Federalist McKean


Federalist Thomas McKean

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The special attention should be paid to the role played by Thomas McKean is the acceptance of the Constitution of the United States.  As a Federalist, Thomas McKean forced an immediate decision rather than open discussion.  Constitutionalist John Smilie, however, was suspicious of McKean’s aspirations.  McKean did not always say what he meant, however, he has always pledged himself to vote for unconditional ratification, regardless of the debate (Ireland 1995). Smilie opposed the hurry in decision stating that “it is our duty to go coolly… into consideration of this business” (Ireland 1995, p. 73).

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McKean believed that debating the Constitution in the committee of the whole and then debating it again in the convention would provide the opponents of ratification with an opportunity to build their case with the public.  Moreover, the Federalists suspected that the Anti-federalists planned to use the informality of the committee to modify or amend the document.  Anti-Federalist Whitehill requested that the convention allow individual members to enter into the official record the reasons for their negative votes. 

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Notably, Thomas McKean argued that a bill of rights “though it can do no harm” was “an unnecessary instrument” (Ireland 1995, p. 81).  Smilie pointed out, however, that the body of the document should not be suspended or infringed.  If the framers thought it necessary to list two rights (namely writ of habeas corpus and trial by jury in criminal cases), then all rights ought to be listed. Otherwise, those not specified would be assumed to be abrogated. Federalist Thomas Hartley then sought to put the Anti-Federalists on the defensive. A bill of rights might be desirable, he argued, but no group could agree on what to include: "while some are for this point, and others for that, it is now evidently impracticable to frame an instrument which will be satisfactory to the wishes of every man." McKean turned Hartley's taunt into a challenge: "I wish to see," he declared, "what kind of bill of rights these gentlemen would propose” (Ireland 1995, pp. 88-90).

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Personal and Professional Life

McKean's personal and professional life reflects his involvement in this Irish community. A third-generation Pennsylvanian, McKean's grandmother, Susanna, had settled in the heart of the Scots-Irish community in southwestern Chester. McKean's father, William, kept a tavern and married the daughter of a Scots-Irish immigrant neighbor.  In time, McKean found favor with the Proprietary interests, won a seat in the Delaware Assembly and went on to a rather distinguished political career (Munroe 1954). His limited success heightened his resentment, especially of the Anglican mercantile faction and landed interests that dominated Delaware before 1776.

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McKean's leadership in the revolutionary movement put him in the mainstream of Presbyterian behavior. His own pastor, the Reverend Joseph Montgomery vehemently denounced the British measures, and "Delaware Presbyterians increasingly looked to McKean as a spokesman in their cause" (Ireland 1995, p.211) In his new position of power, he struck vigorously at the Anglicans, charging that the ministers of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts were telling their parishioners that opposition to England was a plan of the Presbyterians to get their religion established.

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After independence, McKean, like most educated political observers, opposed the state's new system of government. He believed that stability and liberty came only from a balanced constitutional structure. By mid-1777, however, McKean decided that he could live with this constitutional innovation. He made peace with vice president George Bryan, became chief justice of the new state, and established a fierce reputation for hanging traitors. After 1777, McKean championed the state loyalty oaths, the execution of convicted Quaker collaborators, the destruction of the Anglican-controlled College of Philadelphia, and the erection of the Presbyterian-dominated University of Pennsylvania (Ireland 1995). In contrast to other Constitutionalists who hedged, McKean made an early and public commitment to ratification and represented Philadelphia at the state ratifying convention.

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A government of Delaware and Pennsylvania

McKean devoted his life to promoting separation from the British government.  Due to his enormous efforts and unlimited energy, the United States of America became an independent country on June 15th, 1776. In August of the same year, McKean was elected to the special convention to write a new Delaware state constitution.  It was the first state constitution ratified after the Declaration of Independence.  In addition, McKean was elected to the state first House of Assembly twice.  When President McKinley was imprisoned, McKean served as the President of Delaware.  At this time, the British Army occupied the northern part of the New Castle County.  The British navy gained control of the Delaware Bay and, as the result, the state capital was rather an unsafe place for meeting.  Nevertheless, McKean did not give up his post and continued recruiting a militia to keep order in the state. 

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In July 1776, McKean served chairman of the delegates from four states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware.  The same year, he also served Chairman of Pennsylvania committees of inspection, safety, and observation.  Upon his return to Dover, the committee urged McKean to prepare Constitution of Delaware.  Hoffecker (2004) noted that McKean drew up Constitution on the night of his arrival.  The next day, the newly drafted Constitution was unanimously adopted. 

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Similar achievements were accomplished by McKean in Pennsylvania.  McKean served as the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania for 22 years (from 1777 to 1799).  Historians refer to his service as revolutionary.  Coleman (1984) noted that McKean did more than any other American to establish an independent judiciary in the country.  For example, McKean considered a Pennsylvania constitution inadequate and rewritten it.  His judicial reforms included the augment of defendants’ rights; McKean sought penal reforms. Nevertheless, reorganization of the judiciary system did not include legal rights of women and abolition of slavery. 

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Thomas McKean was a Federalist, but he found himself dissatisfied with the Federalist domestic policies.  In particular, he did not support the compromising with the British.  Therefore, McKean joined nationalistic Jeffersonian Republicans.  The nationalistic ideology was welcomed by Pennsylvanians and McKean was elected to serve three terms as a Governor of the state.  McKean believed in a need to establish and maintain strong executive and judicial power.  Some of his achievements included expansion of the free education for all citizens.  Thus, he gave all citizens an opportunity to be educated in spite of their economic and social status.

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