This Day in History: Thomas McKean, President before Washington (sort of)
On this day in 1734, Thomas McKean is born. He was President of the United States before George Washington was! Well, sort of. McKean was a President under the Articles of Confederation, not the U.S. Constitution.But when George Washington won his victory at Yorktown, he reported it to McKean.
McKean held many positions during his life in public service—and he did so in two different states. He was a member of the Continental Congress (Delaware), President of Delaware, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, and Governor of Pennsylvania. He assisted in the writing of state constitutions for both Delaware and Pennsylvania.
A few stories provide a glimpse into the many contributions that the so-called “violent raging rebel McKean” made to our country.
First, McKean helped to ensure Delaware’s participation in the Stamp Act Congress. That body was created when Parliament approved the Stamp Act of 1765. The colonists were outraged by the new taxes! The slogan “no taxation without representation” soon came into being, and Massachusetts called for a special Congress to deliberate a colonial response to Parliament.
The move wasn’t without controversy. Governors in many colonies refused to call their legislatures into session; they wanted to undermine the effort and hoped to frustrate legislators’ ability to appoint delegates for such a Congress. At first, it seemed that Delaware might fall into this trap. The legislature was then adjourned and the proprietary governor seemed unlikely to help. But McKean and a few others devised a solution: Representatives from each county sent letters endorsing delegates that could represent Delaware in the Stamp Act Congress. Thus, delegates were appointed despite the fact that the colony’s legislature was not then in session.
McKean was one of those delegates.
McKean was a leader in other ways, too. He rallied support for boycotts when another controversial measure, the Townshend Acts, were approved by Parliament. He also ensured that Delaware voted for independence. When it appeared that Delaware’s vote might be deadlocked in the Continental Congress, he sent an urgent message to a missing delegate. That delegate, Caesar Rodney, rode 80 miles on horseback through a storm, despite being very ill. He arrived just in time to break the deadlock. Thus, all 13 colonies would end up approving our Declaration of Independence.
McKean’s time in Congress is also notable because of his service as President of that body. Was he thus a President of the United States, even before George Washington? The claim is sometimes made, but it’s problematic. McKean served as a President of the Confederation Congress under an entirely different Constitution than the one we have today. George Washington was the first President elected under the United States Constitution. He was also the first President elected to an independent, national, executive branch.
McKean might have been “only” a President of Congress, but this “violent raging rebel” is yet another Founder who deserves to be remembered.
Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence (2003)
G. S. Rowe, Thomas McKean and the Coming of the Revolution (The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography; Jan. 1972)
John M. Coleman, Thomas McKean, Forgotten Leader of the Revolution (1975)
Letter from George Washington to Thomas McKean (Oct. 19, 1781)
Nancy Capace, Encyclopedia of Delaware (2001)
PENN BIOGRAPHIES: Thomas McKean (1734-1817) (University of Pennsylvania website)
William P. Frank, Caesar Rodney, Patriot: Delaware’s Hero for All Times and All Seasons (1975)