- McKean was born on March 19, 1734, in New London, Pennsylvania.
- His father was William McKean and his mother was Letitia Finney.
- His parents were natives of Ireland and emigrated to the colonies with their families when they were children.
- His father was an innkeeper.
- McKean earned his education at home until he was nine, when he and his brother, Robert, were sent to New London Academy to study Reverend Francis Allison.
- When he was 16, he went to New Castle, Delaware to begin studying the law under the guidance of his cousin, David Finney.
- In 1763, McKean married Mary Borden. They had six children together.
- In 1773, Mary died.
- In September 1774, he married Sarah Armitage. They had four children together.
Portrait of Sarah Armitage McKean and daughter, Maria Louisa, by Charles Willson Peale [Wikimedia].
- In 1755, McKean was admitted to the bar in Delaware.
- In 1757, he was admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
- In 1758, he was admitted to the Society of Middle Temple in London.
- In 1766, Governor William Franklin of New Jersey authorized him to practice law in any New Jersey court.
- In 1774, he moved to Philadelphia so that he could be closer to the Continental Congress, and also practiced law there.
- On December 18, 1757, McKean joined the company of foot under the command of Richard Williams. He eventually made the rank of Colonel.
Pennsylvania and Delaware were not separate colonies until 1776. From 1701 to 1776, both existed under a common executive but had separate legislatures. For many years, McKean held offices simultaneously in both Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Due to his involvement in politics for two colonies, and at the local and national level, he described what it was like for him and his family to his friend and fellow Founding Father, John Adams, “hunted like a fox by the enemy, compelled to remove my family five times in three months, and at last fixed them in a little log-house on the banks of the Susquehanna, but they were soon obliged to move again on account of the incursions of the Indians.”
- Starting in 1752, McKean held various local political offices in Delaware.
- In October 1762, he was elected to the Delaware General Assembly and he was chosen, along with Caesar Rodney, to revise laws that had been passed by the province before 1752.
- He served in the General Assembly in some capacity for the next 17 years, even though he lived outside of Delaware for six of those years.
- In 1772, he was elected Speaker of the Delaware General Assembly.
- In 1765, he represented the Lower Counties of Delaware in the Stamp Act Congress. His father-in-law, Joseph Borden, represented New Jersey.
- In 1774, he was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. He represented Delaware and served in that Congress, along with the Second Continental Congress, and the Confederation Congress until 1783.
- In 1776, he was chairman of the Pennsylvania Committees of Safety and Inspection and the Philadelphia Committee of Observation.
- In 1777, he was elected again as the Speaker of the Delaware General Assembly.
- On July 28, 1777, he was elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as Chief Justice. He served in that position for 22 years.
- In 1799, McKean was elected Governor of Pennsylvania.
Delegate to the Stamp Act Congress
On March 22, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required a stamp to be placed on all legal documents and many printed materials in the colonies.
In May, news of the new law reached the colonies. There was immediate opposition, including riots in Boston, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Savannah, Georgia.
On June 8, 1765, the Massachusetts Assembly sent a circular letter to the legislatures of the other colonies, inviting them to send delegates to a congress in New York to discuss a unified response to the Stamp Act. The precedent for such a meeting had been set by the Albany Congress in 1754.
Nine of the 13 colonies, including Delaware, chose to send delegates to the meeting, which was held in New York City. McKean was elected as a delegate from Delaware, along with Caesar Rodney.
The Stamp Act Congress convened on October 7, 1765. On October 19, the Stamp Act Congress issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Congress sent petitions to the King and both houses of Parliament and asked for the Stamp Act to be repealed.
McKean argued that each colony should have an equal vote, and votes should not be weighted according to the population. This ensured the voice of small colonies, like Delaware, were heard.
McKean was a member of the committees that drafted the document to the House of Commons, along with Thomas Lynch Sr. and James Otis. He was also a member of the committee that revised the proceedings, along with John Rutledge and Philip Livingston.
McKean signed his name to the official documents of the Stamp Act Congress.
On November 1, 1765, the Stamp Act took effect, but there were no stamp masters available to distribute the stamps. They had resigned or refused to perform their job due to violence and intimidation against them.
On March 18, 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, primarily due to protest from British merchants who believed it would damage their prospects of doing business in the colonies. However, on that same day, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which declared it had the “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.”
When McKean and Caesar Rodney returned to Delaware, the Assembly approved of their actions at the Stamp Act Congress with a unanimous vote thanking them for their service.
