Did you know… Thomas McKean (March 19, 1734 – June 24, 1817) ?

Thomas McKean, Signer of the Declaration of Independence

When was Thomas McKean born?

Thomas McKean was born March 19, 1734, to William and Letitia McKean in New London Township, Pa. close to the modern Maryland and Delaware borders. His father William was a well-to-do tavern keeper. William and Letitia both came from Ulster Ireland and had known one another since childhood. Letitia was the wealthier of the two, William marrying a bit above his station. This enabled Thomas to attend better schools.

Thomas attended the church school of the eminent Dr. Francis Alison, Presbyterian minister. Classmates were George Read and James Smith, also later signers of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas learned a classical curriculum. Alison was famed for his opposition to Jonathan Edwards Great Awakening, and respected for his academic and philisophical prowess. In learning from him, Thomas had access to one of the great intellects of the day.

Under the instructions of this distinguished scholar, young McKean made rapid advances in a knowledge of the languages, rhetoric, logic, and moral philosophy. After finishing the regular course of studies, he was entered as a student at law, in the office of David Finney, a gentleman who was related to him, and who resided in Newcastle, Delaware. Diligence in his studies allowed him to pass the bar in 1755, at the age of twenty-one. Thomas proved he was a hard worker with a ready wit, and destined for higher things. During the next two and a half decades, McKean occupied an array of appointive and elective offices in Delaware, some simultaneously: high sheriff of Kent County; militia captain; trustee of the loan office of New Castle County; customs collector and judge at New Castle; deputy attorney general of Sussex County; chief notary officer for the province; and clerk (1757-59) and member (1762-79) of the legislature, including the speakership of the lower house (1772-73). In 1762, he had also helped compile the colony’s laws.

Mary Borden McKean

Thomas met and began courting Mary Borden. Mary and her sister Ann were said to be the most beautiful women in Delaware. Ann married Francis Hopkinton, another Declaration signer. Thomas and Mary were wed in 1763. Mary was nineteen. The couple lived at 22 The Strand in New Castle, Delaware. They had six children, the last Anna in 1773. Mary died a few weeks later from complications of child birth. Her gravestone reads: “Fair was her form, fertile was her mind. Her heart and hopes were fix’d on high. Her hand beneficent and kind, Oft wiped the tear from sorrow’s eye …”.

Mrs. Thomas McKean (Sarah Armitage)

With six young children, and a burgeoning career, Thomas had little time to mourn – he needed a new wife. Sarah Armitrage, already in his social circle, caught his eye, and they soon made a match marrying in 1774. Thomas and Sarah had four more children – a daughter, also named Sarah, married a Spanish nobleman who became prime minister of Spain.

In his political life, Thomas might be considered a centrist – voting for independence, but originally open to reconciliation with Britain. In the Congress, it was his idea that is unpopular with some today – McKean proposed the voting procedure that the Continental Congress later adopted: that each colony, regardless of size or population, have one vote. This decision set the precedent, the Congress of the Articles of Confederation adopted the practice, and the principle of state equality continued in the composition of the United States Senate.

What did Thomas McKean do?

In the end, Thomas so stoutly supported independence that he almost came to blows with Thomas Ruggles in the Congressional session – a challenge for a duel was issued, and accepted. However, by morning Ruggles apparently cooled off, and decided the best expedient was to leave town, which he did immediately. We have already spoken in previous posts about Ceasar Rodney, and how Thomas prevailed on him to ride all night through a driving rainstorm to be present as a tie breaker between Thomas and George Read on the vote for independence. The discord with Read led to Thomas’s portrayal in the Broadway musical, 1776, as a gun-toting, cantankerous old Irishman who cannot get along with the wealthy and conservative planter.

Though casting his vote in favor, Thomas was called away to serve as Colonel in the 4th Pennsylvania, a militia unit created by Benjamin Franklin. Thomas was not present when the official signing took place, and is presumed to have signed later, probably in 1781. On orders, he marched his regiment to Amboy, NJ.

As they entered the town, Thomas at the head, they discovered that the British had artillery and a rifle brigade lined along the road. Braving the fire, Thomas reached headquarters as ordered, only to find his orders countermanded, owing to the concentration of British troops – he was ordered to withdraw. To obey the order, he once again ran the gauntlet of red-coated riflemen to order his men to reverse. He survived unscathed.

Like other signers, his family was frequently in danger during the war, and Sarah had to flee more than once with all their children to the safety of relatives to avoid capture.

He participated in the Battle of Brandywine (pictured) and his role there gave him re-election to the Continental Congress, over the objections of a good number of the citizenry of Pennsylvania, Tories.

“The Nation Makers” by Howard Pyle, depicts the Battle of Brandywine

McKean was over six feet tall, always wore a large cocked hat and carried a gold-headed cane. He was a man of quick temper and vigorous personality, “with a thin face, hawk’s nose and hot eyes.” His wrath was on frequent display, and he did not suffer fools.

Following the war, Thomas represented his state in forming the Articles of Confederation, and then served as Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for twenty years, and finally as Governor of Pennsylvania. He was a Democratic Republican, but later had a falling out with that party as his centrist views came more into alignment with the Federalists. During his term as Chief Justice, not withstanding his many contributions to legal understanding of the statutes of Pennsylvania, there was an attempt to impeach him. A journalist had written specious and inflammatory articles concerning the court and the judges. Finding him libelous and in contempt, the court sentenced the journalist to thirty days. But due to a mixup about when the sentence started, the journalist was detained one day beyond his sentence. Thomas McKean was held responsible. This led to an arduous investigation, consuming many days of time for the court and the assembly. In the end, there was insufficient evidence of wrong doing, and the case of Eleazer Oswald vs. the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was dismissed. Nor was this the only attempt to impeach Thomas during his official duties. In 1808 during his term as governor, another impeachment attempt was made – also unsuccessful.

When the Continental Congress formulated the Constitution, Thomas gave a speech which said in part: “The law, sir, has been my study from my infancy, and my only profession. I have gone through the circle of office, in the legislative, executive, and judicial, departments of 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 me the best the world has yet seen.

Grave marker Thomas McKean

Thomas McKean lived until the twenty-fourth of June, 1817, when he was gathered to the generation of his fathers, at the uncommon age of eighty-three years, two months, and sixteen days. He lies interred in the burial ground of the First Presbyterian Church, in Market-street Philadelphia.

  1. Caleb McKean

    I believe he naturalized at ten. There seems to be a NJ and a PA lineage. Hes the basis of our system.