Wife of Declaration of Independence Signer Thomas McKean
Artist: C. W Schreyleer
Mary Borden, born January 1, 1743, was the eldest daughter of Thomas Borden of Bordentown, New Jersey, a wealthy and public-spirited citizen, who was later to become an active patriot during the war of the Revolution. Mary Borden and her younger sister, Ann, were said to be the handsomest girls in New Jersey. Ann afterward married Francis Hopkinson, who also became a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas McKean was born March 19, 1734, the son of well-to-do Irish-American parents in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Thomas rose through the influence of his mother’s family. He was educated at the New London Academy and the school of Reverend Francis Allison in Philadelphia. At the age of 16, he studied law in the office of his cousin David Finney, a prominent attorney of Newcastle, Delaware. After being admitted to the Delaware bar in 1754, he also practiced law in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Ambitious and able, McKean soon became active in Delaware politics. He became deputy attorney general for Sussex County, and then sat in the Delaware Assembly from 1762-1779, was the assembly’s Speaker from 1772-73, while also serving as a judge and a customs collector.
In 1763, Thomas McKean married Mary Borden, and they lived at 22 The Strand in New Castle, Delaware. They became the parents of six children: Joseph, born 1754; Robert, born 1765; Elizabeth, born 1767; Letitia, born 1769; Mary, born 1771, died in childhood; Anne, born 1773.
Eighteenth century Delaware was politically divided into loose political factions known as the Court Party and the Country Party. The majority Court Party was generally Anglican, worked well with the colonial Proprietary government, and was in favor of reconciliation with the British government. The minority Country Party was largely Ulster-Scot, and quickly advocated independence from the British. McKean was the epitome of the Country party politician and was, as much as anyone, its leader.
When opposition arose to British policies, McKean represented Delaware at the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, where he stressed the rights of the Colonies and helped organize Delaware’s resistance to the Townshend Duties. McKean proposed the voting procedure that the Continental Congress later adopted: that each colony, regardless of size or population, had one vote.
Mary McKean lived only ten years after her marriage, not long enough to enjoy much of the success that came to her husband. She died on March 12, 1773, at the age of thirty, leaving two sons and four daughters, the youngest of whom was only two weeks old. She was buried at Immanuel Episcopal Church in New Castle.
Sarah Armitage of Newcastle (born December 19, 1747) became the second wife of Thomas McKean on September 2, 1774. When Thomas and Sarah moved to Philadelphia on the eve of the American Revolution in 1774, they established a home at Third and Pine Streets. Their first child, a son, died in infancy; they subsequently had a son, Thomas Jr., born 1779; and three daughters: Sarah, born 1777; Sophia Dorothea, born 1783; and Maria Louisa, born 1785.
After their wedding, McKean moved from Delaware to Philadelphia, in order to further his legal practice and also to facilitate his involvement in the independence movement as a member of the Continental Congress and otherwise. As McKean entered into Pennsylvania politics, he continued to hold political offices in Delaware. In fact, he played an important role in the writing of state constitutions for both Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Thomas McKean was the only member who served in the Continental Congress from its beginning in 1774 until the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on September 3, 1783. During the Congressional session of 1776, he was a member of the committee to state the rights of the colonies, as well as a member of the secret committee to contract for the importation of arms. He was also selected to prepare and digest the draft of the Articles of Confederation to be entered into between the colonies.
McKean led the effort in the General Assembly of Delaware to declare its separation from the British government, which it did on June 15, 1776. Then, in August, he was elected to the special convention to draft a new state constitution. McKean made the long ride to Dover, Delaware, from Philadelphia in a single day, went to a room in an Inn, and that night, virtually by himself, drafted the document. It was adopted September 20, 1776. The Delaware Constitution of 1776 thus became the first state constitution to be produced after the Declaration of Independence.
The Delaware delegates to the Continental Congress were Thomas McKean, George Read, and Caesar Rodney. When Congress began debating a resolution of independence in June 1776, Caesar Rodney was absent. George Read was against independence, which meant that the Delaware delegation was split between McKean and Read, and therefore could not vote in favor of independence. McKean requested that the absent Rodney ride all night from Dover to break the tie. After the vote for independence on July 2, McKean participated in the debate over the wording of the official Declaration of Independence, which was approved on July 4, 1776.
Thomas McKean’s Signature
On the Declaration of Independence
There is a serious question as to when McKean actually signed the Declaration. He certainly did not do this in August, and although he claimed in old age that he attached his name some time in 1776, it did not appear on the printed copy that was authenticated on January 17, 1777, and it is assumed that he signed after that date.
The Delaware Constitution of 1776 provided for the first executives of the independent state of Delaware. They were known as Presidents rather than Governors, as they were to preside rather than govern. In keeping with the general reaction to the perceived excessive executive authority of the British, the Delaware General Assembly dominated the government. Accordingly, they elected the President and their legislation became law with or without his approval. Thomas McKean was appointed by the Assembly as Delaware’s first president.
