Thomas McKean

Thomas McKean
2nd President of the United States
in Congress Assembled
July 10, 1781 to November 5, 1781

McKEAN, Thomas, signer of the Declaration of Independence, born in New London, Chester County, Pennsylvania, 19 March, 1734; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 24 June, 1817. His parents were both natives of Ireland. The son was educated by the Reverend Francis Allison, who was at that time a celebrated teacher of New Castle, Delaware. McKean was of Scots-Irish stock and was a man of vigorous personality, “with a thin face, hawk’s nose and hot eyes.” McKean had important family connections there and he wasted no time pursuing a career in politics. He was admitted to the bar before he was twenty-one, appointed deputy attorney general of Sussex county a year later, and in 1757-‘9 was clerk of the assembly. With Caesar Rodney he became in 1762 reviser of laws that had been passed previous to 1752, and in October of this year was elected to the general assembly, holding office for seventeen successive years, during the last of which he resided in Philadelphia.

He was a trustee of the loan-office of New Castle county for twelve years, and in 1765 was elected to the Stamp-act congress. Had the votes in this body been taken according to the population of the states that were represented, that of Delaware would have been insignificant, but, through the influence of McKean, each state was given an equal voice, fie was one of the most influential members of this congress, was one of the committee that drew the memorial to the lords and commons, and, with John Rutledge and Philip Livingston, revised its proceedings. On the last day of its session, when business was concluded, after Timothy Ruggles, the president of the body, and a few other timid members, had refused to sign the memorial of rights and grievances, McKean arose, and, address-log the chair, insisted that the president give his reasons for his refusal. After a pause Ruggles remarked that “it was against his conscience.” McKean then rung the changes on the word “conscience” so loudly and so long that a challenge was given and accepted between himself and Ruggles in the presence of the congress, but Ruggles left the next morning at daybreak, so that the duel did not take place.

In July of this year McKean was appointed sole notary of the lower counties of Delaware and judge of the court of common pleas, and of the orphans’ court of New Castle. In the November term of this year he ordered that all the proceedings of this court be recorded on un-stamped paper, and this was the first court in the colonies that established such a rule. He was collector of the port of New Castle in 1771, speaker of the house of representatives in 1772, and from 1774 a member of the Continental congress.

In September, 1774, he had just married his second wife, Sarah Armitage of New Castle. His first wife, Mary Borden, the daughter of Joseph Borden of Bordentown, New Jersey, and sister of the wife of Francis Hopkinson, had died in 1773, leaving him with six children. He would father five more children with his second wife.

He was the only member that served in congress from its 1774 opening till the peace, and while he represented Delaware till 1783, and was its president in 1781, he was chief justice of Pennsylvania from July, 1777, till 1799, each state claiming him as its own, and until 1779 he also occupied a seat in the Delaware legislature. During the session of congress in 1776 he was one of the committee to state the rights of the colonies, one of the secret committee to contract for the importation of arms, and of that to prepare and digest the form of the Articles of Confederation to be entered into between the colonies, which he signed on the part of Delaware, and he superintended the finances and a variety of important measures.

At the Second Congress, McKean was a true fighter for independence. Since the Stamp Act of 1765 he had opposed British rule. He believed that the crown had “no right to regulate American affairs in any way”. In June, 1776, McKean returned to Delaware and gained authority for its delegates to vote for independence. Although particularly active in procuring the Declaration, to which his name is subscribed in the original instrument, he does not, through a mistake on the part of the printer, appear as a subscriber in the copy published in the journal of congress. A few days after McKean cast his vote, he left Congress to command a battalion of troops to assist Washington at Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He was not available when most Signers placed their signatures on the Declaration on August 2, 1776. There is considerable 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.

In July, 1776, he was chairman of the delegates from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and in the same year chairman of the Pennsylvania committees of safety and inspection and the Philadelphia committee of observation. A few days after signing the Declaration of independence he marched at the head of a battalion to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, to re-enforce General Washington until the arrival of the flying camp. On his return to Dover he found a committee awaiting him to urge him to prepare the constitution of the state, which he drew up on the night of his arrival, and which was unanimously adopted by the assembly the next day.

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 intimate friend, John Adams, as “hunted like a fox by the enemy, 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.”

As a delegate to the Continental Congress he 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 and on March 2nd “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 had finally been born in 1781 under the Presidency of Samuel Huntington.

By May of 1781, President Huntington’s health began to fail. Huntington, despite the pleadings of the delegates tendered his resignation as President on July 6, 1781. The United States in Congress Assembled Journals reported:

“The President having informed the United States in Congress assembled, that his ill state of health” … not permit him to continue longer in the exercise of the duties of that office”.

Congress held off electing a new President until July 10th in the hope that Huntington would recover and reconsider. On July 10th Delegate Thomas McKean was elected as the second President of the United States in Congress Assembled and was first to be elected under the Articles of Confederation as President Huntington assumed the position as the former President of the Continental Congress.

McKean was president of congress in 1781, and in that capacity received Washington’s dispatches announcing the surrender of Cornwallis.

So revered was this office by Thomas McKean (Signer of the Declaration of Independence) that the Presidency was used to turn down his party’s 1804 nomination for Vice President under Thomas Jefferson saying:

“… President of the United States in Congress Assembled in the year of 1781 (a proud year for Americans) equaled any merit or pretensions of mine and cannot now be increased by the office of Vice President.”

Although McKean’s tenure as US President was the most brief it was a eventful period in US History beginning with the duly elected President of the United States in Congress Assembled declining the office: