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Page 2

Thomas M'Kean

1734-1817


   We have had frequent occasion, in these biographical notices, to speak of the congress which assembled in New-York in 1765, usually called the stamp act congress, its object being to obtain relief of the British government from the grievances generally under which the colonies were suffering, and of the stamp act in particular. Of that illustrious body Mr. M'Kean was a member, from the counties of Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex, on the Delaware. Of the proceedings of this first American congress, little has been known, or can probably be collected, except from their general declaration of rights, and their address to the king, and petitions to parliament. Yet it is known, that in that congress, there were some who were distinguished for great energy and boldness of character. Among those of this description was James Otis of Boston, who, as Caesar Rodney afterwards said, "displayed that light and knowledge of the interest of America, which, shining like a sun, lit up those stars which shone on this subject afterwards." In original firmness and energy, Mr. M'Kean was probably not greatly inferior to Mr. Otis. His independent conduct, on the last day of the session of the above congress, reflects the highest honour upon him, and deserves a special notice in every history of his life.
   A few of the members of this body appeared not only timid, but were suspected of hostility to the measures which had been adopted. Among these, was Timothy Ruggles, a representative from the province of Massachusetts, who had been elected president of the congress in preference to James Otis, by only a single vote. In conclusion of the business, and when the members were called upon to sign the proceedings, Mr. Ruggles, with a few others, refused to affix their signatures.
   At this moment, Mr. M'Kean rose, and with great dignity, but with deep feeling, addressing himself to the president, requested him to assign his reasons, for refusing to sign the petitions. The president refused, on the ground that he was not bound in duty to state the cause of his objections. So uncourteous a refusal, especially as unanimity and harmony had prevailed during the session, called forth a rejoinder from Mr. M'Kean, in which he pressed upon the president the importance of an explanation. At length, after a considerable pause, Mr. Ruggles observed, that it was "against his conscience." "Conscience!" exclaimed Mr. M'Kean, as he rose from his seat, "conscience !" and he rung changes on the word so long and so loud, that at length the president, in a moment of irritation, gave Mr. M'Kean, in the presence of the whole congress, a challenge to fight him, which was instantly accepted. The president, however, had no more courage to fight than to sign the proceedings of congress; and the next morning he was seen wending his way through the streets of New-York, towards the province of Massachusetts, the legislature of which, not long after, ordered him to be reprimanded.

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Last modified September 27, 2005