Thomas McKean - (1734 - 1817)


Thomas McKean Biography



Thomas M'Kean was the second son of William M'Kean, a native of Ireland, who sometime after his emigration to America, was married to an Irish lady, with whom he settled in the township of New-London, county of Chester, and the province of Pennsylvania, where Thomas was born, on the nineteenth of March, 1734.

At the age of nine years, he was placed under the care of the learned Dr. Allison, who was himself from Ireland, and of whose celebrated institution at New-London, we have already had occasion to speak, in terms of high commendation. Besides an unusually accurate and profound acquaintance with the Latin and Greek classics, Dr. Allison was well informed in moral philosophy, history, and general literature To his zeal for the diffusion of knowledge, Pennsylvania owes much of that taste for solid learning and classical literature, for which many of her principal characters have been so distinguished.

Under the instructions of this distinguished scholar, young M'Kean 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, in Delaware. Before he had attained the age of twenty-one years, he commenced the practice of law, in the courts of common pleas for the counties of Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex, and also in the supreme court. His industry and talents soon became known, and secured to him a respectable share of business. In 1756, he was admitted to practice in the courts of the city and county of Philadelphia. In the following year he was admitted to the bar of the supreme court in Pennsylvania. In tile same year the house of assembly elected him as their clerk, and in the following year he was reappointed to the same station.

Mr. M'Kean was as yet a young man, but at this early age, he occupied an enviable rank among men of maturer years. He had held several offices of distinction, and by his industry and assiduity, his judgment and ability, he gave promise of his future eminence.

The political career of Mr. M'Kean commenced in the year 1762, at which time he was returned a member of the assembly from the county of Newcastle, which county he continued to represent in that capacity for several successive years, although the last six years of that period he spent in Philadelphia. In 1779, Mr. M'Kean appeared at Newcastle on the day of the general election in Delaware, and after a long and eloquent speech addressed to his constituents, he requested the privilege of being considered no longer one of their candidates for the state legislature. Most unexpectedly he was now placed in a peculiarly delicate situation. His constituents, although unwilling to dispense with his services in the assembly, consented to comply with his wishes; but at the same time requested him to nominate certain gentlemen, whom they should consider as candidates for the next general assembly. This was conferring on Mr. M'Kean an honour which must have been highly flattering. It was a mark of confidence in his judgment, without a parallel within our recollection. To a compliance with this request, Mr. M'Kean delicately gave his refusal; but, it being repeated, he delivered, with much reluctance, to the committee who waited upon him, the names of seven gentlemen, who were all elected with great unanimity.

We have had frequent occasion, in these biographical notices, to speak of the congress which assembled in New-York in 1765, usually called the stamp act congress, its object being to obtain relief of the British government from the grievances generally under which the colonies were suffering, and of the stamp act in particular. Of that illustrious body Mr. M'Kean was a member, from the counties of Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex, on the Delaware. Of the proceedings of this first American congress, little has been known, or can probably be collected, except from their general declaration of rights, and their address to the king, and petitions to parliament. Yet it is known, that in that congress, there were some who were distinguished for great energy and boldness of character. Among those of this description was James Otis of Boston, who, as Caesar Rodney afterwards said, "displayed that light and knowledge of the interest of America, which, shining like a sun, lit up those stars which shone on this subject afterwards." In original firmness and energy, Mr. M'Kean was probably not greatly inferior to Mr. Otis. His independent conduct, on the last day of the session of the above congress, reflects the highest honour upon him, and deserves a special notice in every history of his life.

A few of the members of this body appeared not only timid, but were suspected of hostility to the measures which had been adopted. Among these, was Timothy Ruggles, a representative from the province of Massachusetts, who had been elected president of the congress in preference to James Otis, by only a single vote. In conclusion of the business, and when the members were called upon to sign the proceedings, Mr. Ruggles, with a few others, refused to affix their signatures.

