Thomas McKean- A Short Biography

Thomas McKean
1734-1817
A Short Biography by
Lindsay Downs

Thomas McKean was born to William McKean and Letitia Finney on March 19, 1734 in New London Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania[1]. His parents were of Ulster-Scots heritage, who immigrated to Pennsylvania as children. Thomas received his basic education, location unknown but possible at home, until age nine. At which time he and his eleven year old brother, Robert, were sent to continue their education under the tutelage of Rev. Francis Allison, D.D. at the New London Academy[2].

After completing his studies Thomas went to Newcastle, Delaware to study law under his cousin, David Finney. Some months later he was appointed as a clerk to the prothonotary[3] of the Court of Common Pleas. Through his hard work, talent and industriousness, he was admitted as an attorney in the Court of Common Pleas to Newcastle, Kent and Sussex before attaining the age of twenty-one. He subsequently was admitted to the Supreme Court also.

By the time he reached his majority Thomas McKean was over six feet tall. Frequently he was see 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 this 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.[4]

John Adams 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.”[5]

Both as Chief Justice and later as Governor of Pennsylvania he could be found at the center of several controversies.

Not wanting to be over burdened with his studies Thomas on December 28, 1757 elected to join the Richard Williams company of foot.[6] He would later rise to the rank of Colonel in the militia.(AUTHOR’S NOTE: At this time most officer ranks were voted on by the individual militia members and not necessarily by military accomplishments.)

In July 1765 as a judge for the Court of Common Pleas he established the ruling that all court proceeding of the court be recorded on un-stamped paper. This is one of the several changes in the courts and Continental Congress he would effect during his life. Each change will have long lasting effects on the country.

Thomas’ political career, which would span forty-five years, started in 1763 when he was elected Assemblyman to the Lower Counties, Newcastle. It would end in 1808 when he left the office of Governor of Pennsylvania. During these years, besides serving as an Assemblyman, he was also appointed Judge in the Court of Common Pleas. Later as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Once free from the rule of Great Britain he was a delegate to the Confederation Congress, serving as its President for a short time.[7]

In 1763 Thomas married Mary Border, his first wife. From this marriage they had six children. She died in 1773 and is buried at Immanuel Episcopal Church, New Castle. A year later he took Sarah Armitage as his second wife. They lived in Philadelphia and had four children.[8]

At the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 he, along with Caesar Rodney, represented Delaware. It was here that Thomas made another far reaching proposal change to the voting procedure in existence at the time. His proposal was later adopted by the Continental Congress and continues to this day in the United States Senate. His proposal was that no matter the size or population of a colony they would all get an equal vote.

During the last day of the above congress several members of the body refused to sign the memorial of rights and grievances. He rose from his seat asking why the President, Timothy Ruggles, refused to sign the document. In the ensuing debate Ruggles said and I quote, “…it was against his conscious.”[9] The orator that he was, McKean disputed and challenged his use of the word ‘conscious’. He issued a challenge to Ruggles and said challenge, a duel, was accepted and witnessed by the whole body. No duel ever took place as Ruggles left early the next morning. Ruggles, now disgraced fled back to Massachusetts where he became a leading Tory. He later fled to Nova Scotia.

Throughout a majority of his early, before the colonies separated from England, political career, his was a delegate to and in Delaware while he maintained Philadelphia as his primary residence.

In June 1776, when the debate for independence began, Caesar Rodney was absent, having returned home to Delaware. With George Reid against it, McKean sent a dispatch to Rodney requesting he ride all night, if necessary, so as to break the tie, as Rodney was in favor of it.