Ruggles Challenges McKean to a Duel
On the last day of the Stamp Act Congress, some of the delegates were hesitant to sign their names to the documents of the proceedings. One of them was the President of the proceedings, Timothy Ruggles, from Massachusetts.
When Ruggles declined to sign, McKean asked him why he refused. Ruggles said it was “against his conscience.” McKean was outraged, rose to his feet, and shouted “Conscience!” at Ruggles.
Ruggles responded by challenging McKean to a fight, which McKean accepted.
However, Ruggles left New York the next morning and avoided McKean.
- McKean opposed the Townshend Acts and helped organize Delaware’s resistance.
First Continental Congress
- McKean was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress by Delaware.
- He is the only member that served in Congress from 1774 until peace was declared between the United States and Britain.
Second Continental Congress
- McKean was elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress by Delaware.
- He supported independence.
- He served on the committee responsible for stating the rights of the colonies.
- He served on the secret committee to contract to import weapons for the army.
- In July 1776, he was chairman of the delegates from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Illustration of McKean arguing in favor of independence during the Second Continental Congress [Archive.org].
Declaration of Independence
- McKean voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence, however, he left Congress a few days later and marched with his troops to assist Washington at Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
- He was not in Philadelphia when most Signers placed their signatures on the Declaration on August 2, 1776.
- McKean was the last delegate to sign the document, which was done at some point in 1777.
- In June 1776, McKean left the Continental Congress and returned to Delaware, and gained authority for its delegates to vote for independence.
- When he arrived at Dover, a committee urged him to prepare the new state constitution.
- He wrote it that night, and it was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly on the next day.
Military Service During the American Revolutionary War
- He became a Colonel in Philadelphia’s Fourth Battalion of Associators and marched the battalion to Perth Amboy, New Jersey soon after independence was declared so he could reinforce General George Washington.
Articles of Confederation
- McKean served on the committee that drew up the Articles of Confederation, and he was present when the Articles were ratified on March 1, 1781.
- He signed the Articles of Confederation as a representative from Delaware.
- On March 2, the Second Continental Congress was replaced by “The United States in Congress Assembled,” which is also known as the Confederation Congress.
- Samuel Huntington was the first President, under the Articles.
McKean Elected Second President Under the Articles of Confederation
On July 6, 1781, President Huntington resigned due to poor health. Congress hoped his health would improve, and waited a few days to see if it did before holding an election to fill the seat for the position. Technically, the position was called “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.”
When Huntington’s health failed to improve, an election was held and McKean was selected as the second President of the Confederation Congress. McKean served from July 10, 1781, to October 23, 1781. During his term as President, news reached Congress the British had surrendered to General Washington at the Battle of Yorktown.
Pennsylvania Ratification of the United States Constitution
- McKean did not participate in the Constitutional Convention, but he did work closely with James Wilson to help convince Pennsylvania to ratify the Constitution.
- McKean did attend the convention to ratify the Constitution.
- From 1789 to 1790, McKean participated in amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to bring it more in line with the United States Constitution.
- He was a delegate from Philadelphia.
- He was Chief Justice at the time. Over the next 10 years, his court issued several rulings that supported the concept of judicial review.
Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Supreme Court
- On July 28, 1777, McKean was chosen as the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. He served in that role for 22 years.
Marbury v. Madison
- In 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled the United States Supreme Court had the power to overturn an unconstitutional law in Marbury v. Madison.
- Marshall’s decision was partially based on precedents set by McKean’s court.
Governor of Pennsylvania
- In 1799, McKean was elected Governor of Pennsylvania. He was re-elected twice.
- During his third term, his political enemies tried to impeach him but were unsuccessful.
- In 1804, Mckean was nominated to be Vice President to Thomas Jefferson.
- He declined because he had already served as President under the Articles of Confederation.
University of the State of Pennsylvania
- From 1777 to 1891, he held a position on the Board of Trustees for the University of the State of Pennsylvania (University of Pennsylvania).
- He was President of the Board during his tenure as the Governor of Pennsylvania.
- After he resigned as Governor, he stayed on the Board of Trustees.
- In 1808, McKean retired.
- June 24, 1817, McKean died at the age of 83.
- He was buried at First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
Thomas McKean is important because he signed the Declaration of Independence and was a delegate from Delaware to the Stamp Act Congress, First Continental Congress, and Second Continental Congress. He also played a key role in Pennsylvania’s ratification of the United States Constitution.
Thomas McKean is considered a Founding Father because he signed the Declaration of Independence and because he contributed to the Stamp Act Congress, First Continental Congress, and Second Continental Congress.