finest rendering of the Declaration. She described how Matlack made his impact as he drew up the formal document: “Editorializing on the parchment with capitalization, punctuation, and flourishes, Matlack too helped write the Declaration. Of all the copies, this one, Matlack’s parchment manuscript was the most important.”
Timothy Matlack and the War of Independence
When the Pennsylvania convention closed near the end of September, the leaders printed their radically democratic constitution on blue paper and inserted it in the newspapers. John Adams, who disapproved of their unicameral legislature, conceded: “Matlack, Young, Canon and Paine had influence enough to get their democratical plans” adopted in their state. Those opposed to the controversial new framework called a town meeting on October 21. Matlack spoke in support, but a “large majority” wanted changes made by the new Assembly, which was yet to be seated. In the election for seats on November 5, voters rejected Matlack and his fellow Constitutional candidates for Philadelphia. (Matlack, however, was named clerk.) The victorious opposition party, now known as Anticonstitutionalist, called for a new convention.
But then fate intervened: word arrived that British troops were crossing New Jersey and was heading toward Philadelphia. On December 2, Philadelphians panicked when they learned the enemy had reached Brunswick. Patriots loaded wagons in “hurry and confusion.” Preparations for war had one unexpected benefit for the authors and supporters of the constitution: it stopped all talk of holding a new convention.
Colonel Matlack’s fifth battalion and the rest of the Philadelphia militia missed the Battle of Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776. But they joined Washington’s army for the standoff at Assunpink Creek and the great victory at Princeton. From there the winter campaign continued across New Jersey, with the militia suffering relentless cold and hunger. Matlack’s battalion disintegrated at the end of January. But the militia had earned accolades for its unexpected performance:
Great credit is due the Philadelphia militia; their behaviour at Trenton in the cannonade, and at Princeton was brave, firm, and manly: they were broken at the first action at Princeton, but soon formed in the face of grape-shot, and pushed on with a spirit that would do honor to veterans.
In March 1777, Matlack was named secretary of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council. The fight over the constitution continued and the two sides organized their forces. Matlack’s party called the opposition “wealthy-militia-avoiding-supporters-of-the-Crown.”
On September 26, 1777, Matlack’s friend Jacob Hiltzheimer wrote, “This day the English got into Philad.” When the British occupied Philadelphia, Matlack was in Lancaster with the evacuated government. He was the last member of the 1776 radicals still in office. As Dr. Benjamin Rush told John Dickinson, “Matlack alone remains in power and influence, of all the authors and pillars of the Constitution.”
Following the British evacuation nine months later, General Washington named Benedict Arnold commandant of Philadelphia. But Pennsylvania’s leaders soon grew to despise Arnold’s soirees—much frequented by the Tories—and his illicit business activities. Matlack’s investigation led to a series of charges and a court martial, which was convened in December 1779. The court sentenced the major general to a reprimand by Commander-in-Chief Washington. He issued the reprimand with a statement of personal disappointment, calling Arnold’s actions reprehensible, which was a triumph for Matlack. His investigation of the unscrupulous commander had ended decisively with a severe rebuke from Washington. With the conclusion of the Arnold affair, Matlack’s star was once again on the rise.
On March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, the first law of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. The law declared that the children of current slaves would serve terms as indentured servants. Their children, the grandchildren of the current slaves, would be born free. George Bryan told Samuel Adams that the new law thrilled the Society of Friends: “Our bill astonishes and pleases the Quakers. They looked for no such benevolent issue of our new government, exercised by Presbyterians.”As secretary of the Supreme Executive Council, Matlack worked closely with George Bryan, Thomas Paine, Charles Willson Peale and Anthony Benezet to win passage.
Over a five-year period Matlack had amassed significant power and influence. Now he was sent to Congress “with loud huzzas.” His enemies were displeased with his promotion, and responded by attacking him in public with a smear campaign. A man named Whitehead Humphries went to the trouble and expense of printing a sixty-line satire entitled An Epistle from Titus to Timothy. Whitehead’s eager audience agreed that Matlack had been “wretched poor” and “idled time with Negroes.” In the author’s retelling Timothy and his cohorts had taken power by ruling the mob: “With Paine and Peale, you mounted the stage, To work the people into a rage.” Whitehead ridiculed Matlack’s appearance at a Fourth of July banquet:
At such a time you judg’d it best
To have yourself superbly drest;
You were so greased and puff’d with powder,
No coxcomb sure cou’d e’er look prouder;
Until the festive board was laid,
Then knife and fork you briskly play’d.
Your auk’ard grandeur deserves a check.
Matlack’s fellow congressman, Ezekiel Cornell, likewise observed: “He hath a great notion of being a courtier; perhaps in some countries he would appear a course courtier.” Matlack was, in fact, pleased with his advancement. He may have felt, perhaps, a bit stunned to find himself seated among the nation’s leaders. He hoped to earn the respect of men like Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee, so the opinion of such tertiary figures as Humphries and Cornell was of little concern. Nevertheless, that poem stung, and Matlack was a fighter. Whitehead Humphreys got a taste of Matlack’s displeasure when the two crossed paths on Market Street on New Year’s Day and, “after some fine words . . . got to blows.”
In September 1780, Gen. Nathanael Greene reported, “TREASON of the blackest dye was yesterday discovered . . . Arnold the traitor has made his way to the enemy.” Philadelphia broke into a spontaneous celebration of America’s salvation, taken as a sign of the new nation’s hallowed destiny. The discovery of Arnold’s treason was another vindication for Timothy Matlack, who had pursued the officer relentlessly.