While acting in 1777 in the double capacity of president of Delaware and Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, he describes himself in a letter to his friend John Adams, dated November 8, 1779:
I have had my full share of the anxieties, cares, and troubles of the present war. For some time I was obliged to act as President of Delaware State, and as chief justice of this (Pennsylvania). General Howe had just landed (August 1777) at the head of Elk River, when I undertook to discharge these two important trusts.
The consequence was, to be hunted like a fox by the enemy, and envied, by those who ought to have been my friends. I was compelled to remove my family five times in a few months, and at last fixed them in a little log house on the banks of the Susquehanna, more than a hundred miles from this place; but safety was not to be found there, for they were soon obliged to move again on account of the incursions of the Indians.
A few days after Thomas McKean cast his vote for Independence, he left the Continental Congress to serve as colonel in command of the Fourth Battalion of the Pennsylvania Associators, a militia unit created by Benjamin Franklin in 1747. They joined General Washington at Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Therefore, McKean was not available when most of the signers placed their signatures on the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776. Since his signature did not appear on the printed copy that was authenticated on January 17, 1777, it is assumed that he signed after that date, possibly as late as 1781.
In a conservative reaction against the advocates of American independence, the 1776-77 Delaware General Assembly did not re-elect either McKean or Caesar Rodney to the Continental Congress in October 1776. However, the British occupation following the Battle of Brandywine swung opinions enough that McKean was returned to Congress in October 1777.
In July of 1777, McKean began his twenty-two years as chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, steering a moderate course, and working for the successful 1787 ratification of the Federal Constitution. He also occupied a seat in the Delaware legislature until 1799.
As a delegate to the Continental Congress, Thomas McKean was present when the Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1, 1781. By virtue of this ratification, the ever fluid Continental Congress ceased to exist; on March 2, “The United States in Congress Assembled” was placed at the head of each page of the Official Journal of Congress. The United States of America, which was conceived on July 2, 1776, was finally born in 1781.
Poor health caused Samuel Huntington to resign as President of the Continental Congress. Congress put off electing a new President until July 1781, in the hope that Huntington would recover. On July 10, Thomas McKean was elected as the second President of the United States in Congress Assembled, and was the first to be elected under the Articles of Confederation. McKean served from July 10, 1781, until November 4, 1781; during that time, Lord Cornwallis’s British army surrendered at Yorktown, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.
After 1783, when his congressional service ended, McKean focused his political activities in Pennsylvania. In 1787, he was instrumental in that State’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In the State constitutional convention of 1789-90, he demonstrated mistrust of popular government.
McKean and His Son
This 1787 portrait by Charles Willson Peale depicts Pennsylvania Chief Justice Thomas McKean with his son, Thomas McKean, Jr.
In the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1789-1790, McKean argued for a strong executive and was at that time a Federalist. But in 1796, dissatisfied with Federalist domestic policies and compromises with England, he became an outspoken Jeffersonian Republican. McKean defeated the Federalists’ nominee, James Ross, for governor in 1799, and began ousting Federalists from state government positions; he easily defeated Ross again in 1802.
However, in seeking a third term in 1805, McKean was at odds with factions of his own Republican Party, and the General Assembly instead nominated Speaker Simon Snyder. Governor McKean forged an alliance with the Federalists who were called “the Quids,” and defeated Snyder. Afterwards, he began removing Republicans from state positions.
The governor’s beliefs in strong executive and judicial powers were bitterly denounced by the influential Aurora newspaper publisher, William Duane, and the Philadelphia populist Dr. Michael Leib. After they led public attacks calling for impeachment, McKean filed a partially successful libel suit against Duane in 1805. When the suit was settled after McKean left office, his son Joseph angrily criticized Duane’s attorney for alleging out of context that McKean referred to the people of Pennsylvania as “Clodpoles.”
The House of Representatives voted to impeach the governor in 1807, but his friends prevented a trial for the rest of his term and the matter was dropped. Some of McKean’s accomplishments while in office included expanding free education for all and leading a Philadelphia citizens group to organize a strong defense during the War of 1812, at the age of eighty.
McKean lived out his life quietly in Philadelphia, writing, discussing political affairs, and enjoying the considerable wealth he had earned through investments and real estate.
Thomas McKean died in Philadelphia on June 24, 1817, at the age of eighy-three, survived by his second wife and four of the eleven children from his two marriages. He was buried in the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery there. In 1843, his body was moved Laurel Hill Cemetery, also in Philadelphia.
Sarah Armitage McKean died on May 6, 1820, at the age of 72.
Thomas McKean was over six feet tall, always wore a large cocked hat and carried a gold-headed cane. He was a man of quick temper and vigorous personality, “with a thin face, hawk’s nose and hot eyes.” He was known for a “lofty and often tactless manner that antagonized many people,” as well as for being “cold, proud and vain.” Some thought “his popularity with his clients was difficult to understand.
He seldom mixed with people except on public occasions. Many people found his company insufferable. Still others concluded that he attracted so much business because people simply had confidence in his integrity and impressive credentials.” 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.”
Thomas McKean Grave
McKean Family Vault
Laurel Hill Cemetery