242 years ago 56 men signed a document that made them traitors. This incredibly brave and reckless act changed humanity. We take their ultimate success as a fact of history. For them it was far less certain. Not all of them lived. All of them suffered. All of them fought. And victory was ultimately theirs.
If I can manage to remember, every year we’ll take a look at one of these men and reflect upon their lives.
Thomas McKean – Delaware
Son of a tavern keeper whose parents immigrated from Northern Ireland. He was a lawyer at age 21 and already on the move. Like many of his contemporaries he bridged the gap between the law and politics. In many cases he held jobs in both camps at the same time.
County attorney general, general assembly representative, judge, and ultimately assembly speaker were just some of the titles he held. He married at 32 and spent ten years with Mary and had six children with her until her early death.
Often forgotten is that the Revolution was as much as civil war as anything else. McKean was a member of the pro-independence faction of Delaware and spent many years prior to 1776 in the political fencing act with his neighbors who were pro-British. He remarried in 1774 to Sarah and had four more children. I would gather he ultimately had a hard time remembering his grandchildren’s names.
As early as 1765 he is already an openly active member of political organizations dedicated to resisting the power of the British crown. During the crucial years came in 1774-1776 he’s one of the most fervent speakers pushing for Independence.
Immediately after his 1776 Independence vote at Congress he assumed command as colonel of a regiment of militia. And so bizarrely it’s believed he didn’t actually sign the Declaration in 1776. It’s thought he signed it many years later as one of the original voting members was permitted to do so.
He spends most of the war in Congress and is it’s leader at the time of the surrender at Yorktown. He also began service as chief justice of Pennsylvania in 1777 and would hold that title for twenty years. Apparently back then you could be the ranking judge of one state, represent another in Congress, and lead Congress, all at the same time. I don’t think any of our jobs are hard by comparison.
He played a key role in the subsequent creation and signing of the Constitution. By 1799 he settles down for the rest of his life not in Delaware but Pennsylvania and serves three terms as governor there. He had a rocky time as state boss.
He seems to have had such a fervent view of things that he frequently quarreled even with friends and was known for his temper. Yet maybe that was what was needed during those chaotic times of change?
John Adams said of him: “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.”