Declaration of Independence scribe Timothy Matlack lived in Lancaster, PA

The legend writ, the stain affected,
the key in Silence undetected,

fifty-five in iron pen,
Mr. Matlack can’t offend.

Readers might recognize this clue from the first National Treasure movie. In the film, Nicholas Cage’s character, Benjamin Gates, is searching for a fabled treasure hidden in America by the Knights Templar, Founding Fathers, and Freemasons.

Gates eventually realizes that the final two lines of the riddle refer to the Declaration of Independence. “Fifty-five” points to the fact that 55 men signed the Declaration when the riddle was made. “Mr. Matlack” is Timothy Matlack. He was the Clerk of the Continental Congress when it approved the Declaration of Independence and penned the document for members to sign. If you want a full explanation of the entire poem, click here.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of Matlack until he was referenced in the 2004 movie. Like me, you might be surprised to learn that Matlack called Lancaster, PA, home for nearly a decade. He lived at 220 East Orange Street from 1799 until 1808, while the Red Rose City served as the capital of Pennsylvania. At the time, he worked as a clerk of the Pennsylvania State Senate. While in Lancaster, Matlack was known for his household garden, which included 28 types of peach trees.

Here’s a brief overview of Matlack’s life that hopefully will not offend.

Matlack was born in Haddonfield, New Jersey, on March 28, 1736. His family moved to Philadelphia eight years later, where he apprenticed to a Quaker merchant, John Reynell, in 1749. At the end of his term, he married Ellen Yarnall, the daughter of Quaker minister Mordecai Yarnall, and their children were William, Mordecai, Sibyl, Catharine, and Martha.

In 1760, Matlack opened a store called the Case Knife, and he and Owen Biddle purchased a steel furnace in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1762. His shop failed in 1765, and he was disowned by the Quakers, who complained that he had been “frequenting company in such a manner as to spend too much of his time from home.” He was confined to debtors’ prison in 1768 and 1769. By 1769, he had set up a new business selling bottled beer and opened his own brewery near Independence Hall. He was also active in local politics and a Philadelphia Common Council member.

When the American Revolution broke out, Matlack strongly supported the Patriot cause. He joined the Pennsylvania militia, crossing the Delaware River with Washington on December 27, 1776, to fight in the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton. Matlack eventually rose to the rank of colonel.

On July 19, 1776, the Continental Congress ordered the Declaration of Independence to be engrossed—or written out in a large, legible hand. Timothy Matlack was the scribe charged with this task. He completed the work in just two days. Delegates signed the finished document on August 2, 1776.

Matlack continued to serve in the Continental Congress until 1780 when he was elected Secretary of Pennsylvania. He held this position until 1783 when the war ended.

Matlack was instrumental in drafting the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, one of the most progressive of its time. For example, the Pennsylvania Constitution abolished property requirements for voting and holding office. If you were an adult man who paid taxes, you were allowed to vote or even run for office.

Fun Fact: Matlack’s penmanship inspired the font American Scribe.

The font, American Scribe, is inspired by Matlack’s penmanship.

After the war, Matlack continued to be active in politics and government. He served as a Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council member and the Pennsylvania Assembly. He also served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1790, Matlack was commissioned to survey the “headwaters of the Susquehanna River and the streams of the New Purchase,” the northwestern portion of the state purchased from Native Indians. They were also charged with exploring a route for a passageway to connect the West Branch with the Allegheny River.

Timothy Matlack died on April 14, 1829, at 93 and was buried in the Old Pine Street Cemetery in Philadelphia. His remains were removed in 1905 and reinterred in the Wetherill Cemetery opposite Valley Forge.

Planning Your Visit

Timothy Matlack’s former home sits at 220 East. Orange Street, Lancaster, PA. Today, it is a private residence.

Adventure Awaits!

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3 thoughts on “Declaration of Independence scribe Timothy Matlack lived in Lancaster, PA

  1. I have heard of Timothy Matlack since I was a small child. We lived with my paternal grandmother and her sister, my great Aunt Bee. Another sister (who died in 1910) was married to an unscrupulous man who claimed to be a relative of Timothy Matlack. This great uncle managed to wind up with the Timothy Matlack Urn, which was given to Mr. Matlack for all his work for our nation. Aunt Bee, who never married, was in charge of hiding the urn in her home. Two of her favorite stories to tell me involved the urn. Unfortunately, it was sold by the unscrupulous uncle in the early 1900’s. I would love to know what happened to it. It really belongs in Independence Hall.
    More on Timothy Matlack can be found at

  2. The two houses in this article don’t match. I was especially interested because I lived on this block for 3 years. My apartment was in the house at 218 E Orange. Can you clarify?

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