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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 232


This is the grave of Thomas McKennan.

McKennan was born in New Castle, Delaware in 1794. His family moved to the frontier town of Washington, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, when he was young. He graduated from Washington College in 1810 and was admitted to the bar in 1814 after working as a tutor at the college for a few years. He also became involved in politics. Despite still being a very young man, he was deputy attorney general for Pennsylvania in 1815 and 1816. Mostly though, he was a good city council member in Washington, serving from 1816 to 1830. He then was elected to Congress. He was in Washington from 1831-39 and again from 1842-43, where he was a huge advocate for tariffs to protect Pennsylvania industries. This naturally put him in the Whig Party, after his time in the Anti-Masonic Party, which was a common transition to make as the Second Party System was developing. He was good at his job. Four terms was actually a pretty long run in Congress for this era. Many, perhaps most, members of Congress only served one term in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was chairman of the Committee on Roads and Canals in the 21st Congress.

So he was a fairly big name Whig and from a powerful state. He had supporters who wanted bigger things for him. But he was indifferent. He left Washington in 1839 to focus on his law practice, and despite that half-term after a special election, he was pretty satisfied. That didn’t stop his friends from advocating for his return. Some wanted McKennan to be Henry Clay’s VP candidate in 1844. Others wanted him to run for governor. He didn’t want to. In 1851, the position of Secretary of Interior came open when the incumbent went to the Senate. The job was offered to McKennan, as Fillmore, fighting intra-Whig battles over the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, which the terrible president supported, wanted someone he could trust. McKennan had made no public statement on the issue, which was good enough for Fillmore. McKennan really didn’t want to take it. But his friends, and the Pennsylvania Whig leadership, implored him to do so. He reluctantly agreed.

Thomas McKennan lasted as Secretary of the Interior for a whopping 11 days, which I am pretty sure is the shortest Cabinet tenure in American history, at least for those confirmed by Congress. He really hated DC and didn’t want to go. In fact, he never bothered leaving Pennsylvania. Plus, it’s pretty clear that McKennan suffered from both anxiety and severe depression and that serving in this role just exacerbated that. He himself talked of these issues, so this isn’t going back and diagnosing from nearly two centuries later. So he just walked away. He stayed home and became president of the Hempfield Railroad, connecting Wheeling with Greensburg, PA and running through Washington. But he died while on a business trip in Reading in 1852.

Thomas McKennan is buried in Washington Cemetery, Washington, Pennsylvania.

The expenses for this grave visit was supported by LGM readers and that is greatly appreciated. If you would like this series to discuss more extremely obscure 19th century political figures that you will never run into anywhere else on the internet, you can donate to cover the expenses here. Previous posts in the internet’s least important series are archived here.

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