If you wanted to share an example of how social structure and religious beliefs played a part in a young man’s life choices during the late 1700s, William Thornton would be a fine choice. I usually share Mr. Thornton’s life in a very short power point during my unit on the formation of our government, but his life also provides me with a great opportunity to look back on topics we have already discussed and enables me to look forward into topics we will soon cover.
Last week I shared a portrait of William Thornton with you as my wordless image seen HERE.
Thornton seemed set in life as he was slated at a young age to inherit sugar plantations on Tortola and Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. However, instead of growing up at his father’s knee learning the ins and outs of managing large Caribbean plantations Thornton grew up in northern Lancashire, England under the influence of his father’s Quaker relations. Many students find it interesting that Thornton seems set for a life of priviledge as an island planter, but because of his strict, practical Quaker upbringing Thornton was apprenticed to an apothecary and physician.
At this point I pose review questions with students concerning the Quakers. They remember the Quakers were a religious group originating in England. William Penn received permission to begin a colony in the Americas we know as Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania was very important in the founding of our nation. The Declaration of Independence was signed there, and the Constitution was drafted there as well. Not only was Penn an important Quaker, but Ben Franklin was a Quaker as well.
Historical researchers indicate Thornton was interested in the design arts based on reviews of Thornton’s journal he began keeping during his days as an apprentice. There are many entries regarding medical treatments, but there are just as many portraits, landscapes and even a study of Ben Franklin’s stove. However, Thornton remained true to his Quaker practicality by studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh and later studying in London where he resided with Dr. Jean-Joseph Sue, professor of anatomy at Royal College of Surgery and Royal School of Painting and Sculpture.
Don’t you find it interesting that Thornton’s professor was a professor in the College of Surgery as well as Painting and Sculpture? Unfortunately I have not been able to locate any online pictures of Thornton’s journals. I have verified an engraving exists of a drawing he completed of Francoise, Comtesse de Beauharnais by Francisco Bartolozzi, and there is a landscape painting completed by Thornton’s of the glacier at Mer de Glace, near Chamonix, but I have not found an online copy to show to students. Even so I like to question students about Thornton’s motives. It was clear he loved to study the way things are put together and he clearly enjoyed his art, yet he allowed himself to be apprenticed. This discussion allows me to clue students into the time period. People often sacrificed their own wishes to do what family or society expected. Do we still have this idea of sacrifice today? Over the years we have had some interesting discussions about expectations versus “wants”, the demands of society, and how things change over time.
In 1784, Thornton actually came to the United States with a letter of introduction to Ben Franklin from his mentor and friend, Dr.John Coakley Lettsome. Some sources also state Lettsome was Thornton’s relative. Lettsome also had sugar plantations on Little Jost Van Dyke and for some time was the only doctor residing in his are of the British West Indies.
Why was a letter of introduction needed? Many students are surprised at the formality of the times.
It was not until 1785 that Thornton traveled to the islands to visit his sugar plantation holdings and his mother….he had not seen her since he was a boy, however, the realization that he owned seventy slaves bothered his Quaker sensibilities. Today, what remains of the plantation is in ruins and they are unprotected.
This is usually a good place to remind students the Quakers were against slavery and spoke for its abolition. At this point I am propelling students into future content and preteaching the word abolition as well as setting up our discovery of the Underground Railroad since many Quakers assisted in helping runaway slaves to reach their freedom.
In 1786 Thornton moved to the United States where he quickly became interested in aboliltion and involved free Black Americans uniting them with British blacks by forming a settlement at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in West Africa. For a time while he lived in America Thornton lodged at Mrs. Mary’s House, a boarding house in Philadelphia. While at Mrs. Mary’s Thornton met up with James Madison who was also a lodger.
I direct student’s attention to the date. I ask them to compare it to the timeline they have constructing in their notebooks. Students discover that James Madison would have been in Philadelphia working with the Constitutional Convention. This is a powerful connection of parallel events. Thornton is working for abolition and assisting freed Africans while James Madison is assisting his fellow delegates in forming the American government….a government that would count African slaves as three-fifths of a person. What a stark contrast!
While the issue of abolition did keep Thornton busy he was still interested in the arts as well writing. In the fall of 1792 he won a prize from the American Philosophical Society for an essay which was a treatise on written language. While on a visit to the Carribean Thornton learned of the design competition for the United States Capitol. His unfinished design managed to get into the hands of John Trumbull who in turn made sure the designs got into the hands of George Washington.
I make sure students remember John Trumbull was a famous American painter. Students previously analyzed his Battle of Bunker Hill.
While Washington’s administration did take their time to finally choose Thornton’s design Thomas Jefferson’s writings refer to the plan as ‘simple, noble, beautiful, [and] excellent[ly] distributed.’ For winning the competition Thornton received $500 and a deed to a city lot. However, Thornton’s original plan was altered and he didn’t actually oversee the construction.
Thornton went on to design some well known homes and served as the superintendent of the U.S. Patent Office thanks to his good friend James Madison.
The majestic building we know as the United States Capitol was envisioned in William Thornton’s mind before anyone else. Students will never look at that same building again without knowing a little bit about the original designer and how he lived his "capitol" life.
This week’s Wordless image also has something to do with William Thornton.