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Thomas McKean: Life History and Achievements

Thomas McKean: Life History and Achievements explores the remarkable journey of one of the signatories of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. From his early life to his significant contributions in shaping the United States, this article offers a glimpse into the captivating story of Thomas McKean. Discover the fascinating life history of this influential figure, his outstanding achievements, and the success philosophies that guided his path towards shaping the nation.

Early Life and Education

Childhood and Family

Thomas McKean was born on March 19, 1734, in New London, Pennsylvania. He was the son of William McKean, a farmer and tavern keeper, and Letitia Finney. McKean’s family had Scottish and Irish roots, and he grew up in a large and close-knit household with several siblings. His parents instilled in him a strong work ethic and a sense of civic duty, which would shape his future endeavors.


McKean received his early education at the New London Academy before attending the Latin School in Philadelphia. He proved to be an exceptional student, displaying a natural aptitude for languages, history, and philosophy. McKean’s love for learning and intellectual pursuits continued throughout his life, and he would later become an advocate for education and knowledge as key pillars of a thriving society.

Legal Career and Political Beginnings

Studying Law

After completing his basic education, McKean pursued a legal career by studying under prominent attorneys in Delaware and Pennsylvania. He developed a deep understanding of the law and honed his skills in legal research and argumentation. McKean’s dedication and commitment to excellence earned him a reputation for being meticulous and thorough in his legal practice.

Political Activism

In addition to his legal pursuits, McKean became increasingly involved in politics. He strongly opposed the Stamp Act in 1765 and actively participated in protests against British taxation policies. McKean’s passion for political activism stemmed from his belief in the principles of liberty and self-determination. As a result of his involvement in the resistance movement, he quickly gained recognition as a charismatic and influential leader.

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Revolutionary War and Independence

Supporting the Revolution

McKean wholeheartedly supported the Revolutionary War and actively contributed to the cause of American independence. He served on several committees that worked towards organizing the colonial resistance and promoting unity among the colonies. McKean’s legal expertise proved invaluable during this time, as he helped draft legislation and legal arguments that bolstered the Revolutionary cause.

Delaware’s State Constitution

In 1776, McKean played a pivotal role in drafting Delaware’s first state constitution. He fought passionately for the inclusion of democratic principles and individual rights, which became fundamental aspects of the state’s governing document. His tireless efforts resulted in a constitution that served as a model for the subsequent state constitutions and influenced the formation of the federal Constitution.

Signing the Declaration of Independence

McKean’s commitment to American independence reached its pinnacle on August 2, 1776, when he signed the Declaration of Independence as a representative of Delaware. His signature on this iconic document solidified his dedication to the principles of liberty and self-governance. McKean’s participation in this historic event would forever cement his place in American history.

Continental Congress and Political Career

Delegate to the Continental Congress

From 1774 to 1783, McKean served as a delegate to the Continental Congress. His keen legal mind and persuasive oratory skills made him an influential member of the assembly. McKean actively contributed to important debates and played a key role in shaping national policy during this critical period in American history.

Serving as President of Congress

In 1781, McKean was elected as the President of Congress, the highest office in the Continental Congress at that time. As President, he presided over numerous sessions, ensuring decorum and fairness in deliberations. McKean’s leadership and diplomatic skills helped maintain unity among the diverse group of delegates and advance the cause of independence.

Chief Justice of Pennsylvania

Appointment and Duties

In 1777, McKean was appointed as the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, a position he held for over twenty years. As Chief Justice, he played a crucial role in establishing legal precedents and shaping the state’s judicial system. McKean’s firm belief in the importance of an impartial judiciary and the rule of law guided his decisions and earned him respect as a fair and principled jurist.

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Legal Opinions and Cases

During his tenure as Chief Justice, McKean delivered numerous landmark opinions and rulings that set legal precedents and shaped the development of American jurisprudence. His decisions were known for their thoroughness and attention to detail. McKean’s commitment to justice and fairness ensured that individuals’ rights were protected and that the principles of the American legal system were upheld.

