McKean, Thomas

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McKean, Thomas

McKEAN, THOMAS. (1734–1817). Signer. Delaware and Pennsylvania. Born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, on 19 March 1734, Thomas McKean studied law with his cousin, David Finney, in Delaware, and set up a prosperous practice in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. Living mostly in Delaware until 1773, he served as deputy attorney-general in 1756, clerk of the assembly from 1757 to 1759, and in the assembly from 1762 to 1779. He was speaker of the assembly in both 1772 and 1779. In 1762 he helped Caesar Rodney revise the state assembly laws. Becoming increasingly outspoken against British rule, McKean was one of the more radical members of the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. As justice of the court of common pleas and quarter sessions, he ordered the use of unstamped paper. As speaker of the assembly he led the movement in December 1772 for a colonial congress.

McKean entered the first Continental Congress in 1774 as a delegate from Delaware. In the Second Continental Congress he advocated reconciliation with England until early 1776, then started working for independence, serving on the vital Secret Committee. Although still a member of the Delaware delegation, he was influential in swaying opinion in Pennsylvania toward independence. When his vote for the resolution for independence was tied with that of fellow delegate George Reed, McKean's initiative brought Caesar Rodney, the third Delaware representative, racing back to cast the decisive vote.

Exactly when he became a signer of the Declaration of Independence is uncertain. Returning to Delaware, McKean led a battalion of Philadelphia Associators (a militia unit) to Perth Amboy to reinforce General George Washington's hard-pressed army on 2 August 1776. He then went to Dover, where he helped frame the first constitution of Delaware. Failing re-election to Congress—he did not sit during the period from December 1776 to January 1778—McKean became speaker of the Delaware Assembly. For two months of 1777 he was acting president of the state. During the period from 1777 to 1799 he also was chief justice of Pennsylvania, but he remained politically active in Delaware and was re-elected to Congress from that state.

On 10 July 1781 he was elected president of Congress, serving in Congress until 1783. In 1787 he sat in the Pennsylvania constitutional ratification convention, where he supported the Constitution. He drew many protests in Pennsylvania from those who felt he should not hold so many important and conflicting political jobs. In 1792 the Federalist foreign policy drove him to the other party, and in 1799 he was elected governor of Pennsylvania as a Jeffersonian. He served three tumultuous terms, being frequently accused of nepotism, constitutional violation, and other abuses of the office. McKean died in Philadelphia on 24 June 1817.

SEE ALSO Associators.


McKean Papers. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Rowe, G. S. Thomas McKean: The Shaping of an American Republicanism. Boulder, Colo.: Colorado Associated University Press, 1978.

                           revised by Michael Bellesiles