The story of the “Last Signer” of the Declaration of Independence


A rallying cry for colonists in pre-independent America was “No taxes without representation”.  That basically referred to the act of taxing the colonies through British laws where colonists had no say, or vote, in the matter.


However, most people don’t realize that one of the last indignities for this growing independence movement was actually a cut in the taxes or tariffs on British East Indian Tea coming from Great Britain.  The British Tea Act of 1773 was done, according to Wikipedia, “to undercut the price of illegal tea, smuggled into Britain’s North American colonies”.


While London warehouses sat full of British East Indian Tea, 86% of tea coming to the American colonies was “Dutch tea” imported by businessmen, or as some believe, smuggled into the colonies by none other than John Hancock’s import company.


It was the lowering of the tariff on British tea so that it could be sold at less cost than Hancock’s Dutch tea that was the last straw for John Hancock.  It’s what led to the “Boston Tea Party”.


America’s Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776.  It was printed on July 5 and disseminated to state assemblies, conventions, committees of safety, and commanding officers of the Continental troops.  That copy bore only the signatures of John Hancock as President of the Continental Congress and Charles Thompson as its Secretary.


On July 19th, Congress ordered that the Declaration be engrossed on parchment with a new title, “the unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America,” and “that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.” Engrossing is the process of hand copying an official document on parchment with a more official looking font of the day.  And, on August 2nd of 1776 John Hancock became the first signer of this new “engrossed parchment” version and the last signer was New Hampshire representative Matthew Thornton who did not sign until November 4, 1776, when he arrived in Philadelphia . . . . four months after the adoption of the original declaration document.


Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

A connection to this story —  My father owned some rental office space in our home community of Alexandria, Minnesota, when I was younger.  One of his rental spaces was leased by the Thornton Law Offices under the 2nd generation leadership of “Gentleman Joe” Thornton. . . who was a friend of my dad and his attorney.


Many times on Saturday mornings as a young child my father and I would go for breakfast and it seemed that we stopped at the Thornton Law Office just so my dad could say “hello” and visit with his friend Joe.  I was mesmerized by some of the memorabilia that adorned the walls of Joe’s inner sanctum office.


One of the things I remember most, and it is maybe why I’ve studied Abraham Lincoln was a wall ornament with a picture of Lincoln and the following saying, “Time and advice are a lawyer’s stock in trade”.   The other items that kept my interest were memorabilia, including personal writings, of Matthew Thornton — the signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Attorney Joe Thornton would point out to me that Matthew was “four greats and a grand” uncle to him.  i.e. he was Joe’s “Great-great-great-great grand uncle”.  That did, and still does fascinate me.


Grave of Matthew Thornton — Merrimack, NH


It was in Mr. Thornton’s office, as a young boy, that I first heard this story of Matthew Thornton being the final signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Look on the document and you will see his name prominently at the bottom of it.  And, it is interesting that he was not even there for the debates about independence as he was not selected to the Continental Congress until September 1776 — two months following the adoption of the document.


A Final Coincidence — As you may know from my writings, my father died while I was a teenager.  Joe Thornton was the attorney for his estate.  Prior to one of the meetings that my mother, who was 49 years old at the time, had with him he asked her to bring me along to the meeting– I was 19 years old and enrolled in college without a sure direction of what I wanted to do.  Mr. Thornton suggested to me on that day that I pursue a degree in mortuary science so that my mother could, at some point, sell me the funeral home and that it could stay in the family. . . . and following that advice is how my life then progressed.


As it turned out, Mr. Joe Thornton, a descendent of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was one of those adult elders in my in life who gave me good, sound advice that turned out very good.  Over my lifetime, I’ve been so fortunate to have had several of those good, mentoring adults, especially after the loss of my father, who have advised me so well.  Those types of people have been an incredible blessing to me. . .and I wish everybody had those types of people in their lives.

Thornton Graveyard
Merrimack, NH
“A humble resting place for a Declaration of Independence signatory”


Find a Grave Matthew Thornton


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1 Comment

  1. Kenn Peterson on July 4, 2024 at 9:53 pm

    Great writing Tom! Thank you for doing what you do.

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