Governor of Pennsylvania

Election and Policies

In 1799, McKean’s political career reached another milestone when he was elected as the Governor of Pennsylvania. During his tenure, he prioritized promoting economic growth and infrastructure development. McKean implemented policies that encouraged trade and industry, leading to increased prosperity for the state. Furthermore, he advocated for educational reforms and supported expanding access to education for all citizens.

Challenges and Accomplishments

As Governor, McKean faced various challenges, including political opposition and economic disruptions. However, his resilience and sound leadership abilities allowed him to navigate these obstacles successfully. He introduced reforms to improve the state’s judicial system, modernize the penal system, and promote agricultural advancements. Under his leadership, Pennsylvania experienced significant progress and set an example for other states to follow.

Later Life and Legacy

Retirement from Politics

After concluding his term as Governor, McKean retired from active politics but continued to engage in public service in various capacities. He remained an influential figure, offering guidance and advice to younger generations of politicians and leaders. McKean’s retirement was marked by a continued commitment to the principles of liberty and justice that had guided his entire career.

Personal Life and Family

Throughout his life, McKean was a devoted family man. He married Mary Borden in 1763, and together they had six children. Despite the demands of his political and legal career, he always made time for his family and ensured they received a good education and moral upbringing. McKean’s personal relationships and his commitment to his family played a significant role in shaping his values and philosophies.

Recognition and Honors

Thomas McKean’s contributions to the American Revolution and his dedicated service to his state garnered him lasting recognition and honors. His name is forever associated with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a testament to his unwavering commitment to American independence. McKean’s achievements and legacy continue to be celebrated, serving as an inspiration to future generations of leaders and activists.

Contributions to American Jurisprudence

Legal Principles and Precedents

McKean’s impact on American jurisprudence cannot be overstated. Through his legal opinions and rulings, he established key principles that became integral to the American legal system. His commitment to individual rights, due process, and the rule of law helped shape the legal framework upon which the nation was built.

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McKean’s Influence on the Judicial System

As Chief Justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, McKean played a crucial role in shaping the state’s judicial system. His emphasis on an impartial judiciary and rigorous legal analysis set a standard for judges to follow. McKean’s influence extended beyond Pennsylvania, as his opinions and rulings were often cited as authoritative sources in legal cases throughout the country. His legacy as a jurist continues to influence the American judicial system to this day.

Views on Slavery and Civil Rights

McKean’s Stance on Slavery

Thomas McKean held strong views against slavery and was an early advocate for its abolition. He recognized the inherent contradictions between the ideals of the American Revolution and the institution of slavery. McKean spoke out against the practice and actively promoted legislation that aimed to limit or end slavery. His belief in the equality of all individuals informed his stance on this contentious issue.

Advocacy for Civil Rights

In addition to his opposition to slavery, McKean was a vocal advocate for civil rights. He believed in the importance of equal treatment and equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of their background or social status. McKean fought for the protection of individual freedoms and worked towards eliminating discriminatory practices. His advocacy for civil rights was rooted in the principles of justice and fairness that guided his entire career.

Personal Traits and Philosophies

Character and Personality

Thomas McKean was known for his intelligence, charisma, and unwavering dedication to his principles. He possessed a sharp wit and a keen intellect, which enabled him to be an effective communicator and leader. McKean’s resilience and tenacity were evident in his pursuit of justice and the advancement of American independence. His integrity and moral compass made him a trusted figure among his peers and the public.

Political and Social Beliefs

McKean’s political and social beliefs were rooted in the principles of republicanism and individual liberty. He firmly believed in a government that derived its legitimacy from the consent of the governed and sought to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals. McKean emphasized the importance of education and an informed citizenry in maintaining a thriving democracy. He believed that active citizen participation was essential for the success and preservation of a free society.

In summary, Thomas McKean’s remarkable life and achievements exemplify the ideals of American independence, justice, and democracy. From his early activism in the Revolutionary War to his contributions as a legal scholar and politician, McKean’s unwavering commitment to the principles of freedom and equality shaped the course of American history. His contributions to American jurisprudence, his advocacy for civil rights, and his personal traits continue to serve as an inspiration to future generations. Thomas McKean will forever be remembered as a Founding Father who played a vital role in shaping the United States of America.