Thomas McKean, The “Last” Signer of the Declaration of Independence


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The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence tells us something of Thomas McKean’s lineage, “The McKean family ancestry shows an interesting progression, from Scotland to Ireland to America. Thomas McKean’s great-great-great grandfather, William McKean, of Argyleshire, Scotland sought refuge in Ireland in the late 1600s because of religious and political persecution. His son, John McKean, a loyal defender of Londonderry in 1668-1669, died at Ballymony, Ireland. Thomas McKean’s grandfather, William McKean, came with his wife Susannah and family from Londonderry and Ballymony in 1725, and settled on a 300 acre plantation in Chester County.”

Thomas McKean (19 Mar. 1734 – 24 June 1817) was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the son of William McKean, an innkeeper and farmer, and Letitia Finney. He studied at Francis Alison’s  New London Academy (1742-1750), then left to study law (1750-1754) with his cousin David Finney of New Castle, Delaware. He joined the Delaware bar in 1754 and expanded his practice into Pennsylvania (1755) and New Jersey (1765). Following his admittance to practice before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1757, he gained admission to the Society of the Middle Temple in London as a specialiter, which permitted him to earn certification in 1758 as a barrister without attending.

“McKean’s ability and drive brought him numerous appointments, including deputy prothonotary and recorder for the probate of wills for New Castle County (1752), deputy attorney general (1756), trustee of the New Castle Loan Office (1764-1772), justice of the peace (1765), and despite his criticism of English policies, collector of customs for New Castle (1771). A proponent of public education, he acted as a sponsor of the New London Academy, became a trustee of the Newark Academy, and in 1779 served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania. McKean was a longtime member of the Society for Promotion of Agriculture, the American Philosophical Society (which he served as a counselor), and the Order of the Cincinnati. To provide relief for needy Irish immigrants he helped found the Hibernian Society (1790) and served as its president. (American National Biography Online)

“By the time he reached his majority Thomas McKean was over six feet tall. Frequently he was see wearing a large cocked hat, fashionable at the time and was never without his gold-headed cane. It is said that he had a quick temper and a vigorous personality. He had a thin face, hawk’s nose and his eyes would be described by some as ‘hot’. Some wondered at his popularity with his clients as he was known for a “lofty and often tactless manner that antagonized many people”. He tended to be, what some might describe as a loner, seldom mixing with others except on public occasions. 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.’

“Both as Chief Justice and later as Governor of Pennsylvania he could be found at the center of a number of controversies. Not wanting to be over burdened with his studies Thomas on December 28, 1757 elected to join the Richard Williams company of foot. He would later rise to the rank of Colonel in the militia. At this time most officer ranks were voted on by the individual militia members and not necessarily by military accomplishments.” (Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)

McKean married twice. First he exchanged vows with Mary Borden of Bordentown, New Jersey, in 1763. Together they had six children before her death a decade later. (Yes, that is six children in ten years!)  McKean’s second marriage was to Sarah Armitage of New Castle County (1774). With Sarah, he sired five children. In 1773, McKean moved to Philadelphia. There, he was named to the Committee of Inspection and Observation (1776), colonel of the City’s Fourth Battalion of Associators, and president of the Provincial Conference called to lay the groundwork for a state constitutional convention (18-25 June 1776).

An important Presbyterian voice in the opposition to English policies after 1763, McKean represented Delaware in the Stamp Act Congress (1765), where he argued for a strong statement of American rights. He carried out judicial proceedings on unstamped paper while serving as a county judge, and he encouraged others to do likewise. “McKean also helped to orchestrate Delaware’s resistance to the Townshend Duties (1767-1769) and served in the First and Second Continental Congresses. In the months before independence he sat on five standing congressional committees, including the important Secret Committee. He served in Congress from 1774 to 1783. There he saved Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) from removal as American representative to France (1779), signed the Articles of Confederation (1781), and briefly acted as its president (1781).