It is believed by most citizens today that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, where in actuality it was signed by almost all of delegates on August 2, 1776. Thomas Jefferson, President of the Congress and the secretary, affixed their signatures to the original.[10] However, there is some controversy as to if they did sign the document that day.[11]

On July 5th McKean, now a Colonel in the associated militia, marched with his men to Perth Amboy to assist Washington in the defense of New York. In a letter dated July 26th he described a narrow escape of his life from cannon fire. The knowledge of this letter helps to establish the necessary timeline for near future events.[12] (AUTHOR’S NOTE: By current road travel it is approximately seventy-five miles from Perth Amboy to Philadelphia. A good hard days ride at the time.)

As a descendent of Thomas McKean I was always told that he didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence until years later in 1781[13]. It was only through doing the research for this biography did I learn he signed on the same day as the others present.

McKean returned to Philadelphia on August 2, 1776 when the engrossed[14] copy of the Declaration of Independence was signed[15][16].

The original document was deposited with the secretary of state but when the printed copy was released that was when McKean’s signature was found to be missing, in both the 1777 and 1800 editions.[17] I would now like to refer you, good reader, to a letter written in his own hand to Mr. Alexander J. Dallas of Pennsylvania. The letter is dated 26th September, 1796 and was subsequently published in ‘Sanderson’s Lives’. I quote in part-[18][19]

My names is not in the printed journals of congress, as a party to the Declaration of Independence, as this, like an error in the first concoction, has vitiated most of the subsequent publications; and yet the fact is, that I was a member of congress for the state of Delaware, was personally present in congress, and voted in favor of independence on the 4th of July 1776, and signed the declaration after it had been engrossed on parchment, where my name, in my own hand writing, still appears.

It continues

…that on the 19th day of July, 1776, the congress directed that it should be engrossed on parchment, and signed by every member, and that it was so produced on the 2nd of August, and signed. This is interlined in the secret journal, in the hand of Charles Thompson, the secretary. The present secretary of state of the United States, and myself, have lately inspected the journals, and seen this. The journal was first printed by Mr. John Dunlap, in 1778, and probably copes, with the names then signed to it, were printed in August, 1776, and that Mr. Dunlap printed the names from one of them.

On July 28th, 1777 he received from the supreme executive council the commission of chief justice for Pennsylvania. He was to hold this position for the next twenty-two years, until 1799. To show the impact Thomas McKean had on the judicial system I quote from biographer John Coleman,

“only the historiographical difficulty of reviewing court records and the other scattered documents prevents recognition the McKean, rather than John Marshall, did more than anyone else to establish an independent judiciary in the United States. As chief justice under the Pennsylvania constitution he considered flawed, he assumed it the right of the court to strike down legislative acts it deemed unconstitutional, preceding by ten years the US Supreme Court’s establishment if the doctrine of judicial review. He augmented the rights of defendants and sough penal reform, but on the other hand was slow to recognize expansion of the legal rights of women and the process in the state’s gradual elimination of slavery.”[20]

One of the few black marks against McKean, during his twenty-plus years as Chief Justice occurred in 1788. The incident occurred between him and Eleazer Oswald. Oswald, in an editorial in the newspaper where he was editor, tried to prejudice the people for him and against the court, Oswald being the defendant in the case. In the editorial he cast the justices in a very unflattering light. Incensed at Oswald’s accusations the justices fined him ten pounds and sentenced him ‘to be imprisoned for a space of one month, that is, from the fifteenth of July to the fifteenth of August.’[21] At that time a month was twenty-eight days, so Oswald demanded his release by the sheriff. The sheriff, not knowing what to do, consulted McKean. He, McKean, not aware the sentence was for “the space of one month”[22] ordered the sheriff to detain the prisoner until August 15th. Upon learning of his mistake McKean then reversed himself, ordering Oswald freed.

