April Highlight: Missing McKean

Research Highlights56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. Signing began on August 2, 1776, but not every delegate signed at that time. Virginia delegates George Wythe and Richard Henry Lee signed later in the fall. Elbridge Gerry and Oliver Wolcott signed later, as well. Matthew Thornton was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress long after July 4th, and petitioned to add his signature when he joined Congress in November. But one delegate in particular signed so much later than his peers that his name was left off the Goddard Broadside and the first editions of the Journals of the Continental Congress for 1776. Printers from 1777 through the beginning of the 19th century – particularly frequent printer of the Declaration, John Dunlap – had a will-they-won't-they relationship with McKean's name. Take a look at this complicated print legacy, surprising for a name so dedicated to the cause of independence.

Stone Facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, List of Signers

Signers of the Declaration as printed on the Goddard Broadside, 1777

Thomas McKean (1734-1817) was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, but moved to New Castle, Delaware with his first wife. He served both states over the course of his political and legal careers. Despite living in Philadelphia in the 1770s, McKean was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress from Delaware, alongside George Read and Caesar Rodney. Delaware's contingent played a crucial role in declaring independence. On July 1st, Rodney was absent from Congress, McKean was in favor of independence, and Read was against independence. McKean wrote to Rodney requesting his presence in Congress for the final vote, as he recounted in an 1813 letter to Rodney's nephew, Caesar A. Rodney:

On Monday the 1st. of July the question was taken in the committee of the whole when the State of Pennsylvania (represented by seven Gentlemen then present) voted agt. it. Delaware (having then only two Representatives present) was divided; all the other States voted in favor of it. Whereupon, without delay I sent an Express (at my private expense) for your honored Uncle Caesar Rodney Esquire, the remaining member for Delaware, whom I met at the State-house door, in his boots and spurs, as the members were assembling; after a friendly salutation (without a word on the business) we went into the Hall of Congress together and found we were among the latest: proceedings immediately commenced, and after a few minutes the great question was put; when the vote for Delaware was called your uncle arose and said: As I believe the voice of my constituents and of all sensible and honest men is in favor of Independence and my own judgment concurs with them, I vote for Independence, or in words to the same effect."

Thomas McKean, Portrait by Charles Willson Peale

McKean left Philadelphia just after July 4th for Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where he served as colonel of the Fourth Battalion of the Pennsylvania Associators. McKean was not reelected to the Continental Congress in October 1776, but was reelected in October 1777, which accounts for his name missing from the Goddard Broadside, printed in January 1777. As for how the text of the Declaration spread throughout the country without his name as a signer, allow Mr. McKean to explain, from a letter to Alexander J. Dallas, September 26, 1796:

 “My name is not in the printed journals of congress, as a party to the Declaration of Independence, as this, like an error in the first concoction, has vitiated most of the subsequent publications; and yet the fact is, that I was a member of congress for the state of Delaware, was personally present in congress, and voted in favor of independence on the 4th of July 1776, and signed the declaration after it had been engrossed on parchment, where my name, in my own hand writing, still appears.”

McKean went on to argue that the engrossed parchment itself was not signed on July 4th, but rather on August 2nd, according to the Secret Journals of Congress, signing began on August 2nd. The issue of when exactly the Declaration was signed and how the founding fathers remembered or misremembered the event is a much longer story, but to his credit, McKean argued correctly that the engrossed parchment had been ordered on July 19th, and signing began on August 2nd. He simply didn't specify when he signed.

How the signatures on the engrossed parchment may have appeared on August 2, 1776
How the signatures on the Engrossed Parchment may have appeared on August 2, 1776


Robert Aitken first printed the Journals of the Continental Congress for 1776 in early 1777. Aitken’s edition was not particularly prompt or popular, and following the evacuation of Congress from Philadelphia, John Dunlap replaced Aitken as printer to Congress. Dunlap reused Aitken’s printing plates, so his edition is almost exactly the same as Aitken’s Journals. In his 1796 letter, McKean specifically cites Dunlap’s edition of the Journals as the index case for the text of the Declaration of Independence and signers minus McKean’s name. And McKean was most likely correct. Unlike the Goddard Broadside, produced exclusively for the archives of each state, the Aitken/Dunlap Journals were available for public purchase by statesmen, interested citizens, and printers looking to reprint the text.

