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Suspected of Independence

Thomas McKean was America's first political operator—a man who installed himself at the center of every major political event of his time. In an extraordinary career that spanned almost half a century, McKean represented Pennsylvania and Delaware to the Stamp Act Congress and both Continental Congresses, and was instrumental in the creation of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

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He was one of the first to lobby for independence from British rule, the last to sign the Declaration of Independence, and was briefly the second President of Congress while George Washington was away. For twenty-two years, he served as chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, during which time his rulings would set the precedent for what was to become the American legal system.


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He was elected Governor of Pennsylvania three times, during which time he fostered a tradition of partisanship in his government. Although lesser known than his friends at different times—John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson—McKean was among the most prominent of the Founding Fathers, and the only one to serve in all three branches of government.

But McKean was also a difficult, arrogant man whose political beliefs seemed to his adversaries to be expediently flexible. Although lesser known than his friends at different timesand ;John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jeffersonand ;McKean was among the most prominent of the Founding Fathers, and the only one to serve in all three branches of government.

Suspected of Independence: The Life of Thomas McKean, America’s First Power Broker

But McKean was also a difficult, arrogant man whose political beliefs seemed to his adversaries to be expediently flexible. In the s, when the bulk of McKeanand ;s constituency in Pennsylvania consisted of radical farmers and artisans who favored political participation regardless of property ownership and independenceand ;and so McKean did too. It was on this platform he quickly rose to become a populist leader with mass appeal.


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As political parties began to emerge in the decades following independence, Thomas McKean, like many others, grew increasingly partisan, and fervently believed that political loyalty should play as important a role as competence in both the selection and removal of public servants.

John Adams wrote that the early Founding Father, his colleague in the Continental Congress, was the one of the few and ;to see more clearly to the end of the business than any others in the whole body. The last signatory to the Declaration of Independence was one of the earliest to sign up for the Revolution: Thomas McKean lived a radical, boisterous, politically intriguing life and was one of the most influential and enduring of America s Founding Fathers.

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Present at almost all of the signature moments on the road to American nationhood, from the first Continental Congress onward, Thomas McKean was a colonel in the Continental Army; president of the Continental Congress; governor of Pennsylvania; and, perhaps most importantly, chief justice of the new country s most influential state, Pennsylvania, a foundational influence on American law. His life uniquely intersected with the many centers of power in the still-formative country during its most vulnerable years, and shows the degree of uncertainty that characterized newly independent America, unsure of its future or its identity.

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