After the War
Matlack was on top, but now a series of setbacks and miscalculations allowed his enemies to get the upper hand. In control of the Assembly and the Supreme Executive Council in 1783, the opposition drummed up charges and denounced the secretary as “unworthy of public trust and confidence.” Matlack was forced to resign. Having received no support from his own party, Matlack was hounded out of government without objection. Soon Matlack was vindicated in court, but he caused more trouble for himself by requesting reimbursements. The financially constrained ex-secretary filed claims “to the amount of one thousand and five hundred pounds and upwards on one account only besides divers others.” Republicans retaliated with a series of judgments, and Matlack was arrested on May 1, 1787. The timing of his detention was calculated to overlap with the start of the United States constitutional convention. Jacob Hiltzheimer wrote that George Washington arrived for the convention on Sunday, May 13: “The City Troop of Horse received him at Mr. Gray’s Ferry. The artillery company saluted with firing the cannon.” Matlack likely could feel the cannon reverberations from his jail cell, but a sympathetic judge soon released him. In August 1787, Washington visited the steel furnace owned by Timothy’s brother White, and later that month, one or both Matlack brothers attended a dinner at Washington’s residence.
On April 8, 1790, Matlack’s Society of Free Quakers presented a congratulatory address to President-elect George Washington. Matlack’s mentor, Benjamin Franklin, died on April 17. Jacob Hiltzheimer wrote, “I think I never saw so many people collected together at any funeral whatsoever.” That year Matlack was named clerk of the new state senate, which sat under the new state constitution. Matlack’s wife Ellen Yarnall died in 1791. Six years later he married Elizabeth Claypoole Cooper.
In the campaign for governor in 1799, Matlack was closely allied with the Democratic-Republican candidate, Thomas McKean. McKean was victorious, and at the end of November he arrived triumphantly in Lancaster. At a feast in his honor, four hundred citizens took seats around a three-hundred-foot table. Matlack offered one of the seventeen toasts that were all saluted by the militia. A parade escorted the governor to his lodgings at Timothy Matlack’s house.
McKean’s victory was a harbinger of the presidential election of 1800. In the battle in Pennsylvania for electoral college seats, Matlack was, as always, attacked by the opposition. This time adversaries dusted off a revolutionary-era anecdote:
The Cockfighter, Timothy Matlack having one day gaff’d himself, by putting on a long sword, was met by a friend (Quaker) who wished to know why he wore a Rapier—Tim replied, it was to defend his liberty and his property. As to property, rejoined the friend, it is well known that thee never hadst any; and as to thy liberty, thou art now indebted to thy creditors for that.
But Matlack won his electoral seat and cast his two votes for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The revolution of 1800 and the rise of Jeffersonian democracy was another triumph for Matlack. With their ultra-democratic constitution, Matlack and the Pennsylvania radicals of 1776 sowed the seeds of a more egalitarian American society. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were the heirs to that legacy.
In March 1807, President Jefferson wrote to thank Matlack for a gift. “You have very much gratified me by the collection of choice fruit trees you have been so good to forward me. It is gone to Monticello to which I will follow in a few days.”
In the spring of 1812, at the age of seventy-six, Timothy Matlack was job hunting. He sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson asking for a referral. Jefferson forwarded it to President James Madison, writing:
Timothy Matlack I have known since the first Congress to which he was an assistant secretary. He has always been a good whig & being an active one has been abused by his opponents, but I have ever thought him an honest man. I think he must be known to yourself.
Matlack was not appointed by Madison, but he held various offices in Pennsylvania over the next ten years. Finally, the governor forced him to retire at the age of eighty-six. In 1821, on the forty-fifth anniversary of independence, America took special care to honor its aging revolutionary generation. (Nobody could predict how many of the old heroes would be alive for the semicentennial five years later). Newspapers around the country picked up the story of Philadelphia’s Fourth of July celebration. Timothy Matlack was honored as “the man, who, by order of the Old Congress, wrote the first commission for General Washington—who fought in defense of the same principles, and through his life has maintained them—Our Venerable Chairman, TIMOTHY MATLACK—the adoption and establishment of which he had not inconsiderably contributed.”
In 1825, near the end of his grand tour of America, the Marquis de Lafayette honored Matlack by visiting him at his home in Holmesburg, Pennsylvania. Lafayette might have been the first to show Matlack the reproduction of the signed Declaration of Independence known as the Stone engraving. First distributed in 1824, Lafayette had been given two copies. In 1828, Timothy was visited by a nephew, who wrote: “He was clad in a loose morning gown and a white cap somewhat resembling a turban, and his highly interesting countenance, his sightless, but expressive eyes and long white beard, indicated an age not normally alloted to mortals.” The nephew inquired after his health and Timothy replied: “I scarcely know how I am, or who I am,—where I am or what I am—I only know that I am alive and that’s all.” But Timothy could still recall images of his childhood. He saw his grandfather carrying him to school on his back, “at a time when there was deep snow.” In summertime he saw himself climbing “a certain tree standing in John Gill’s orchard, getting apples.” His life, in the end, was extraordinary. He took the stage in the revolution; he led militia into war; he helped create a democratic government; and he helped free the children of slaves.He died in 1829.
As the man who engrossed the Declaration of Independence, Timothy Matlack should have a place in American lore. But as one contemporary adversary predicted, Matlack was scrubbed from history. Historian Gary Nash writes that in the nineteenth century the radicals of 1776 were ignored by Philadelphia’s archivists and librarians. Further,
The papers of the radicals were lost or never preserved, and most of the officers of the collecting institutions were as suspicious of ordinary people elected to high places as were those who, at the time, deplored the 1776 [Pennsylvania] Constitution.
Most prominent among those given the cold historical shoulder was Thomas Paine. The nineteenth century was nearly over before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania got around to purchasing a copy of Common Sense for its collection. The copy was the very one “owned by Paine’s radical, warm-tempered compatriot, Timothy Matlack.”