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Thomas McKean (1734-1817)
by John Shepherd


Honest and independent yet vain and vindictive, the Scotch-Irish Thomas McKean was an energetic lawyer and reforming statesman who served both Delaware and Pennsylvania prominently. Born 19 March 1734 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, to William McKean and Letitia Finney, Thomas apprenticed in law, 1750-1754, and thereafter practiced widely in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In Delaware, he achieved a stunning number of legal appointments and elected offices, including delegate to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765-1766 and Speaker of the Assembly for 1772-1773. He married well, first in 1763 to Mary Borden of Bordentown, New Jersey, and in 1774 to Sarah Armitage of New Castle, having several children with both. He represented Delaware in the Continental Congress, 1774-1777, serving on dozens of committees and signing the Declaration of Independence. He helped frame Delaware's first constitution and, after conservative opposition blocked his re-election to Congress in 1777, was again Speaker of the Delaware Assembly and Acting President (Governor) of Delaware. Establishing a residence in Philadelphia in 1774, he began to also serve Pennsylvania in numerous capacities, such as Colonel of a battalion of Philadelphia Associators (militia) in New Jersey in 1776 and Chief Justice of Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1799. Returning to Congress for Delaware, 1778-1783, he supported the Articles of Confederation and argued for a federal court of appeals while attacking administrative waste. From 10 July to 5 November 1781, he was President of Congress despite enemies who attempted to force him to surrender either the Presidency or his judicial position. He opposed the radical Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 though he served as Chief Justice under it because he believed that not doing so would damage the American cause. As a federalist, he worked in 1787 to ratify the Federal Constitution in Pennsylvania, pronouncing the frame of government "the best the world has yet seen," and he authored a clause providing education for the poor at state expense during the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1789-1790. As Chief Justice, his conservative decisions, such as upholding proprietors in their property rights and strongly interpreting libel laws, generally reflected his honesty and sense of justice though fomenting repeated conflicts with both the Assembly and military authorities. In 1799, his strong antipathy to England won Jeffersonian support for his election as Governor over Federalist James Ross after a nasty campaign. As Governor, 1799-1808, he effected a revolution in state politics by imposing a spoils system that removed political enemies from office and replaced them with friends. He was a dedicated advocate of a strong executive and independent judiciary who continually frustrated attacks against these made by radical Republicans. He vetoed bills extending the jurisdiction of justices of the peace, opposed impeachment attempts of supreme court judges, and refused efforts to revise the constitution. Accused of nepotism by radical newspapers, he instituted libel suits against his opponents and urged the Assembly to impose more drastic penalties for libel. In 1806-1807, his legislative enemies attempted to impeach him for various improprieties, mostly trivial but spitefully elevated to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, but his supporters cleverly postponed the proceedings until he retired in relative peace in Philadelphia in 1808. He died there on 24 June 1817 and his will disposed of a considerable amount of stocks, bonds, and real estate. His published works include The Acts of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania in 1782, A Calm Appeal to the People of the State of Delaware in 1793 with Edmund Physick, and Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States of America in 1792 with James Wilson.

Sources:

Coleman, John M. Thomas McKean, Forgotten Leader of the Revolution. Rockaway, N.J.: American Faculty, 1975. 

Coleman, John M. ‘Thomas McKean and the Origins of an Independent Judiciary,’ Pennsylvania History, (34:2), 1967, 111-130.

Peeling, James H. 'Thomas McKean 1734 -1817,' Dictionary of American Biography, 1928-1936.

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

Rowe, G. S. ‘The Legal Career of Thomas McKean, 1750-1775.’ Delaware History, (16:1), 1974, 22-46.

Rowe, G. S. ‘Thomas McKean and the Coming of the Revolution,’ Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, (96:1), 1972, 3-47.

Rowe, G. S. ‘A Valuable Acquisition in Congress: Thomas McKean, Delegate from Delaware to the Continental Congress, 1774-1783. Pennsylvania History, (38:3), 1971, 225-264. 


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