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James McHenry, Forgotten Federalist

Karen E. Robbins

Publication Year: 2013

A Scots-Irish immigrant, James McHenry determined to make something of his life. Trained as a physician, he joined the American Revolution when war broke out. He then switched to a more military role, serving on the staffs of George Washington and Lafayette. He entered government after the war and served in the Maryland Senate and in the Continental Congress. As Maryland’s representative at the Constitutional Convention, McHenry helped to add the ex post facto clause to the Constitution and worked to increase free trade among the states.

As secretary of war, McHenry remained loyal to Washington, under whom he established a regimental framework for the army that lasted well into the nineteenth century. Upon becoming president, John Adams retained McHenry; however, Adams began to believe McHenry was in league with other Hamiltonian Federalists who wished to undermine his policies. Thus, when the military buildup for the Quasi-War with France became unpopular, Adams used it as a pretext to request McHenry’s resignation.

Yet as Karen Robbins demonstrates in the first modern biography of McHenry, Adams was mistaken; the friendship between McHenry and Hamilton that Adams feared had grown sensitive and there was a brief falling out. Moreover, McHenry had asked Hamilton to withdraw his application for second-in-command of the New Army being raised. Nonetheless, Adams’s misperception ended McHenry’s career, and he has remained an obscure historical figure ever since—until now. James McHenry, Forgotten Federalist reveals a man surrounded by important events who reflected the larger themes of his time.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: Studies in the Legal History of the South


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pp. 1-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-xii

...that meeting Paul Finkelman proved an important day for me. Little did either of us know that his trip years ago to lecture for teachers and academics in western New York would wind up with his helping to publish this book. Paul Finkelman is not only President William McKinley Distinguished Professor...

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pp. 1-6

...tale is of a man who tried to live his life honorably and make a difference. But this bigger narrative emerges from smaller ones that reveal important American—and human—themes. Initially, McHenry was a young immigrant looking for opportunity. He was ambitious for a new and better life, and in this sense he was a man on...


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ONE: “Of a Persevering Temper”

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pp. 9-15

...situation shaped both by domestic events and by history itself. McHenry certainly hoped that his health would improve with rest in a more wholesome setting. James was young, born in Ballymena (near Belfast), County Antrim, probably on November 16, 1753, and so was only sixteen, about to...

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TWO: “The Commencement of Our Independence”

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pp. 16-23

...apprenticed himself to Dr. Benjamin Rush. McHenry’s work with him proved vital, as Rush was in the process of making a name for himself as a doctor and patriot. Although little written by McHenry during this period survives, enough is known about Rush, their shared religion, and Philadelphia...

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THREE: “The Events of War Are Uncontroulable”

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pp. 24-37

...Massachusetts, in the summer of 1775, McHenry saw the rudiments of what was still a young army. In fact, its commander-in-chief, General George Washington, had only recently been elected by Congress to the position and had arrived on July 2, so he was merely beginning to make his imprint. The Continental...

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FOUR: “I Gave Up Soft Beds”

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pp. 38-52

...he could contribute to the war in a martial rather than medical capacity. When McHenry joined Washington’s staff he found that the Virginian had surrounded himself with the most talented young men available, for he sorely needed letter writers, couriers, and, during battle, quick military assistance. He referred to these young men as his...

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FIVE: “Sorcery and Majic”

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pp. 53-68

...started to agitate for military rank. By the middle of 1780 he enlisted his friend Hamilton, who wrote glowingly of McHenry to James Duane, an influential member of Congress from New York. “You know him to be a man of Sense and merit,” Hamilton noted. “A more intimate acquaintance with...


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SIX: “Transition from the Military to the Civil Line”

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pp. 71-82

...cobblestone streets radiated out and up the hill, past decorative clapboard houses. At the top of the rise stood the imposing yet graceful white capitol. From the building one could see the entire town and far away into the distance. It felt important...

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SEVEN: “A Delicate Task”

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pp. 83-98

...known as Independence Hall) on June 11, 1783. It must have gratified him to enter the red brick building with its imposing white steeple. He had been here before, known delegates, and as a military physician had even applied to Congress for men and supplies. Here the Declaration of Independence...

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EIGHT: “For the General Good”

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pp. 99-116

...lure remained. Politics was work, it separated him from his family (and his brother, for one, complained), it lacked real financial reward—but he kept coming back for more. He enjoyed the fray too much, and he was fortunate...

