Thomas McKean was a president before Washington and supported judicial review before John Marshall. He voted for the Declaration of Independence, but the next day marched with his militia unit to participate in the defense of New York City delaying his signing of the Declaration until at least 1777. For five years McKean was a Delaware delegate in the Continental Congress while also serving as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. Despite the above facts and more, Thomas McKean is forgotten in most discussions of our founders.
Born in New London Township, Chester County in the colony of Pennsylvania on 19 March 1734, Thomas McKean was the second of four children of William McKean and Letitia Finney McKean. The McKeans were Irish Protestants and Thomas’ grandparents, William and Susannah, had emigrated from County Antrim in 1725 settling on the 300-acre Logan Plantation in Chester County.
Thomas’ father was an innkeeper in New London and at some point, moved to Logan Plantation and was a tavern keeper until his death in 1769. Thomas’ mother Letitia was the daughter of Robert and Dorothea Finney of Thunder Hill Plantation in New London Township.
Thomas McKean was home schooled until he was nine years old. Then, he and his older brother, Robert, were sent to the New London Academy to continue their education under the tutelage of Rev. Francis Allison.
Once he completed his studies at New London Academy, Thomas moved to Newcastle, Delaware to study law under his cousin, David Finney. Thomas was quite intelligent, worked hard and advanced rapidly. After only a few months, he was appointed a clerk of the prothonotary of the Court of Common Pleas. In 1754 he was admitted to the bar in the Court of Common Pleas for Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex Counties. Also in 1754, Thomas was admitted to the bar in Chester and Philadelphia Counties in Pennsylvania. He accomplished all this before reaching 21 years of age.
McKean also recognized the need for a strong local militia so in December 1757 he enlisted in Richard William’s Pennsylvania Company of Foot.
Delaware Governor John Penn appointed Thomas Deputy Attorney General of Sussex County in 1756 and he served for two years. He was appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1758. He was elected to the Delaware House of Assembly in 1762 and served for seven years. He was speaker of the house three times.
In 1763, Thomas married Mary Borden of Bordentown, New Jersey. She was the eldest daughter of Thomas Borden, a wealthy and public-spirited man who was an active patriot during the Revolutionary War. Mary and her sister, Ann were said to be “the handsomest girls in New Jersey.” Ann married Francis Hopkinson who also became a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas and Mary McKean made their home in Newcastle. They had six children with five surviving childhood.
Governor John Penn appointed Thomas the Sole Notary Public for Lower Counties in 1765. McKean, Caesar Rodney, and George Read were appointed to the Delaware Committee of Correspondence, which was a revolutionary inter-colony coordinating organization. Also in 1765, Governor Penn appointed McKean to the position of Justice of the Court of Common Pleas.
McKean was quite active in all his positions and became known for his forward thinking and hard work. In his position of Judge of the Court of Common Pleas he ruled that all court proceedings be recorded on unstamped paper, which meant that the Stamp Act taxes would not be paid. This was but one of the changes in the courts and Continental Congress that he proposed that would have long-lasting effects on the entire country.
Delaware was deeply divided about separation from Britain at the time. The Country Party advocated independence and Thomas McKean was one of the party’s most outspoken members. When British policies became even more intrusive, opposition increased in Delaware. McKean and Caesar Rodney were selected to represent Delaware in the Stamp Act Congress of 1765.
During the Stamp Act Congress McKean stressed the rights of the Colonies and helped organize resistance to the Townshend Duties. Thomas also proposed a voting procedure that the Continental Congress later adopted that each colony should have one vote no matter its size or population. Later this principle was also adopted by the United States Constitution by establishing that each state would have two senators no matter size or population.
During the last day of the congress, several members, including President Timothy Ruggles, refused to sign the memorial of rights and grievances. McKean confronted Ruggles’ reason for his stance. The confrontation became so heated that Ruggles challenged McKean to a duel. McKean accepted, but the duel did not take place because Ruggles fled in disgrace early the next morning. He became a leading Tory in Massachusetts and eventually fled to Nova Scotia.
On 12 March 1773, Mary McKean died at the age of thirty. The couple had been married only ten years and she left a young family of two sons and four daughters. The youngest child was only two weeks old. Mary was buried in the Immanuel Episcopal Church Cemetery in Newcastle.