At this moment, Mr. M'Kean rose, and with great dignity, but with deep feeling, addressing himself to the president, requested him to assign his reasons, for refusing to sign the petitions. The president refused, on the ground that he was not bound in duty to state the cause of his objections. So uncourteous a refusal, especially as unanimity and harmony had prevailed during the session, called forth a rejoinder from Mr. M'Kean, in which he pressed upon the president the importance of an explanation. At length, after a considerable pause, Mr. Ruggles observed, that it was "against his conscience." "Conscience!" exclaimed Mr. M'Kean, as he rose from his seat, "conscience!" and he rung changes on the word so long and so loud, that at length the president, in a moment of irritation, gave Mr. M'Kean, in the presence of the whole congress, a challenge to fight him, which was instantly accepted. The president, however, had no more courage to fight than to sign the proceedings of congress; and the next morning he was seen wending his way through the streets of New-York, towards the province of Massachusetts, the legislature of which, not long after, ordered him to be reprimanded.

The only other member of the congress of 1765, who refused to sign the petitions, was Mr. Robert Ogden, at that time speaker of the house of assembly of New-Jersey. This gentleman, Mr. M'Kean strongly solicited in private to adopt a bold and manly course, by affixing his signature to the proceedings of the congress. Arguments, however, were in vain; yet he was reluctant that his constituents in New-Jersey should become acquainted with his refusal. It was, however, communicated to them. The people of New-Jersey, justly indignant at his conduct, burnt his effigy in several towns, and on the meeting of the general assembly, he was removed from the office of speaker. As Mr. M'Kean, in passing through New-Jersey, had without hesitation, when asked communicated the course which Mr. Ogden had taken, the latter gentleman, it is said, threatened him with a challenge which, however, ended much as had the precipitate challenge of the president from Massachusetts.

We must necessarily pass over several years of the life of Mr. M'Kean, during which he was engaged in various public employments. A short time before the meeting of the congress of 1774, Mr. M'Kean took up his permanent residence in the city of Philadelphia. The people of the lower counties on the Delaware were anxious that he should represent them in that body, and he was accordingly elected as their delegate. On the 3rd of September, he took his seat in that august assemblage. From this time, until the 1st of February, 1783, he continued annually to be elected a member of the great national council, a period of eight years and a half. This was the only instance, it is said, in which any gentleman was continued a member of congress, from 1774, to the signing of the preliminaries of peace in 1783. It is also worthy of notice, that at the same time he represented the state of Delaware in congress, he was president of it in 1781, and from July, 1777, was tile chief justice of Pennsylvania. Such an instance of the same gentleman being claimed as a citizen of two states, and holding high official stations in both at the same time, is believed to be without a parallel in the history of our country.

As a member of congress, Mr. M'Kean was distinguished for his comprehensive views of the subjects which occupied the deliberation of that body, and for the firmness and decision which marked his conduct on all questions of great national importance. On the 12th of June, 1776, he was appointed, in connexion with several others, a committee to prepare and digest the form of a confederation between the colonies. This committee reported a draught the same day; but it was not finally agreed to until the 15th of November, 1777, nor was it signed by a majority of the representatives of the respective colonies, until the 9th of July, 1778, Even at this latter date, New-Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, had not authorized their delegates to ratify and sign the instrument. But, in the November following, New-Jersey acceded to the confederation, and on the 22d of February, 1779, Mr. M'Kean signed it in behalf of Delaware. Maryland ratified the act of union in March, 1781.

On the great question of a declaration of independence. Mr. M'Kean was, from the first, decidedly in favour of the measure, lie subscribed his name to the original instrument deposited in the office of the secretary of state, but it was omitted in the copy published in the journals of congress. This omission it is now impossible satisfactorily to explain The following letter on the subject, addressed by Mr. M'Kean to Mr. Dallas of Pennsylvania, on the 26th of September, 1796, will, it is believed, be thought a valuable document:

"Sir,
"Your favour of the 19th instant, respecting the Declaration of Independence, should not have remained so long unanswered, if the duties of my office of chief justice had not engrossed my whole attention, while the court was sitting.