On September 5, 1788 Oswald petitioned the General Assembly  where he stated the proceedings against him. He then complained to the august body of the decision against him, specifically pointing the finger to the Chief Justice, Thomas McKean, and the sheriff. The House as a whole, held hearing for three day. After several motions, one of which was made by a Mr. Finley, against the justices that they had exceeded their constitutional powers. In the process he asked that the Assembly ‘define the nature and extent of contempt…’.[23] Mr. William Lewis, for the judges, said that the legislature was confined to making the laws, thereby they, the Assembly, can’t interrupt said laws. That was the purview of the justices. He continued on by saying that any recommendations by the Assembly would be negated as the ‘courts of justice derive their power from the constitution, a source paramount to the legislature, and consequently what is given to them by the former cannot be taken away by the latter.’ [24]

The motion of impeachment set forth by Mr. Finley lost by a considerable margin at which time Mr. Clymer renewed the motion of Mr. Fitzsimmons. That motion was passed.

During the course of Thomas McKean’s political career he served as an Assemblyman for the Lower Counties, New Castle from 1763 to 1775. During this period he also served as Judge in the Court of Common Pleas, Lower Counties from 1765-1774. Also a very brief stent as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. From 1774 through 1783 he was a delegate to the Continental Congress while also holding other post simultaneously. In short he was a very busy and popular individual.

From July 10, 1781 to November 4, 1781 he was elected President of the Continental Congress which presented an interesting dilemma. The Constitution of Pennsylvania forbade the holding of two offices at the same time. It was decided that this didn’t apply to holding offices outside the State, him being a member of Congress from Delaware and Chief Justice from Pennsylvania. It was also learned that several others were holding multiple offices.

Three years after the peace treaty was signed with Great Britain a convention was held in Philadelphia starting on May 14, 1787. Several months later on September 17th the convention adjourned having settled on the Constitution. The Constitution was presented to the states and even though he wasn’t an original member helping to draw up the document he was a delegate from Philadelphia. On the 23rd he moved that the document be read the repeated the request on the 24th. In a short speech to the assembled members he said they were going into territory never gone before and he didn’t expect any resolution in a day or a week and that all opposed to the constitution should be heard. He therefore moved:[25]

“That this Convention do assent to, and ratify, the Constitution agreed to on the seventeenth of September last, by the Convention of the United States of America, help at Philadelphia.”[26]

McKean eloquently argued in favor of the passage of the constitution 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.[27]

Even though there was public opposition to the constitution and at one point both McKean and James Wilson were burned in effigy the majority of the populous approved the document. It was ratified by a majority of the States by June of the next year.

On December 17, 1799 he stepped down as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania and assumed the role of Governor of that state. He held the office until December 20, 1808 when he retired from public office.

On June 24, 1817, at the age of eighty-three, Thomas McKean died. His remains were interred and the First Presbyterian Church, Market Street, Philadelphia. Later to be removed to the family vault at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.[28]

Even though he was the forty-eighty signer, his signature in the third column at the bottom, his gravesite was the first to be rededicated by the Society. This occurred on April 16, 2005.


[1] 1-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_McKean

[2] Ibid.

[3] Law chief clerk in court: the chief clerk in some courts of law
Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

[4] Ibid.

[6] Life of the Hon. Thomas McKean, LL.D.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[10] Life of Hon. Thomas McKean, LL.D. p 37

[11] Ibid. p. 42

[12] Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856

[14] Engrossed-copy document: to copy a document in large clear handwriting (dated)
Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

[15] Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856

[17] Life of Hon. Thomas McKean, LL.D. p 38

[18] ibid

[19] ibid

[21] Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856

[22] Ibid. p. 77

[23] Ibid. p. 78

[24] [24] Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856. P. 78

[25] Life of Hon. Thomas McKean, LL.D. p 75

[26] Ibid. p. 75

[27] Ibid. p. 76

[28] Ibid. p. 112

This entry was posted in Dakota, Declaration of Independence, Direct Descendent, Historical, Military, Murder, Mystery, Suspense, Thomas McKean. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Thomas McKean- A Short Biography

  1. Jenna Jaxon says:

    What a wonderful ancestor, Lindsay! You should be extremely proud of your family’s service to their country. Happy 4th of July!

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