Birth: 16 November 1753, at Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland
Death: 3 May 1816, at "Fayetteville," Baltimore County, Maryland
Interment: Westminster Presbyterian Churchyard, Baltimore, Maryland
Pastel, by James Sharples, Sr. (c. 1795); Independence National Historical Park.
James McHenry, who represented Maryland at the Constitutional Convention, was a recent immigrant to America. Like many of those who would come after, he quickly developed a strong sense of patriotism, which he then demonstrated by volunteering to defend his new homeland. Less than five years after first landing in Philadelphia, McHenry, who included himself among those he called the "sons of freedom," was serving with the Continental forces surrounding Boston. The young Irish immigrant proved to be a strong nationalist, focusing more on the concept of a united America than on loyalty to any one of the three colonies in which he had lived before the Revolution. From the beginning, this nationalistic outlook led him to see "absolute independency" as the goal of the true Patriot. His experiences in the Army, including service on General George Washington's personal staff, convinced him that the only obstacles to nationhood were timidity among the citizenry and "disunion" among the states. Throughout a career of public service that lasted into the second decade of the new republic, he would forcefully and consistently uphold the ideal of a strong central government as embodied in the Constitution as the best guarantee against any such disunity or loss of national purpose in the future.
McHenry was born into a Scots-Irish family in the province of Ulster. Son of a prosperous merchant, he received a classical education in Dublin, an education continued in the New World at the Newark Academy (later the University of Delaware). McHenry, at eighteen, had been the first of his family to immigrate. While his relatives then went about establishing a prosperous import business in the expanding port of Baltimore, McHenry maintained his independent course by turning to the study of medicine. He spent two years in Philadelphia as an apprentice to one of America's foremost physicians, Dr. Benjamin Rush. The young student quickly acquired the skills and knowledge expected of an eighteenth-century doctor, but more important for the Revolutionary cause, he also received an important political education from Rush, one of Pennsylvania's leading opponents of British rule and a future signer of the Declaration of Independence.
McHenry came to accept the proposition that the breach between colonies and mother country could not be healed, and he offered his services to his adopted land when hostilities broke out in New England in 1775. McHenry, still a civilian, joined the American forces participating in the siege of Boston. He worked in the military hospital in Cambridge as a volunteer assistant surgeon, but before long he was asked to accept the demanding assignment of surgeon in one of the hospitals being established in northern New York to care for the wounded in the wake of an abortive American attack on Canada. Before reporting for duty, however, McHenry returned to Philadelphia to collect additional medical supplies.
Before the Continental Congress could confirm McHenry's appointment as an officer in the Hospital Department, Pennsylvania officials, probably at the suggestion of Dr. Rush, selected him to serve instead as the surgeon of a regiment recently raised in the eastern part of that colony by Colonel Robert Magaw. Once again McHenry left Philadelphia for the front, this time as a regular member of the 5th Pennsylvania Battalion.
Unlike other Pennsylvania units that were assigned to the Flying Camp, Washington's mobile reserve force stationed in the northern New Jersey area, the 5th Pennsylvania, as a regular Continental unit, reported directly to New York City. Its mission was to construct and defend Fort Washington, an American outpost near the northern end of Manhattan Island. According to plans developed in Washington's headquarters, this stronghold was to deny the British full access to the city and to the Hudson River. The plans went awry. Overwhelming British and Hessian forces under General William Howe attacked the fort from three directions on the morning of 16 November 1776. Pushing forward despite fierce resistance by the outnumbered garrison, they forced Magaw to surrender. This defeat marked the beginning of a British campaign that would drive Washington back to the Delaware River, and to Valley Forge, the lowest ebb of the Continental Army's military fortunes during the war.
McHenry missed the dramatic American victories at Trenton and Princeton that saved the Patriot cause. He was one of five physicians and some 2,000 soldiers who were captured by the British at Fort Washington. After spending some time caring for sick and wounded prisoners of war, he was paroled, in accord with the rules of eighteenth-century warfare, to his home while awaiting exchange. Only in March 1778 was he free to join the Continental Army again, at Valley Forge. There McHenry temporarily served with the Flying Hospital (a kind of Revolutionary War MASH) before coming to General Washington's personal attention. In May 1778 the Commander in Chief selected him to serve as assistant secretary on his staff. McHenry remained on Washington's staff as a volunteer without rank or pay for two and a half years. During that period he saw action in the battles of Monmouth and Springfield, New Jersey, and became a valued member of Washington's immediate "military family," along with men like Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
McHenry's lifelong friendship with the dynamic Lafayette dated from this experience. Near the end of 1780 he transferred to the Frenchman's staff, a change that led to a commission as a major. He served at Lafayette's side during the climactic campaign of the war. During the winter of 1780 Washington sent his light infantry units under Lafayette south on a forced march to Virginia. Their arrival was to coincide with that of a French fleet from Rhode Island in order to surprise British forces that were disrupting logistical bases established for General Nathanael Greene's Southern Army. Although the British eluded capture, Virginia became a new theater of war when Washington left Lafayette's units in the state to reinforce local militia and sent an additional force of Pennsylvania regulars under General Anthony Wayne.