"For several years past, I have been taught to think less unfavourably of scepticism than formerly. So many things have been misrepresented, misstated, and erroneously printed, (with seeming authenticity,) under my own eye, as in my opinion' to render those who doubt of every thing, not altogether inexcusable: The publication of the Declaration of Independence, on the 4th of July, 1776, as printed in the second volume of the Journals of Congress, page 241; and also in the acts of most public bodies since, so far as respects the names of the delegates or deputies, who made that Declaration, has led to the above reflection. By the printed publications referred to, it would appear, as if the fifty-five gentlemen, whose names are there printed, and none other, were on that day personally present in congress, and assenting to the Declaration; whereas, the truth is otherwise. The following gentleman were not members of congress on the 4th of July, 1776; namely, Matthew Thornton, Benjamin Rush, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, and George Ross. The five last named were not chosen delegates until the 20th day of the month; the first, not until the 12th day of September following, nor did he take his seat in congress, until the 4th of November, which was four months after. The journals of Congress, (vol. ii. page 277 and 442.) as well as those of the assembly of the state of Pennsylvania, (p. 53.) and of the general assembly of New-Hampshire, establish these facts. Although the six gentleman named had been very active in the American cause, and some of them, to my own knowledge, warmly in favour of independence, previous to the day on which it was declared, yet I personally know that none of them were in congress on that day.

"Modesty should not rob any man of his just honour, when by that honour, his modesty cannot be offended. My name is not in the printed journals of congress, as a party to the Declaration of Independence, and this, like an error in the first concoction, has vitiated most of the subsequent publications; and yet the fact is, that I was then a member of congress for the state of Delaware, was personally present in congress, and voted in favour 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. Henry Misner, of the state of New-York, was also in congress, and voted for independence. I do not know how the misstatement in the printed journal has happened. The manuscript public journal has no names annexed to the Declaration of Independence, nor has the secret journal; but it appears by the latter, 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.

"I have now, sir, given you a true, though brief, history of this affair; and, as you are engaged in publishing a new edition of the Laws of Pennsylvania, I am obliged to you for affording the favourable opportunity of conveying to you this information, authorizing you to make any use of it you please.

"I am," &c.

In the life of Mr. Rodney, we have had occasion to remark that Mr. M'Kean and Mr. Read voted in opposition to each other, when the question of independence was put in committee of the whole, on the 1st of July. Delaware was thus divided. As it was improbable, in the estimation of Mr. M'Kean, that the views of Mr. Read would undergo a favourable change before the final question should be taken, he became exceedingly anxious that Mr. Rodney, who he knew was in favour of the declaration, should be present. At his private expense he dispatched an express into Delaware to acquaint Mr. Rodney with the delicate posture of affairs, and to urge him to hasten his return to Philadelphia. Fortunately, by an exertion which patriotism only could have prompted him to make, that gentleman arrived in Philadelphia, just as the members were entering the door of the state house, at the final discussion of the subject. Without even an opportunity of consulting Mr. M'Kean, on the momentous question before them, he entered the hall with his spurs on his boots. Scarcely had he taken his seat, before the report of the chairman of the committee of the whole was read, soon after which the great question was put. Mr. M'Kean and Mr. Rodney voted in favour on the part of Delaware, and thus contributed to that unanimity among the colonies, on this great subject, without which a declaration had been worse than in vain.

At the time congress passed the declaration of independence, the situation of Washington and his army, in New-Jersey was exceedingly precarious. On the 5th of July, it was agreed by several public committees in Philadelphia, to dispatch all the associated militia of the state to the assistance of Washington, where they were to continue, until ten thousand men could be raised to relieve them. Mr. M'Kean was at this time colonel of a regiment of associated militia. A few days following the declaration of independence, he was on his way to Perth Amboy, in New-Jersey, .at the head of his battalion. In a letter, dated at head quarters, Perth Amboy, July 26th, 1776, he describes the narrow escape which he had in executing an order of the commander-in-chief, which required him to march his battalion into the town. Having put his troops in motion, under Lieutenant Colonel Dean, he mounted his horse, and proceeded to wait upon the general for more particular orders. At this time, the enemy's batteries were playing along the road which it was necessary for him to take. Amidst balls, which were flying in every direction around him, he proceeded to the general's head quarters. An order had just been issued to prevent the battalion from proceeding into the town. It became necessary, therefore, for him to follow them, in order to stop them. As he turned to execute the order, a horse at a short distance from him was shot through the neck by a cannon ball, and such was the incessant discharge from the enemy's batteries along the road, over which he passed, that it appeared impossible that he should escape. A merciful providence, however, protected him on his return. He executed his Order, and safely marched his troops to the camp.

