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.
John M. Thomas McKean, Forgotten Leader of the Revolution. Rockaway,
N.J.: American Faculty, 1975.
John M. ‘Thomas McKean and the Origins of an Independent Judiciary,’
Pennsylvania History, (34:2), 1967, 111-130.
James H. 'Thomas McKean 1734 -1817,' Dictionary of American Biography,
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),