The stage was set for a major confrontation when Royal troops under General Charles Cornwallis marched north into Virginia. Throughout the summer Lafayette's militia and continentals shadowed Cornwallis and, although greatly outnumbered, engaged the British in minor disruptive actions. In July, for example, McHenry participated in a skirmish at Green Springs, near Jamestown. During this period McHenry's close personal friendship with Governor Thomas Sim Lee of Maryland also paid important dividends, for Lafayette's forces relied heavily on Maryland for logistical support, and McHenry's intercession with Lee ensured prompt delivery of materials to the Frenchman's units.
When the British established a defensive position at Yorktown, Washington saw an opportunity to win a decisive victory. He quickly moved his main army from New York, as a French fleet from the West Indies arrived to block any British escape by sea. Washington's brilliant concentration of forces trapped Cornwallis. A formal siege of Yorktown culminated with a bayonet attack on British positions during the night of 14 October. Cornwallis' surrender brought the active military phase of the war to an end.
McHenry resigned his commission at the end of 1781 to enter Maryland politics. Elected to the state legislature, he served for thirteen years, using this forum to argue the cause of federalism. Between 1783 and 1786 he sat in the Continental Congress, and in the following year he represented Maryland at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Although he played no leading part in the deliberations of the Convention, McHenry continued to support the call for a strong central government. His military staff training was reflected in his meticulous notes of the Convention's proceedings—notes that have proved invaluable for generations of American historians.
In 1796 President Washington once again called on his old wartime aide, this time to assume the duties of Secretary of War. McHenry, who would preside over the Army under both Washington and John Adams, was the third of seven Continental soldiers to hold that position. His immediate goal was to transform the isolated western military garrisons into an efficient and economical fighting force capable of protecting the new nation's frontiers against the Indian tribes. During the next two years he largely succeeded in regularizing military procedures, organizing the chaotic military supply system, and subordinating the military establishment to his authority as the civilian Secretary.
In 1798, however, the possibility of war with France brought the Army to a critical period in its history, when the question of establishing a permanently organized fighting force became a topic of much debate in Congress. McHenry took the lead in defending the need to establish a 20,000-man Army to meet the immediate threat. The opposition saw this "provisional" force as nothing less than a large standing army, which they considered inimical to the interests of a free people. A man of McHenry's political and military experience saw the situation differently. To refuse to take adequate military measures, he warned a generally reluctant Congress, "would be to offer up the United States a certain prey to France." His arguments prevailed, and Congress eventually approved the creation of twelve new regiments of regulars.
Although inexperienced in the administration of large military organizations, McHenry struggled valiantly with the task of building a disciplined, professional Army, a task complicated by a separate controversy in regard to civilian control of military affairs. McHenry's dedication to strong central government led him to advocate civilian leadership, a democratic ideal held by many of the citizen-soldiers of the Revolution, including most notably George Washington. But in McHenry's case the concept was put to the practical test as newly appointed generals, including his friend Hamilton and the controversial James Wilkinson, vied to control military appointments and organizational plans for the provisional Army. His own military experience had taught McHenry the importance of the dedicated professional officer, and as Secretary he added his voice to those demanding a military academy to train officers. But his experiences in the Continental Army had also convinced him of the danger of soldiers meddling in the decisions of a democratic government. His forthright stand against his impetuous generals and their political allies not only enhanced the powers of the civilian Secretary of War but also marked McHenry's most important service to his country.
McHenry continued in office for some months after the threat of war with France ended in 1800, but disputes with Adams over the future of the Federalist party finally made his presence in the cabinet untenable. His last years were spent in quiet retirement at his Maryland estate, "Fayetteville," named after his general at Yorktown. As a staunch Federalist, he opposed America's slide into war in 1812, although he lived to see his son follow in his footsteps as a wartime volunteer. Ironically, the son participated in the 1814 defense of the Baltimore fort named for his father, the battle which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the "Star-Spangled Banner."