Thomas married again on 2 September 1774 to Sarah Armitage of Newcastle. She was the daughter of Samuel and Mary Harvey Armitage. The couple lived at 3rd and Pine Streets in Philadelphia. They had four children, one died during infancy.
Events were now moving rapidly towards independence and in 1774, Thomas was appointed a Delaware delegate to the First Continental Congress. He was appointed to the Second Continental Congress in 1775.
While in Congress, McKean signed the Articles of Association (established a boycott of British goods) in 1774, and the Olive Branch Petition (sought reconciliation with the Crown) in 1775.
Debate on the Lee resolution for independence was taking place in late June 1776, and full-scale revolution was in the air. Fellow delegate George Read was opposed to independence and Caesar Rodney, who was pro-independence, was home in Delaware. McKean sent an urgent dispatch to Rodney requesting he return to Philadelphia as soon as possible. Rodney was quite ill but rode horseback all night through stormy weather to break the tie vote on 2 July while still in his muddy riding clothes and boots.
On 4 July 1776, the Congress voted to accept the Declaration of Independence final draft. Most members, including George Read, signed the Declaration on 2 August 1776. Thomas McKean did not sign on that date because he had marched off to war on 5 July.
Six members signed late but the McKean signing date is the subject of debate. Even McKean may have been wrong about the date. Most historians believe he signed in 1777 but others believe he did not sign until 1781. The fact is that he was the last to sign. Based on the evidence, I believe he signed in 1777.
Thomas McKean left Philadelphia on 5 July. He was now colonel and commander of the 4th Battalion of Pennsylvania Associators. They marched north to Perth Amboy, New Jersey to aid General Washington in the defense of New York City. The city was of considerable strategic importance because of its large deepwater seaport.
The British were commanded by General Sir William Howe who also recognized the importance of the port of New York. He launched his campaign to take New York City and New Jersey in August 1777 against Washington’s poorly trained and inexperienced troops. He succeeded in driving Washington out of the city in January 1777. Washington was able to make an orderly withdrawal, which saved his army to train and fight and eventually win the war.
The Pennsylvania Associators was engaged in the New York campaign and performed well. They earned a reputation for bravery and as a result, suffered fairly heavy casualties.
The British held the city and used it as a base of operations until the end of the War for American Independence. The British New York garrison was the last British unit to withdraw from American soil.
My sources did not provide a date that McKean returned to Congress although one claimed it was after the Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania, which was fought on 11 September 1777. We do know that he was selected Chief Justice of Pennsylvania on 28 July 1777. He served in this position for 22 years.
McKean also briefly served as chief executive of Delaware in 1777. At that time, this position was mostly ceremonial with little power and was known as “President” rather than Governor.
On 8 November 1779, Thomas wrote an interesting letter to his friend, John Adams. The letter contained the following comments:
“I have had my full share of the anxieties, cares, and troubles of the present war. For some time I was obliged to act as President of Delaware State, and as chief justice of this (Pennsylvania). General Howe had just landed (August 1777) at the head of Elk River, when I undertook to discharge these two important trusts.”
“The consequence was, to be hunted like a fox by the enemy, and envied, by those who ought to have been my friends. I was compelled to remove my family five times in a few months, and at last fixed them in a little log house on the banks of the Susquehanna, more than a hundred miles from this place; but safety was not to be found there, for they were soon obliged to move again on account of the incursions of the Indians.”
As Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, Thomas McKean had a significant impact on the developing American judiciary. He ruled that the Pennsylvania Constitution gave the court the right to strike down any legislative act it deemed unconstitutional. This preceded by ten years the US Supreme court establishment of the doctrine of judicial review, He also strengthened the rights of defendants and advocated for penal reform.
The most controversial action of the McKean Court involved a newspaper editor (Eleazer Oswald) that printed very unflattering articles about the justices. This angered them, so they fined Oswald and jailed him for a month. Oswald demanded release after a month. However, the Sherriff did not know what to do without instructions, so he asked McKean. Not knowing Oswald had served his time, McKean ordered him to be jailed longer. Once he learned of his error, he ordered Oswald released.