The associate militia being at length discharged, Mr. M'Kean returned to Philadelphia, and was present in his seat in congress on the second of August, when the engrossed copy of the declaration of independence was signed by the members. A few days after this, receiving intelligence of his having been elected a member of the convention in Delaware, assembled for the purpose of forming a constitution for that state, he departed for Dover, which place he reached in a single day. Although excessively fatigued, on his arrival, at the request of a committee of gentlemen of the convention, he retired to his room in the public inn, where he was employed the whole night in preparing a constitution for the future government of the state. This he did without the least assistance, and even without the aid of a book. At ten o'clock the next morning it was presented to the convention, by whom it was unanimously adopted.

In the year 1777, Mr. M'Kean was appointed president of the state of Delaware, and on the twenty-eighth of July of the same year, he received from the supreme executive council the commission of chief justice of Pennsylvania. The duties of this latter station he continued to discharge for twenty-two years. At the time of his accepting the commission, he was speaker of the house of assembly, president of Delaware, as already noticed, and member of congress.

The duties of so many offices pressed with too much weight upon Mr. M'Kean, and he found himself compelled to offer his resignation, in 1780, to the people of Delaware, as their delegate to congress. They were, however, unwilling to dispense with his services, and he continued still to represent the state in the national council. In July of the following year, on the resignation of Samuel Huntington, he was elected president of congress, a station which he found it necessary in the following October to relinquish, as the duties of it interfered with the exercise of his office of chief justice of Pennsylvania. On accepting his resignation, it was resolved: "that the thanks of congress be given to the honourable Thomas M'Kean, late president of congress, in testimony of their approbation of his conduct in the chair, and in the execution of public business."

We must here devote a paragraph to speak of Mr. M'Kean, in the exercise of his judicial functions. As a judge, he had few equals, in this, or any other country. At this time the law of the state of Pennsylvania was in a great measure unsettled. It devolved upon him to reduce it to a system. His decisions were remarkably accurate, and often profound. He was distinguished for great perspicuity of language, for au easy and perfectly intelligible explication of even intricate and difficult cases. In his manners, while presiding, to a proper affability, he united great dignity. In short, few men while living have acquired a higher reputation than did chief justice M'Kean, and few have enjoyed, after death, a greater share of judicial fame.

In the year 1788, an attempt was made to impeach the conduct of Mr. M'Kean, as chief justice. The ground of accusation arose from the following circumstance. Eleazer Oswald, in a column of a paper of which he was editor, attempted to prejudice the minds of the people, in a cause then in court, in which he was defendant; at the same time casting highly improper reflections upon the judges. In consideration of this contempt of court, the judges inflicted a fine upon Oswald of ten pounds, and directed him to be imprisoned for the space of one month, that is, from the fifteenth day of July to the fifteenth day of August. At the expiration of twenty eight days, a legal month, Oswald claimed his discharge. The sheriff, upon this, consulted Mr. M'Kean, who not knowing that the sentence was entered upon the record "for the space of one month," without the explanatory clause, directed the sheriff to detain the prisoner until the morning of the fifteenth of August. Finding his mistake, however, he directed Oswald to be discharged; but as he had been detained beyond the time specified in the sentence, he presented a memorial to the general assembly, complaining of the chief justice, and demanding his impeachment. After a discussion of the subject by the assembly for several days, and a long examination of witnesses, it was at length resolved: "that this house, having, in a committee of the whole, gone into a full examination of the charges exhibited by Eleazer Oswald, of arbitrary and oppressive proceedings in the justices of the supreme court, against the said Eleazer Oswald, arc of the opinion, that the charges are unsupported by the testimony adduced, and, consequently, that there is no just cause for impeaching the said justices."

Of the convention of Pennsylvania, which was assembled on the twentieth of November, 1787, to ratify the constitution of the United States, Mr. M'Kean was delegated a member from the city of Philadelphia. In this convention, Mr. M'Kean and Mr. Wilson, of the latter of whom we have spoken in a former biographical sketch, took the lead. On the twenty-sixth of this month, the former submitted the following motion:

"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, held at Philadelphia."

On a subsequent day, he entered at length into the merits of the constitution, which he demonstrated in the most masterly manner, and triumphantly answered the various objections which had been urged against it. In the conclusion of this eloquent speech, he used the following language:

"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.

