Morton: Fitzsimons was patriot with distinction

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On this day (Aug. 26) in 1811, Irish-American merchant, banker, educator and politician Thomas Fitzsimons died at his Philadelphia home.

Born in 1741 in County Tubber, Wicklow, Ireland, Fitzsimons migrated to America around 1760 and entered a counting-house as a clerk. The year after his arrival in America, Thomas “married up,” taking as his bride, Catherine Meade, a daughter of the prominent merchant Robert Meade.

With his new brother-in-law George Meade, the ambitious Thomas established a mercantile firm, which soon became one of the leading trading companies in Philadelphia. This early business success was, no doubt, greatly helped by the valuable already well-established business connections of the Meade family.

As Georgia delegate/journalist to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787 William Pierce wrote in his all-to-brief biographical sketch of Thomas Fitzsimons: “Mr. Fitzsimons is a Merchant of considerable talents and speaks very well I am told, in the Legislature of Pennsylvania. He is about 40 year old.”

The brevity of Pierce’s portrayal of Fitzsimons suggested strongly that he only knew of him by the well-earned good reputation the merchant had achieved before his selection as one of the eight Pennsylvania delegates to the “Grand Convention.”

Although he was to spend years in the public service as a legislator, banker, educator, and, briefly, as the commanding officer of a local Philadelphia home-guard militia company during the Revolutionary War, Fitzsimons was, during his adult years, first and foremost, a merchant who participated primarily and profitably in the West Indian trade.

His most notable service to the American cause, which he embraced early and enthusiastically, was as an active member of the Philadelphia committee of safety, as an influential member of the committee of correspondence, and as a member of the important navy board.

Also during the war, his mercantile firm provided much-needed supplies and money to Gen. George Washington’s beleaguered Continental Army. However, like his good friend and fellow Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris, Fitzsimons was able to make money while rendering significant aid to his adopted country in its struggle against Great Britain.

In recognition of his eminence as a merchant, Thomas was elected to two one-year terms (1782-1783) as a member of the moribund Continental Congress. During his brief career as a national legislator, Fitzsimons witnessed firsthand the ineffectiveness of the national government under the Articles of Confederation. By the mid-1780s, he had embraced the nationalistic movement to replace the weak Confederation government with a strong central government.

Selected as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Fitzsimons (one of two Catholic delegates) supported measures favorable to the large states and to mercantile and banking interests. He happily signed the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, and, thereafter, publicly favored its ratification.

Under the new government, Fitzsimons served three terms (1789-1795) as a Federalist member of the national House of Representatives, where he loyally supported the Washington administration.

Defeated for re-election in 1794, Fitzsimons retired to private life, where he continued his mercantile activities and his interest in public service as a director of the Bank of North America, as president of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and as a trustee of what became the University of Pennsylvania.

At the time of his death, Fitzsimons was eulogized as a dedicated patriot who served the public with distinction in numerous civic, banking, educational and political posts.           

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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