Colonial Hall -- Biographies of America's Founding Fathers

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Page 7

Thomas M'Kean


   In the year 1788, an attempt was made to impeach the conduct of Mr. M'Kean, as chief justice. The ground of accusation arose from the following circumstance. Eleazer Oswald, in a column of a paper of which he was editor, attempted to prejudice the minds of the people, in a cause then in court, in which he was defendant; at the same time casting highly improper reflections upon the judges. In consideration of this contempt of court, the judges inflicted a fine upon Oswald of ten pounds, and directed him to be imprisoned for the space of one month, that is, from the fifteenth day of July to the .fifteenth day of August. At the expiration of twenty eight days, a legal month, Oswald claimed his discharge. The sheriff, upon this, consulted Mr. M'Kean, who not knowing that the sentence was entered upon the record "for the space of one month," without the explanatory clause, directed the sheriff to detain the prisoner until the morning of the fifteenth of August. Finding his mistake, however, he directed Oswald to be discharged; but as he had been detained beyond the time specified in the sentence, he presented a memorial to the general assembly, complaining of the chief justice, and demanding his impeachment. After a discussion of the subject by the assembly for several days, and a long examination of witnesses, it was at length resolved: "that this house, having, in a committee of the whole, gone into a full examination of the charges exhibited by Eleazer Oswald, of arbitrary and oppressive proceedings in the justices of the supreme court, against the said Eleazer Oswald, arc of the opinion, that the charges are unsupported by the testimony adduced, and, consequently, that there is no just cause for impeaching the said justices."
   Of the convention of Pennsylvania, which was assembled on the twentieth of November, 1787, to ratify the constitution of the United States, Mr. M'Kean was delegated a member from the city of Philadelphia. In this convention, Mr. M'Kean and Mr. Wilson, of the latter of whom we have spoken in a former biographical sketch, took the lead. On the twenty-sixth of this month, the former submitted the following motion:

   "That this convention do assent to, and ratify the constitution agreed to on the seventeenth of September last, by the convention of the United States of America, held at Philadelphia."

   On a subsequent day, he entered at length into the merits of the constitution, which he demonstrated in the most masterly manner, and triumphantly answered the various objections which had been urged against it. In the conclusion of this eloquent speech, he used the following language:

   "The law, sir, has been my study from my infancy, and my only profession. I have gone through the circle of office, in the legislative, executive, and judicial, departments of government; and from all my study, observation, and experience, I must declare, that from a full examination and due consideration of this system, it appears to me the best the world has yet seen.
   "I congratulate you On the fair prospect of its being adopted, and am happy in the expectation of seeing accomplished, what has been long my ardent wish&0151;that you will hereafter have a salutary permanency in magistracy, and stability in the laws."

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Last modified September 27, 2005