Thomas McKean was born March 19, 1734 in Pennsylvania.
His father was a tavern-keeper and both his parents had came to Pennsylvania from Ireland as children.
At the age of sixteen, Thomas went to New Castle, Delaware to study of law under his cousin, David Finney. In 1755, he was admitted to the Bar of the Lower Counties, as Delaware was then known, and likewise in the Province of Pennsylvania the following year.
In 1756, Thomas was appointed deputy Attorney General for Sussex County.
He became a member of the General Assembly of the Lower Counties in 1762.
Thomas married Mary Borden in 1763. They went on to have six children.
In 1765, Thomas also served as a judge of the Court of Common Pleas.
At the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, Thomas McKean and Caesar Rodney represented Delaware.
It was here that Thomas 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.
Thomas quickly became one of the most influential members of the Stamp Act Congress. He was on the committee that drew the memorial to Parliament, and with John Rutledge and Philip Livingston, revised its proceedings. On the last day of its session, when the business session ended, Timothy Ruggles, the president of the body, and a few other more cautious members, refused to sign the memorial of rights and grievances.
Thomas McKean arose and addressing the chair insisted that the president give his reasons for his refusal.
After refusing at first, Ruggles remarked, “it was against his conscience.”
Thomas then disputed his use of the word “conscience” so loudly and so long that a duel challenge was given by Ruggles and accepted in the presence of the congress.
However, Thomas left the next morning at daybreak, so the duel never took place.
In 1771, Thomas also began service as the customs collector at New Castle.
Then in 1772, he served as Speaker of the General Assembly of the Lower Counties.
Eighteenth century Delaware was politically divided into loose political factions known as the “Court Party” and the “Country Party.” The majority Court Party was generally Anglican, strongest in Kent and Sussex counties and worked well with the colonial Proprietary government, and was in favor of reconciliation with the British government. The minority Country Party was largely Ulster-Scot, centered in New Castle County, and quickly advocated independence from the British.
Thomas McKean was the epitome of a Country party politician and was, as much as anyone, its leader.
His wife Mary died in 1773 and is buried at Immanuel Episcopal Church in New Castle.
Thomas then married Sarah Armitage in 1774, and went on to have four children.
In spite of his primary residence in Philadelphia, Thomas McKean remained the effective leader for American Independence in Delaware.
Along with George Read and Caesar Rodney, Thomas was one of Delaware’s delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776.
Being an outspoken advocate of independence, Thomas McKean’s was a key voice in persuading others to vote for a split with Great Britain. When Congress began debating a resolution of independence in June 1776 Caesar Rodney was absent. George Read was against independence, which meant that the Delaware delegation was split between McKean and Read and therefore could not vote in favor of independence. Thomas insisted that the absent Rodney ride all night from Dover to break the tie, and rode he did.
After the vote in favor of independence on July 2, Thomas participated in the debate over the wording of the official Declaration of Independence, which was approved on July 4.
A few days after Thomas McKean cast his vote, he left Congress to serve as colonel in command of the Fourth Battalion of the Pennsylvania Associators, a militia unit created by Benjamin Franklin in 1747.
Thomas soon joined George Washington’s defense of New York City at Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
Signing of the United States Declaration of Independence
Fifty-six delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, including Thomas McKean, signed the United States Declaration of Independence, a statement announcing that the thirteen American colonies then at war with Great Britain were now independent states, and thus no longer a part of the British Empire.
Although the wording of the Declaration was approved by Congress on July 4, the date of its signing has been disputed.
Various legends about the signing of the Declaration emerged years later, when the document had become an important national symbol. In one famous story, John Hancock supposedly said that Congress, having signed the Declaration, must now “all hang together”, and Benjamin Franklin replied: “Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The quote did not appear in print until more than fifty years after Franklin’s death.
Most historians have concluded that it was signed nearly a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776, and not on July 4 as is commonly believed.
The date that the Declaration was signed has long been the subject of debate.
Within a decade after the event, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams all wrote that the Declaration had been signed by Congress on July 4, 1776.
This seemed to be confirmed by the signed copy of the Declaration, which is dated July 4.
Additional support was provided by the Journals of Congress, the official public record of the Continental Congress.
When the proceedings for 1776 were first published in 1777, the entry for July 4, 1776, stated that the Declaration was engrossed (the official copy was handwritten) and signed on that date.
Thomas McKean helped draft the Articles of Confederation and voted for their adoption on March 1, 1781.
When poor health caused Samuel Huntington, to resign as President of Congress in July 1781, Thomas McKean was elected as his successor. He served from July 10, 1781, until November 4, 1781.
The President of Congress was a mostly ceremonial position with no real authority, but the office did require Thomas to handle a good deal of correspondence and sign official documents.
During his time in office, Lord Cornwallis’s British army surrendered at Yorktown, effectively ending the war.
Then in 1796, Thomas McKean disputed that the Declaration had been signed on July 4, pointing out that some signers were not then present, including several who were not even elected to Congress until after that date.
“[N]o person signed it on that day nor for many days after”, Thomas later wrote.
Although Jefferson and Adams continued to disagree publicly with Thomas McKean, his claim gained support when the Secret Journals of Congress were published in 1821.
The Secret Journals contained two previously unpublished entries about the Declaration.
The entry for July 19, 1776 reads:
Resolved That the Declaration passed on the 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile of “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America” & that the same when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.
The entry for August 2 stated:
The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.
Being away fighting the Revolution, Thomas McKean was not available when most of the signers placed their signatures on the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776.
Since his signature did not appear on the printed copy that was authenticated on January 17, 1777, it is assumed that he signed after that date, possibly as late as 1781.
Thomas McKean was then elected Governor of Pennsylvania, and served three terms from December 17, 1799 until December 20, 1808.
Some of his other accomplishments included expanding free education for all and, at age eighty, leading a Philadelphia citizens group to organize a strong defense during the War of 1812.
He spent his retirement in Philadelphia, writing, discussing political affairs and enjoying the considerable wealth he had earned through investments and real estate.
Thomas McKean died in Philadelphia June 24, 1817 and was buried in the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery there.
In 1843, his body was moved to the Laurel Hill Cemetery, also in Philadelphia.
McKean County, Pennsylvania is named in his honor, as is Thomas McKean High School in New Castle County, also McKean Street in Philadelphia, and the McKean Hall dormitory at the University of Delaware.
Penn State University also has a residence hall and a campus road named for him.
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.” 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.”
According to the 1911 record of events by the U.S. State Department, under Sec. Philander C. Knox, the Declaration was transposed on paper, adopted by the Continental Congress, and signed by John Hancock, President of the Congress, on July 4, 1776. Then on August 2, 1776, a parchment paper copy of the Declaration was signed by 56 persons. Many of these signers were not present when the original Declaration was adopted on July 4. One signer, Matthew Thornton, from New Hampshire, who agreed to the Declaration and having joined the Continental Congress, signed on November 4, 1776.
Historians have generally accepted Thomas McKean’s version of events, arguing that the famous signed version of the Declaration was created after July 19 and was not signed by Congress until August 2, 1776.
Now WE know em