“McKean embraced the radical position early. On 10 June 1776 he and his battalion of associators announced publicly that they favored independence. And it was he who on 14 June placed before the Delaware Assembly an official copy of Congress’s 10-15 May resolve and successfully urged its acceptance and the suspension of the proprietary government. In Congress on 1 July 1776 McKean voted for independence; but finding Delaware’s vote split between his positive vote and George Read’s negative position, he urgently sent for the absent Rodney, who arrived on 2 July to cast Delaware’s deciding vote for independence. McKean then participated in the discussion and acceptance of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence on 4 July. (In later years he correctly disputed the growing assumption that delegates had signed the Declaration on 4 July. When McKean himself signed the Declaration remains a matter of debate. It doubtless was sometime in 1777, but it could have been as late as 1781.) McKean chaired a meeting on 5 July to discuss common strategy for the defense of the middle states and means to correlate congressional and state military efforts before accompanying his battalion to Perth Amboy, where it saw limited action.” (American National Biography Online)

225px-ThomasMcKean2During the last day of the First Continental Congress, several members of the body refused to sign the memorial of rights and grievances. McKean rose to ask President, Timothy Ruggles why the man refused to sign the document. In the ensuing debate, Ruggles said, “… it was against his conscious.” McKean argued against Ruggles’ use of the word ‘conscious’. McKean then issued a challenge to Ruggles, and a duel was accepted and witnessed by the whole body. However, no duel ever took place as Ruggles left early the next morning. A disgraced Ruggles fled to Massachusetts where he became a leading Tory. He later moved to Nova Scotia.

After the war, McKean served as governor of Delaware, while serving as a chief justice in Pennsylvania. There was controversy regarding his actual signing of the Declaration of Independence. Some sources list McKean as the last signer, claiming he did not sign until right before he died at the age of 83. The official version of the Declaration (released in 1777) does not include his name. Some historians believe he did not sign the document until 1781. 

One of McKean’s descendants writes, “But there is contrary evidence. The original copy of the document was deposited with the Delaware secretary of state but when the printed copy was released, McKean’s signature was found to be missing, in both the 1777 and 1800 editions. I would now like to refer you, good reader, to a letter written in Thomas McKean’s own hand to Mr. Alexander J. Dallas of Pennsylvania. The letter is dated 26th September, 1796 and was subsequently published in ‘Sanderson’s Lives’. I quote in part-

images“My name is not in the printed journals of congress, as a party to the Declaration of Independence, as this, like an error in the first concoction, has vitiated most of the subsequent publications; and yet the fact is, that I was a member of congress for the state of Delaware, was personally present in congress, and voted in favor of independence on the 4th of July 1776, and signed the declaration after it had been engrossed on parchment, where my name, in my own hand writing, still appears. It continues, ‘… that on the 19th day of July, 1776, the congress directed that it should be engrossed on parchment, and signed by every member, and that it was so produced on the 2nd of August, and signed. This is interlined in the secret journal, in the hand of Charles Thompson, the secretary. The present secretary of state of the United States, and myself, have lately inspected the journals, and seen this. The journal was first printed by Mr. John Dunlap, in 1778, and probably copies, with the names then signed to it, were printed in August, 1776, and that Mr. Dunlap printed the names from one of them. In this, McKean seems to have been mistaken, since most historians believe that only 50 delegates signed the Declaration on August 2, with documented evidence that the remaining six signed in the months following, and is so stated in the history of the period by the National Archives.” (Thomas McKean)

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In Signing Their Lives Away, Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnest (page 147) write, “Further complicating McKean’s case was the fact that Rhomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams all referred to July 4 as the day of the signing, cementing that day into the national psyche. In a posthumously published statement, McKean in effect said: No one signed the Declaration on July 4, 1776. If you do your homework, you’ll discover that at least seven of the signers were not even elected to Congress until after July 4, 1776. Shockingly, in 1819, seventy-six-year-old Jefferson dismissed McKean’s claims that no one signed on the fourth, writing ‘Mr. McKean was very old, and his memory much decayed when he gave his statement.’ Ironically, historians today say they are more persuaded by McKean’s statement than by Jefferson’s.”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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1 Response to Thomas McKean, The “Last” Signer of the Declaration of Independence

  1. caleb McKean says:

    How come in the thomas McKean papers it has acquisition information relating to thomas McKean junior allegedly give the papers to thomas McKean the third yet no third is of record? Thomas Franklin McKean 1799-1831 (legal irish burial under census) and Elizabeth Winterrowd(Betsy wintroud) 1799-1882 John Anderson McKean 1829-1876. All other direct males buried in Colorado to present day and hard to find.

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