"I congratulate you On the fair prospect of its being adopted, and am happy in the expectation of seeing accomplished, what has been long my ardent wish&0151;that you will hereafter have a salutary permanency in magistracy, and stability in the laws."

In the following year, the legislature of Pennsylvania took measures for calling a convention, to consider in what respects their state constitution required alteration and amendment. This convention commenced its session on the 24th of November, 1789; Mr. M'Kean appeared and took his seat as a delegate from the city of Philadelphia. When the convention resolved itself into a committee of the whole, on the subject of altering or amending the constitution, he was appointed chairman. During the whole of the deliberations, he presided with great dignity and ability, for which he received the unanimous thanks of the convention. In 1779, Mr. M'Kean was elected to the chief magistracy of the state of Pennsylvania. His competitor at this time, was the able and distinguished James Ross. Mr. M'Kean belonged to the politics of Mr. Jefferson, to whose elevation to the presidency of the United States, his election is supposed to have powerfully contributed. The administration of Mr. M'Kean was marked with ability, and with ultimate benefit to the state; yet the numerous removals from office of his political opponents, produced great excitement in the state, and, perhaps, upon the whole, betrayed, on his part, an unjustifiable degree of political asperity.

During the years 1807 and 1808, through the influence of a number of the citizens of the city and county of Philadelphia, an inquiry was instituted by the legislature into the official conduct of Governor M'Kean. The committee appointed for this purpose reported to the legislature:

I. "That the governor did, premeditatedly, wantonly, unjustly, and contrary to the true intent and meaning of the constitution, render void the late election, (in 1806,) of a sheriff in the city and county of Philadelphia.

II. "That he usurped a judicial authority, in issuing a warrant for the arrest and imprisonment of Joseph Cabrera; and interfered in favour of a convict for forgery, in defiance of the law, and contrary to the wholesome regulations of the prison in Philadelphia, and the safety of the citizens.

III. "That, contrary to the true intent and meaning of the constitution, and in violation of it, did he appoint Dr. George Buchanan lazaretto physician of the port of Philadelphia.

IV. "That, under a precedent, acknowledged to have been derived from the king of Great Britain, and contrary to the express letter of the constitution, did he suffer his name to be stamped upon blank patents, warrants on the treasury, and other official papers, and that, too, out of his presence.

V. "That, contrary to law, did he supersede Dr. James Reynolds as a member of the board of health.

VI. "That, contrary to the obligations of duty, and the injunctions of the constitution, did he offer and authorize overtures to be made to discontinue two actions of the commonwealth against William Duane and his surety, for an alleged forfeiture of two recognizances of one thousand dollars each, on condition that William Duane would discontinue civil actions against his son Joseph B. M'Kean, and others, for damages for a murderous assault, committed by Joseph M'Kean, and others, on William Duane."

This report the committee followed by affixing the following resolution:

"Resolved, That Thomas M'Kean, governor of this commonwealth, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors."

On the twenty-seventh of January, the house proceeded to the consideration of the above resolution, and on the same day indefinitely postponed the further consideration of the subject.

Although this attempt to impeach the governor was thus unsuccessful, the following day he presented to the house a reply to the charges which had been exhibited against him by the committee of inquiry. After being read, a motion was made to insert it at large on the journal, which, at length, was carried in the affirmative.

In the course of this reply, which contained, in the view of temperate men, a triumphant vindication of his character, Mr. M'Kean observed as follows: "That I may have erred in judgment; that I may have been mistaken in my general views of public policy; and that I may have been deceived by the objects of executive confidence, or benevolence--I am not so vain nor so credulous as to deny; though, in the present instance, I am still without the proof and without the belief; but the firm and fearless position which I take, invites the strictest scrutiny, upon a fair exposition of our constitution and laws, into the sincerity and truth of the general answer given to my accusers--that no act of my public life was ever done from a corrupt motive, nor without a deliberate opinion that the act was lawful and proper in itself."

At the close of the year 1808, Mr. M'Kean, having occupied the chair of state during the constitutional period of nine years, retired from the cares of a long life to the enjoyment of a peaceful retirement, rendered doubly grateful by the consciousness of a well earned and honourable fame. In the enjoyment of this retirement, he 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.

SOURCE: Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich


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