Oswald then complained to the General Assembly that the court had exceeded its constitutional powers and a motion for impeachment was entered. After three days of meetings the assembly determined that they could not interfere because the court got its powers directly from the Constitution. The impeachment motion failed by a large margin. The justices were actually in the wrong because they unlawfully used their power against a man who had legally insulted them.
In July 1781 McKean was elected President of the Continental Congress. The Pennsylvania Constitution forbade holding more than one office at a time, but it was decided that it did not apply to out of state offices.
Nearly four years after the Treaty of Paris ended the American War for Independence, the Constitutional Convention was convened on 14 March 1787. The convention was to improve the Articles of Confederation but by 17 September they had drafted an entirely new Constitution for the United States of America.
The draft Constitution was then presented to the thirteen states for ratification. Thomas McKean was appointed to the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention. During the considerations, McKean moved the draft Constitution be read in its entirety on the first two days. McKean also moved that they ratify the draft Constitution. He eloquently argued for ratification concluding his speech with these words:
“The objections of this constitution having been answered, and all done away, it remains pure and unhurt; and this alone as a forcible argument of its goodness * * * * The law, sir, has been my study from my infancy, and my only profession. I have gone through the circle of offices, in the legislative, executive, and judicial departments of the government; and from all my study, observation and experience, I must declare that from a full examination and due consideration of this system, it appears to the best the world has yet seen.”
On 12 December 1787, Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 46 to 23. Pennsylvania was the first large state to ratify, as well as the first state to endure a serious Anti-Federalist challenge to ratification. McKean led the fight against the Anti-Federalists.
McKean became a delegate to the Pennsylvania State Constitutional Convention in 1789. He was a major contributor to the proceedings and the new Constitution of Pennsylvania was adopted in 1790. He also co-authored “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States” in 1790.
McKean’s life slowed down after the relative chaos of Federal and State organizing and stabilization that followed the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War. However, he stayed busy as Pennsylvania Chief Justice.
On 7 December 1799 Thomas McKean stepped down from the position of Chief Justice but was then elected Governor of Pennsylvania serving until 20 December 1808. He had been re-elected twice. McKean had become an Antifederalist and used his position to remove Federalists from positions in the state government.
When running for his third term as governor in 1805, McKean lost the support of his own Republican Party, so he allied with the Antifederalists. He also was skewered by an influential newspaper and things got nasty. McKean filed a libel lawsuit against the newspaper that was eventually successful. However, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to impeach McKean, but his friends prevented a trial for the rest of his term and the matter was dropped.
Despite all the controversy, McKean had expanded free education for all. Later he led a citizens group that organized a strong defense for Philadelphia during the War of 1812.
After completing his tenure as governor in 1808, McKean lived a fairly quiet life in Philadelphia. He wrote, discussed politics, and enjoyed the considerable wealth he had earned from investments and real estate.
Thomas McKean died on 24 June 1817 at the age of eighty-three. After his death only five signers of the Declaration of Independence remained alive. He was buried at the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery on Market Street in Philadelphia. Later his body was moved to Laurel Cemetery in Philadelphia. His wife Sarah survived him. She died in 1820 and was also buried in Laurel Cemetery.
Thomas McKean contributed much to the founding and organizing of the United States of America, but he is generally forgotten by history. One major reason may lie with his personality which was described as:
“Thomas McKean was over six feet tall. Frequently he was seen wearing a large cocked hat, fashionable at the time and was never without his gold-headed cane. It is said that he had a quick temper and a vigorous personality. He had a thin face; hawk’s nose and his eyes would be described by some as ‘hot.’ Some wondered at his popularity with his clients as he was known for a “lofty and often tactless manner that antagonized many people.” He tended to be, what some might describe as a loner, seldom mixing with others except on public occasions.”
On the other hand, McKean was known for his intelligence and work ethic. John Adams, who was not known to be complimentary of many, described him as:
“one of the three men in the Continental Congress who appeared to me to see more clearly to the end of the business than any others in the body.”
No matter the reason for McKean’s absence from the list of famous Founding Fathers, he deserves much more recognition than having a county, a high school, a street, and two buildings at colleges named after him. I can find no other McKean memorials other than the Descendants of the Signers plaque on his grave and the Signers Monument in Washington, D.C. Not much for a man who contributed so much.