Founding Fathers - Thomas McKean

Thomas McKean

Born: March 19, 1734 (New London, Pennsylvania)

Died: June 24, 1817 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Happy New Year!  As we bid adieu to 2023 and move ahead, we're also getting close to wrapping up our list of Founding Fathers.  This week we'll meet the sixth and final Thomas from the group, who also represents the last member of the Delaware delegation.  As the second son of an innkeeper, William McKean, and his wife, Letitia, young Thomas was educated at home until the age of nine, at which time he joined his 11-year-old brother at the New London Academy to study with Rev. Francis Alison.  Thomas was one of three signers to be taught by the esteemed Latin scholar, alongside George Read and James Smith.  After seven years he moved to New Castle, which was in one of the Lower Delaware counties that were still only semi-autonomous from Pennsylvania, and a cousin named David Finney taught him law for four years.  At the age of 20, Thomas was admitted to the bar in Delaware, and he quickly expanded his practice into both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  All three states would play host to both his professional and political career over the following years.

In 1756 Thomas McKean was still an aspiring young attorney when he was appointed as deputy Attorney General of Sussex County, PA.  Soon thereafter, however, he also became clerk for the Delaware assembly that operated separately from that of Pennsylvania.  After two years of dividing his time between the two, McKean decided to travel to London in order to continue his legal studies at Middle Temple.  Upon his return four years later he was elected to represent New Castle in the legislature, a position he would hold for 18 years.  In 1763, McKean married a woman named Mary Borden, with whom he would have six children.  That same year he received an honorary Master's degree from the College of Pennsylvania, the first of several that he would eventually receive.  When the Stamp Act was passed in 1765, members of the Massachusetts Assembly called for representatives from the colonies to meet in New York.  Nine delegations were sent, including both Caesar Rodney and Thomas McKean from Delaware.  The pair became longtime allies in the cause of liberty, and in addition to being one of the more vocal members of the body McKean made an important motion that each colony's vote be counted equally, irrespective of size or population.  After being adopted, the practice carried over into the Continental Congress as well as the modern US Senate.

After ten years of marriage, Thomas McKean was widowed upon the death of his wife Mary.  In 1764 he remarried, this time to Sarah Armitage, and the couple would relocate to Philadelphia and have four children together.  Despite his new residence, McKean continued to serve in the Delaware legislature where he had been named the body's speaker, and in 1774 was selected to represent the colony in the First Continental Congress.  When the Olive Branch Petition failed, he was once again selected to the Second Continental Congress in 1776.  Although George Read was a neighbor and friend of McKean's, the two disagreed about the vote for independence.  With Caesar Rodney absent while attending to military duties, McKean sent an urgent message, which led to Rodney's 80 mile ride.  The tie was broken and Delaware joined the unanimous vote for independence, but McKean would not immediately sign the Declaration as he departed Philadelphia on the morning of July 5.  Now a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia, he marched with his men to Perth Amboy to join General Washington's defense of New York.  There is conflicting evidence about whether he returned to Philadelphia on August 2 with the majority of signers, or if his name was added much later (maybe in 1777 but perhaps not until 1781, which would mean his was completed even after that of Matthew Thornton, who is otherwise considered to have penned the final signature).

As if living in one state while representing another in Congress wasn't confusing enough, Thomas McKean was appointed as Chief Justice by Pennsylvania's executive council in 1777.  That same year, he also temporarily replaced the Delaware president (the executive position now called governor) for two months after the incumbent was captured by the British.  After four years of holding office for two states, McKean was even selected as President of Congress for several months.  His contributions were recognized with honorary doctorate degrees in law from Princeton, Dartmouth, and his alma mater, Pennsylvania over the following years.  Once his congressional and legislative terms ended in 1783, McKean's interests focused solely on Pennsylvania where he continued to live and work.  He was known as a staunch supporter of judicial strength, believing that courts should be able to overturn state law if necessary.  This policy of judicial review would eventually become the law of the land after 1803's Supreme Court ruling, Marbury v. Madison.  McKean was not part of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 but did participate in the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention two years later that saw the document's approval by the state.  When political parties began to take shape, McKean was initially a Federalist but becoming disenchanted with what he thought was a weak foreign policy he changed his support to the Democratic-Republicans early in the 1790s.  He was elected as the second governor of Pennsylvania in 1799, at which point he stepped down from his court position, and soon found himself buffeted by partisan politics.  Despite winning the popular election several times, McKean's opponents attempted to impeach him but could find no evidence of wrongdoing, despite his frequent use of the spoils system of granting positions to friends and allies.  After nine years of leading the state, including one final switch back to the Federalist party for his final election, he finally retired from public life in 1808.  McKean lived his final years quietly, and by the time he died in 1817 at the age of 83 only five of his fellow signers survived.  His wife, Sarah, and four remaining children buried him in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery.

The signature of Thomas McKean can be found as the twelfth (final) name on the fourth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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