Of Scotch-Irish ancestry, McKean was born in 1734. He was the second son of a farmer-tavernkeeper who lived in New London Township, in Chester County, Pa., near the New Jersey and Delaware boundaries. After studying for 7 years at Rev. Francis Alison's academy at nearby New London, McKean read law with a cousin at New Castle, Del. In 1754, at the age of 20, he was admitted to the Delaware bar and soon expanded his practice into Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
During the next two and a half decades, McKean occupied an array of appointive and elective offices in Delaware, some simultaneously: high sheriff of Kent County; militia captain; trustee of the loan office of New Castle County; customs collector and judge at New Castle; deputy attorney general of Sussex County; chief notary officer for the province; and clerk (1757-59) and member (1762-79) of the legislature, including the speakership of the lower house (1772-73). In 1762, he had also helped compile the colony's laws.
McKean's Revolutionary tendencies had first revealed themselves during the Stamp Act (1765) controversy. He was one of the most vociferous of the delegates at the Stamp Act Congress. In 1774, a year after the death of his wife, whom he had wed in 1763, he remarried and established his home in Philadelphia. He nevertheless retained membership in the Delaware legislature, which that same year elected him to the Continental Congress. Except for the period December 1776-January 1778, when conservative opposition unseated him, he stayed there until 1783 and served as President for a few months in 1781. He played a key role in the Revolutionary program, at the same time fostering the establishment of governments in Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Furthermore, it was McKean who was responsible for breaking the Delaware tie in the congressional vote for independence. On July 1, 1776, date of the first vote, the two Delaware representatives present, McKean and George Read, deadlocked. McKean, who had balloted affirmatively, dispatched an urgent message to the third Delegate, Caesar Rodney, who was at his home near Dover, Del., on military matters, to rush to Philadelphia. Rodney, making an 80-mile horseback ride through a storm, arrived just in time to swing Delaware over to independence on July 2.
During the hiatus in his congressional career, from late 1776 until early in 1778, McKean had remained in the lower house of the Delaware legislature, of which he became speaker once again. In that capacity, in September-November 1777, he temporarily replaced the president of Delaware, whom the British had captured. In vain they also pursued McKean, who was forced to move his family several times. Meantime, in July, he had been appointed chief justice of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, a position he was to hold for 22 years.
After 1783, when his congressional service ended, McKean focused his political activities in Pennsylvania. As a Federalist, 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. During the 1790's, disenchanted with Federalist foreign policy, he switched to the Democratic-Republicans.
While Governor for three terms (1799-1808), McKean was the storm center of violent partisan warfare. Although he exercised strong leadership and advanced education and internal improvements, his imperiousness infuriated the Federalists, alienated many members of his own party, and resulted in an attempt to impeach him. Especially controversial were his rigid employment of the spoils system, including the appointment of friends and relatives, and his refusal to call a convention to revise the constitution. As a result, he won reelection only with the support of members of both parties who opposed the revision.
McKean lived out his life quietly in Philadelphia. He died in 1817 at the age of 83, survived by his second wife and four of the 11 children from his two marriages. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery. His substantial estate consisted of stocks, bonds, and huge tracts of land in Pennsylvania.
Drawing: Oil, 1797, by Charles Willson Peale, Independence National Historical Park.
Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004