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NINE: “A Friendship Independent of Brotherhood”

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pp. 117-126

...to launch it on as strong a foundation as possible. Yes, the Constitution had been ratified by the requisite nine states, but Federalists now needed to incorporate everyone who might assist in starting the new national government, and some former opponents now joined. Of course, both the current...

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TEN: “Not Wholly Lost to Ambition”

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pp. 127-142

...McHenry pulled himself out of his grief long enough to write Hamilton an apology for his “long silence, but I can assure you I have never forgot you.” McHenry also sent Washington a gift of asparagus. Otherwise he continued to assist the administration by scouting out eligible and qualified Federalists...

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ELEVEN: “I Am Scarce Mistress of My Conduct”

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pp. 143-154

...position had been vacant for some time and he was needed in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital, immediately. So he mounted the fastest horse available and braved February’s chills despite an already serious cold, promising to return...


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TWELVE: “A Prudent, Firm, Frugal Officer”

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pp. 157-173

...sworn in immediately and discovered that political tensions in the capital were more extreme than he could have anticipated. Anxiety over foreign affairs infected both the administration and Congress. The war between England and France helped to sunder the new country’s early unity, widening...

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THIRTEEN: “Are We Forever to Be Overawed and Directed by Party Passions?”

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pp. 174-189

...the problem. Of average height and given the nickname “his rotundity” due to his middle-aged girth, he was brilliant and capable of great and honest introspection. But he could also be suspicious, jealous, stubborn, irascible, and often kept important thoughts to himself. This last quality proved questionable...

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FOURTEEN: “Mitigated Hostilities”

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pp. 190-197

...success of his western policy, news of the xyz Affair arrived from the Envoys Extraordinary to France. A coup d’état the previous fall had led to the appointment of a new foreign minister, Talleyrand, who thought he could retaliate against Federalists for the Jay Treaty without serious repercussions. He planned to humiliate and discredit the Adams administration without...

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FIFTEEN: “I Must Be Allowed to Chuse”

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pp. 198-216

...in Virginia should have been a pleasure. But travel was never really comfortable for him, and he could not stay long enough to enjoy the distractions of Mount Vernon and its owner. Boarding the mail stage on the morning of the eighth of July, he would not arrive at Washington’s plantation until the...

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SIXTEEN: “Referred to the General Officers”

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pp. 217-225

...reputation, more than he even knew. Frustrated, he desperately wanted the work to pick up speed. Everything moved too slowly, he knew that he was blamed, and he was surrounded by a group of men who wanted to direct him. Moreover, McHenry’s subordinates did not always perform. Although McHenry had ordered his superintendent of military stores, Samuel Hodgdon...

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SEVENTEEN: “A Paltry Insurrection”

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pp. 226-232

...immediately reported the results of the General Conference to Adams, who in turn referred the account to Congress. Specific bills now had to be drafted for Congress to consider, a task that McHenry readily delegated to General Hamilton, and time was of the essence since the legislature’s session would...

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EIGHTEEN: “I Have Always . . . Considered You as a Man of Understanding and of the Strictest Integrity”

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pp. 233-246

...unavailable or incomplete. Uniforms exposed the problem fi rst. Tench Francis, the purveyor of public supplies, had a predictably difficult time locating sufficient material and manufacturers for the task. Even though Francis had 900 people sewing uniforms, nothing would be available until the end of...


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NINETEEN: “To Retire to the Shades of Tranquility”

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pp. 249-254

...to tell, what face to put upon the matter of his resignation? Now, especially, the injustice must have assaulted McHenry’s feelings. He had tried throughout his adult life to serve his country with honor, but in the end had been sacrifi ced and disgraced. McHenry understood the politics, but he was...

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TWENTY: “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming”

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pp. 255-274

...“family” entertainment, at which all of the nuclear family were expected to play their parts. Everyone was to contribute a written piece, in any form— letter, essay, poetry, lecture, or short story. Collectively, these pieces were addressed both to the other family members and to their descendants...


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pp. 275-310


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pp. 311-326


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pp. 327-333

E-ISBN-13: 9780820346311
E-ISBN-10: 0820346314
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820346311

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 10 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Studies in the Legal History of the South