John Dunlap's Journals of the Continental Congress for 1776, 1778


Most historians believe Thomas McKean signed the engrossed parchment by 1781 at the latest. This date has been chosen in part because McKean succeeded Samuel Huntington as President of the Continental Congress in 1781, and surely would have added his name to Congress’ most notable pledge before taking over as President. Another reason is that, in 1781, McKean superintended the production of the Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which was printed by Robert Bailey in 1782 and included the text of the Declaration of Independence. Bailey's printing is the first text to include McKean’s name as a signer (a full five years after the list of signers was made public through the Goddard broadside). 

Francis Bailey's Acts of the General Assembly..., 1782


However, Bailey inserted McKean’s name between Caesar Rodney and George Read, instead of after Read, as it appears on the engrossed parchment. This is likely how the names should have been ordered, if McKean had been present in Philadelphia on August 2nd. Evidence for this comes from earlier documents signed by delegates to the Continental Congress. In the Articles of Association (1774), Petition to the King (1774), and the Olive Branch Petition (1775), the delegates from Delaware are ordered: Rodney, McKean, Read (see below). It is unclear whether Bailey was copying from an older text signed by the Congress, or if McKean instructed him to insert his name in this way, but regardless, Bailey was clearly not relying on the engrossed parchment. If McKean was responsible for Bailey’s order, it could also have been for a more personal reason. McKean felt especially abused that the name of his colleague from Delaware, George Read, who had opposed independence, was represented in more printings of the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps wanted to put his own name before Read’s.

Order of Delaware Delegates in Other Founding Documents

In 1782, John Dunlap also printed the Journals of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the years 1776-1781. This printing matched the version from his Journals of the Continental Congress, and lacked McKean's name, even though McKean had almost certainly signed by 1782. The first book printing to include McKean’s name following Bailey in 1782, and the first to list his name in the correct order, was not until 1791. Childs and Swaine printed the Laws of the United States of America, and included all three delegates in the correct order. This was an important edition because, like Bailey’s in 1782, it was supervised. In this case, Childs and Swaine as well as printers from other states were ordered to print a volume including the Declaration of Independence, Federal Constitution, Acts of the first session of Congress, important treaties, and other ordinances, all of which were to be collated and corrected by “the Original Rolls in the Office of the Secretary of State”. In 1791, the Secretary of State was none other than Thomas Jefferson. It is unclear whether Childs and Swaine and these other printers had direct access to the engrossed parchment or were trying to replicate the “original” text. In any case, they were able to include the correct and complete list of signers for the first time in the nearly fifteen years since the Declaration had been signed.

After 1791, editions of the Declaration missing McKean’s name were still the norm. In the July 4, 1793 edition of Dunlap and Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser, the printers (John Dunlap and David C. Claypoole) include this disclaimer: 

“In several former publications of the declaration of Independence, the list of names was taken from the Journals of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Vol. I. wherein there appears to have been a material omission in the list of names, by leaving out that of Thomas McKean, our present Chief Justice of the State of Pennsylvania. In order to prevent any further misrepresentation on that head, we have searched for the Original Instrument in the office of the Secretary of State for the United States, and there found Mr. McKean's name amongst the signers to that great and glorious Record! we now give the list of names from the original parchment.”

Here, Dunlap and Claypoole blame Dunlap’s own printing of the Journals of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Vol. I., from 1782. Whether Dunlap and Claypoole actually visited Secretary Jefferson’s office to examine the engrossed parchment for themselves is unknown, but they were able to correctly print the list of signers, after leaving off McKean’s name in the American Daily Advertiser printings on July 4, 1791 and 1792.

After the Declaration of Independence, McKean voted for and signed the Articles of Confederation, this time, at the top of the list of delegates from Delaware. The British surrender at Yorktown happened during his brief tenure as President of Congress that same year. McKean also served Pennsylvania as Chief Justice from 1777-1799, and became the state's second Governor in 1799, serving three terms. His grave in Laurel Hill Cemetery lists both of these positions, but begins by recognizing McKean as “One of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.”

Even after McKean’s death, through at least 1815, books were printed and reprinted with the text of the Declaration of Independence and the incomplete list of signers. The trend of producing facsimiles of the engrossed parchment (see Binns, Tyler, and of course, Stone) likely brought an end to this error in the print tradition. However, the frequent exclusion of his name is not the only potential McKean error in the legacy of the Declaration of Independence. McKean’s signature can easily be misread as McKeap, M’Keap, or even M Keap. This is proven by taking a look at Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where there is a Keap Street among streets named for the signers of the Declaration.

Map of Williamsburg with Keap Street

So, the next time you look at an early printing of the Declaration of Independence, or walk through Brooklyn, see if you can spy the missing (or misspelled) McKean.

Thomas McKean's Signature

By Emily Sneff

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