Historical Markers
Thomas McKean [New Nation] Historical Marker
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Thomas McKean [New Nation]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
PA 896, NW of PA 841, Franklin Twp., NW of Strickersville

Dedication Date:
October 26, 1974

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas of McKean seated, wearing a formal suit and powered wig. His son sits next to him, wearing a green velvet suit with a laced collar.
Governor Thomas McKean and Son, by Charles Willson Peale, 1787.
A man of tremendous energy, Thomas McKean easily won the trust of others, and devoted his life to his country's service. The first man to be elected president of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, he was also one of Pennsylvania's key supporters of the new federal constitution of 1787. Even among the founding fathers, his political career was exceptional, for he held public office for more than fifty years before, during, and after the American Revolution.

The son of Scotch-Irish immigrants, McKean was born on March 19, 1734 at New London in Chester County. Educated by the Reverend Francis Allison at New Castle, Delaware, he studied law, and then pursued a career in politics. Admitted to the bar before he turned twenty-one, McKean quickly moved through a succession of offices, including deputy attorney general of Sussex County, clerk of the Pennsylvania assembly and, beginning in 1762, as a member of the state assembly, where he served for seventeen successive years.
To the electors of Pennsylvania. Take your choice! Thomas M'Kean - or - James Ross ... [1799]. Election Broadside, 1799.
To the electors of Pennsylvania. Take your choice! Thomas M'Kean - or - James...

When the Delaware Assembly in 1774 appointed him as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, McKean was notary of the lower counties of Delaware, judge of the court of common pleas and of the orphans' court of New Castle, and a widower raising six children on his own. McKean would be the only member of the Congress to serve from its opening in 1774 through the peace in 1781. During those years he also served as chief justice of Pennsylvania (1777-1779), and as a member of the Delaware Assembly (1774-1779).

These multiple responsibilities took their toll on his personal life, especially when Congress was forced from Philadelphia into exile during the war. "I am hunted like a fox by the enemy," McKean wrote to his close friend and fellow member of Congress John Adams in 1777. "I am compelled to remove my family five times in three months, and at last fixed them in a little log house on the banks of the Susquehanna, but they were soon obliged to move again on account of the incursions of the Indians."

When North Carolina delegate Samuel Johnson declined Congress's invitation to be its president on July 9, 1781, it elected McKean in his place. While president of Congress, he continued to serve as chief justice of Pennsylvania. Although he was not a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he did serve as chairman of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention in 1789. McKean had supported Pennsylvania's radical state constitution of 1776, but he quickly renounced his support after experiencing how it minimized the powers of the judiciary and made his job as chief justice more difficult.
Oil on canvas of James Ross.
James Ross, by Thomas Sully, 1813.
At the state constitutional convention of 1789, McKean joined markerThomas Mifflin,markerJames Wilson and other Federalists who wanted Pennsylvania to have a stronger governor, more independent judiciary, and a senate.

The 1789, convention included men of great political experiences on both sides. Anti-federalist defenders of the 1776 state constitution included markerRobert Whitehill, John Smiley, markerWilliam Findley, and markerAlbert Gallatin. Using the new United States Constitution as a model, the Federalists carried the day, modifying the 1776 constitution to meet local needs. Taking effect on August 9, 1790, the new Pennsylvania state constitution provided for a powerful governor elected by the people for a three-year term, a bi-cameral legislature, and a bill of rights that guaranteed religious and civil liberty. It also expanded the franchise, granting the right to vote to all male citizens over twenty-one who paid taxes.

McKean, however, would not join the national Federalist Party. Like Pennsylvania senator markerWilliam Maclay, he soon became a Jeffersonian Republican, supporting the French Revolution and the state authority that he feared the Federalists were undermining. Running on the Republican Party ticket, he was elected in 1799 Pennsylvania's governor, his victory over Federalist James Ross insured by Pennsylvania German voters angered by the new federal tax of 1798 and military suppression of the marker"Fries Rebellion" tax resisters in southeastern Pennsylvania.

An ardent Jeffersonian, McKean let it be known in 1800 that he would send the Pennsylvania militia to install Jefferson in the White House if for some reason the Electoral College favored John Adams, despite voters overwhelming rejection of the Federalist Party in state and national elections that year. (The Pennsylvania legislature, divided between a Federalist Senate and Republican Assembly, was unable to decide which candidate should receive the state's electoral votes. When Jefferson's election was finally secure, they compromised, casting seven votes for Adams and eight for Jefferson.)
Oil on canvas of Simon Snyder.
Simon Snyder, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1808-1817.
McKean ignored the fact that Adams would have been elected if white voters in the slave states did not - as guaranteed in the United States constitution - have 60 percent added to their representation for their slaves. For this reason, angry Federalists called Jefferson "the slave president."

McKean then outraged Pennsylvania Federalists by dismissing them from office, instituting a version of the "spoils system" that he urged President Jefferson to adopt. By his third term (1805-1808), however, McKean and his faction of the Democratic (or Jeffersonian Republican) party were supported by the Federalists and opposed by a coalition of mid-state and "radical" Philadelphia Democrats. McKean won the election of 1805, 43,644 votes to 38,438 over Simon Snyder, but his opponents gave him no rest. Impeached by his opponents in the state assembly and attacked in the senate - his protection of Federalist judges and state financing of economic development were extremely controversial - he survived his term, and then retired.

Like Thomas Jefferson, McKean was not hesitant to use state, as opposed to Federal judicial power, to silence his opponents. Also, like Jefferson, once in office, he realized that a smoothly functioning government required the assumption of powers that he formerly denounced as oppressive and illegal. McKean retired to his home in Philadelphia and private life following his governorship, where he died on June 24, 1817.
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