SUSPECTED OF INDEPENDENCE: THE LIFE OF THOMAS McKEAN, AMERICA’S FIRST POWER BROKER
By David McKean
Public Affairs, $27.99, 278 pages
There are many ways of looking at Thomas McKean, a longtime Pennsylvania chief justice and governor, short-term militia officer in the American Revolution, signer of the Declaration of Independence and a president of the Continental Congress. Depending on your perspective, he was an able, versatile patriot, an arrogant, politically erratic “fixer” mixing public service with petty self-interest, or America’s first walking argument for term limits.
Whatever your opinion, you’ll find plenty to back it up in David McKean’s conscientious and highly readable new biography of a man who, though neglected by most historians, played a major supporting role in our early history. Author David McKean happens to be a direct descendant of subject Thomas McKean; family loyalty is evident at times, but he is generally objective about a man who was very much a mixed bag of good and bad qualities. Thomas McKean filled the role of Founding Fixer, a busy, string-pulling, behind-the-scenes operator who knew all the big names among the Founders but never quite made the cut himself. As the author confesses: “Although he had a very different temperament, he reminded me of another character I had already written about: Tommy Corcoran — a political fixer whose career spanned the Roosevelt to Reagan eras. Corcoran was one of the most interesting American political figures of the twentieth century … widely underestimated. I wondered whether history had accorded to McKean a similar fate …”
As a senior State Department official, the author’s biography of his ancestor had to be a part-time effort. There are moments when it shows. To cite two rather obvious errors, his opening chronology tells us that the Stamp Act passed by the Parliament in 1763, was “designed to raise 60 [pounds] annually in the colonies.” Even allowing for 250 years of inflation, this is surely a drastic understatement if not a glaring typo. Similarly, a few pages later we are informed that in October of 1777, “General John Burgoyne captures Ticonderoga in a stunning victory for the Continental Army.” Actually, British Gen. Burgoyne’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga, considerably earlier, was a major victory for the Crown. It was his subsequent surrender after the twin battles of Saratoga that comprised the stunning American victory.
Previous passing references to Thomas McKean I had encountered over the years always reminded me of “Zelig,” one of Woody Allen’s more amusing movies released in 1983. In it, the eponymous character, played by Allen, morphs his way through countless 20th century historical episodes without making any original contributions himself. A self-made man born of poor Scots-Irish parents — his father was a drunken tavern keeper, which obviously cut into any business profits — McKean studied law under a more affluent cousin and was soon cutting a figure in both courthouse and politics. As with many ambitious attorneys-turned-politicians then and now, financial success just happened to follow political success. Starting with nothing, McKean would die a wealthy landowner and the proud possessor of one of Philadelphia’s finest mansions, which he acquired for a song as “distressed property” from an original owner accused of Tory sympathies.
His more celebrated fellow Founders seemed to look on McKean as a sometimes useful operative without holding him in particularly high regard. A letter to incoming President George Washington expressing an eagerness to join his administration went unanswered. Having switched sides to the Jeffersonians in 1796, his efforts on behalf of the Sage of Monticello — which included threatening, as governor of Pennsylvania, to raise an army and occupy Washington if the deadlocked 1800 election were thrown to the House of Representatives and Jefferson constitutionally denied the presidency — again resulted in no appointment to national office. For whatever reason, this hard-drinking, long-winded and rather meddlesome man, who was also a shrewd and prudent judge when his personal interests were not at stake, never quite managed to pass the political smell test when it came to qualifying for a cherished seat on the Supreme Court or the post of attorney general.
Still, if not worth admiring, Thomas McKean is certainly worth remembering. In the words of his biographer, he was “a Founding Father with a skill set instantly recognizable in modern political times, a wily, determined political operative who never seemed to doubt his own centrality to the major events of the day. And, in fairness, perhaps he had a point: he was present at many of them, played a vital role, and rarely lived on the sidelines during the formative decades of the world’s newest republic.”
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.