Founding Fathers Friday: Thomas McKean

by Derrick G. Jeter

Thomas McKean seemed to be a man in search of a state. At one point in his life he served as the governor of one state (Delaware) while also sitting on the bench as chief justice of another state (Pennsylvania), and in fact, was living in Pennsylvania when Delaware elected him as a representative to the Continental Congress.
In Delaware, McKean was also a man in search of a career. Trained as an attorney, he served the state as a sheriff, militia captain, notary officer, loan office trustee, customs collector, judge, and deputy attorney general. Eventually, he would serve as the speaker of the Delaware legislature and as governor.
Of course the real question is how did a resident of Philadelphia get elected to represent the state of Delaware? Well, McKean, when he lived in Delaware, lived in what was then called the “lower counties on the Delaware.” When William Penn secured a royal charter for the colony of Pennsylvania the territory of Delaware was included. But in 1691, the “lower three counties on the Delaware” became dissatisfied with certain proceedings of the Executive Council and withdrew from Pennsylvania. Penn didn’t fight the succession, but did appoint a deputy governor over them. The next year, the provincial government was taken away from Penn and placed in the hands of the royal governor of New York, who rejoined the lower counties to Pennsylvania. These counties, now known as the “Territory of the Three Lower Counties on the Delaware,” remained a part of Pennsylvania until 1776, but it still retained a separate legislature of its own. And because McKean was a resident in one of these lower counties he was rightful claimed by bother Pennsylvania and Delaware. So, instead of saying that McKean was a man in search of a state, it may be more accurate to say that a state was in search of McKean.
As interesting as the geographical and representative factoid may be, the really interesting question about McKean’s story is, “When did he sign the Declaration of Independence?” McKean claimed, just before he died in 1817, at the age of eighty-three, that he had signed the Declaration in the presence of Congress sometime in 1776. Well . . . no he didn’t. The official version of the Declaration—the engrossed document—was released by Congress in January 1777, and McKean’s signature is noticeably absent. Shortly after casting his vote on July 2, 1776, McKean led a militia group, the Pennsylvania Associators, to New York to assist George Washington. And when August 2 rolled around, when the majority of Congress was in Philadelphia signing the Declaration, McKean was away at war.
To make matters more complicated for McKean, in getting back to Philadelphia to sign the engrossed document, was his fugitive lifestyle after hostilities with Britain broke out. In 1779, McKean wrote to John Adams that he and his family were being “hunted like a fox by the enemy—compelled to move my family five times in a few months, and at least fixed them in a little log house on the banks of the Susquehanna . . . and they were soon obliged to move again on account of the incursions of the Indians.”
A few years latter, in 1781, McKean did spend settled time Philadelphia while serving as president of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, holding the title: “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” McKean could have signed the Declaration during this time (and probably did)—five years after the fact, making him the last man to put pen to parchment.
As the founders grew older the myth of July 4, 1776, as the day of the signing began to take hold in the American psyche, thanks in no small part to the writings of three biggies: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. This peeved the cantankerous McKean because the myth threatened to put him outside the doors of Independence Hall, marking him a non-player in the most momentous event in American history. McKean wrote a statement—posthumously published—calling Tom’s, Ben’s, and John’s claim, well . . . a bunch of bunk—no one signed the Declaration on July 4 save John Hancock, the president of Congress, and Charles Thomson, the secretary. Besides, at least seven signers weren’t even elected to the Continental Congress until after July 4.
In 1819, two years after McKean’s death and statement debunking the July 4, 1776, signing myth, a seventy-six year old Jefferson poop-pooped McKean’s historic memory: “Mr. McKean was very old, and his memory much decayed when he gave his statement.” That may have been, but McKean’s memory wasn’t as decayed as Jefferson’s, for history knows that Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration on August 2, 1776, even if Thomas McKean didn’t.
So, when did McKean sign? It’s anybody’s guess, but most likely sometime between 1777 and 1781.