In 1776, Thomas McKean was one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence; and although this is a large feat, his career ran much deeper than that one event. McKean received his Law Degree at the age of 21 and was appointed to his first political office in 1756 as the deputy Attorney General for Sussex county in Pennsylvania. In October 1762, he was elected to the Delaware Assembly where he served until 1779. He was also a member of Congress from 1774 to 1783. During his time in Congress he saved Benjamin Franklin from removal as American representative to France, signed the Articles of Confederation, held the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania position for 22 years and briefly served as the President of Congress in 1781.
During the Pennsylvania constitutional convention in 1789, McKean played an important role in the creation of a new, more conservative state constitution for Pennsylvania. Clearly a popular move, he was elected the 2nd Governor of Pennsylvania one year later representing the Federalist party. Political enemies tried to impeach him, but were unable to prove any wrong-doing on his part. He retired in 1812 after being re-elected as a popular Governor for nine years. McKean died at the age of 83 in 1817.
Former President 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.” Recognition of McKean’s growing stature in the colonies began in 1763 when he received an honorary MA degree from the College of Pennsylvania and in 1766, the Governor of New Jersey admitted McKean to practice law in any of the New Jersey courts on the recommendation of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1768, a distinguished intellectual society founded by Benjamin Franklin. He also later received honorary LLD degrees from Princeton, Dartmouth and Pennsylvania.
McKean is an exemplar example of how far political engagement can be carried by one man. One can hardly believe the number of simultaneous offices and duties this man performed during his career. He served three states, often performing duties in two or more jurisdictions, even while actively in federal office.
Pictured below is a letter penned by McKean at the age of 82 to his grandson just after the birth of his son, who is Thomas’ first and only great-grandson. He also shares some tender counsel about the principles he found in his many years of life that lead to success.
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