Thomas McKean (March 19, 1734 June 24, 1817) was an American lawyer and politician from New Castle, in New Castle County, Delaware, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the American Revolution he was a delegate to the Continental Congress where he signed the United States Declaration of Independence and served as a President of Congress. He was at various times a member of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, who served as President of Delaware, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, and Governor of Pennsylvania.
Early life and family
McKean was born in New London Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, the son of William McKean and Letitia Finney. His father was a tavern-keeper in New London and both his parents were Ulster-Scots who came to Pennsylvania from Ireland as children. Mary Borden was his first wife. They married in 1763, lived at 22 The Strand in New Castle, Delaware. They had six children: Joseph, Robert, Elizabeth, Letitia, Mary, and Anne. Mary Borden McKean died in 1773 and is buried at Immanuel Episcopal Church in New Castle. Sarah Armitage was McKeans second wife. They married in 1774, lived at the northeast corner of 3rd and Pine Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and had four children, Sarah, Thomas, Sophia, and Maria. They were members of the New Castle Presbyterian Church in New Castle and the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Sarah's son, Carlos Fernando de Yrujo, would later become Prime Minister of Spain.
McKean's education began at the Reverend Francis Allison's New London Academy. At the age of sixteen he went to New Castle, Delaware to begin the study of law under his cousin, David Finney. In 1755 he was admitted to the Bar of the Lower Counties, as Delaware was then known, and likewise in the Province of Pennsylvania the following year. In 1756 he was appointed deputy Attorney General for Sussex County. From the 1762/63 session through the 1775/76 session he was a member of the General Assembly of the Lower Counties, serving as its Speaker in 1772/73. From July 1765, he also served as a judge of the Court of Common Pleas and began service as the customs collector at New Castle in 1771. In November 1765 his Court of Common Pleas became the first such court in the colonies to establish a rule that all the proceedings of the court be recorded on un-stamped paper.
Eighteenth century Delaware was politically divided into loose political factions known as the "Court Party" and the "Country Party." The majority Court Party was generally Anglican, strongest in Kent and Sussex counties and worked well with the colonial Proprietary government, and was in favor of reconciliation with the British government. The minority Country Party was largely Ulster-Scot, centered in New Castle County, and quickly advocated independence from the British. McKean was the epitome of the Country party politician and was, as much as anyone, its leader. As such, he generally worked in partnership with Caesar Rodney from Kent County, and in opposition to his friend and neighbor, George Read.
McKean quickly became one of the most influential members of the Stamp Act Congress. He was on the committee that drew the memorial to Parliament, and with John Rutledge and Philip Livingston, revised its proceedings. On the last day of its session, when the business session ended, Timothy Ruggles, the president of the body, and a few other more cautious members, refused to sign the memorial of rights and grievances. McKean arose and addressing the chair insisted that the president give his reasons for his refusal. After refusing at first, Ruggles remarked, "it was against his conscience." McKean then disputed his use of the word "conscience" so loudly and so long that a challenge was given by Ruggles and accepted in the presence of the congress. However, Ruggles left the next morning at daybreak, so that the duel did not take place.
In spite of his primary residence in Philadelphia, McKean remained the effective leader for American Independence in Delaware. Along with George Read and Caesar Rodney, he was one of Delaware's delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776.
Being an outspoken advocate of independence, McKean's was a key voice in persuading others to vote for a split with Great Britain. When Congress began debating a resolution of independence in June 1776 Caesar Rodney was absent. George Read was against independence, which meant that the Delaware delegation was split between McKean and Read and therefore could not vote in favor of independence. McKean requested that the absent Rodney rode all night from Dover to break the tie. After the vote in favor of independence on July 2, McKean participated in the debate over the wording of the official Declaration of Independence, which was approved on July 4th.
Government of Delaware
Meanwhile, McKean led the effort in the General Assembly of Delaware to declare its separation from the British government, which it did on June 15, 1776. Then, in August, he was elected to the special convention to draft a new state constitution. Upon hearing of it, McKean made the long ride to Dover, Delaware from Philadelphia in a single day, went to a room in an Inn, and that night, virtually by himself, drafted the document. It was adopted September 20, 1776. The Delaware Constitution of 1776 thus became the first state constitution to be produced after the Declaration of Independence.
Government of Pennsylvania
Death and legacy
McKean was a member of the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati in 1785 and was subsequently its vice-president. Princeton College gave him the degree of L.L.D. in 1781, Dartmouth College presented the same honor in 1782, and the University of Pennsylvania gave him the degree of A.M. in 1763 and L.L.D. in 1785. With Professor John Wilson he published "Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States" in 1790).
McKean died in Philadelphia and was buried in the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery there. In 1843, his body was moved to the Laurel Hill Cemetery, also in Philadelphia. Thomas McKean High School in New Castle County is named in his honor, as is McKean Street in Philadelphia, McKean County, Pennsylvania, and the McKean Hall dormitory at the University of Delaware. Penn State University also has a residence hall and a campus road named for him.
Delaware elections were held October 1st and members of the General Assembly took office on October 20th or the following weekday. State Assemblymen had a one year term. The whole General Assembly chose the Continental Congressmen for a one year term and the State President for a three year term. Judges of the Courts of Common Pleas were also selected by the General Assembly for the life of the person appointed. McKean served as State President only temporarily, filling the vacancy created by John McKinly's capture and resignation and awaiting the arrival of George Read.