James McHenry: Forgotten Federalist by Karen E. Robbins (review)
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James McHenry, Maryland, American Revolution, Federalists, Alexander Hamilton

James McHenry: Forgotten Federalist. By Karen E. Robbins. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013. Pp. 333. Cloth, $34.95.)

This is an excellent political biography. More than that, it can serve as a model for anyone attempting a similar project. It is grounded in a thorough knowledge of the various McHenry manuscript collections and secondary works on Maryland and national politics of the period as well as the recent scholarship on race relations, the family, and class (in its eighteenth-century manifestation), especially the code of the gentleman.

For a person of such importance in the first dozen years of the republic, it is surprising that McHenry had to wait 100 years for his first [End Page 677] substantial biography, Bernard C. Steiner’s The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry, Secretary of War under Washington and Adams (Cleveland, OH, 1907). Although Steiner’s was a good effort for its time, it has required another full century for this second, and much superior, biography to come forth.

Robbins divides her work into four sections, the first of which is chiefly about McHenry’s experiences in the Revolution. She tells us nothing of McHenry’s upbringing in Ireland—perhaps nothing is known—and begins the story with his emigration to the colonies in 1771 at age seventeen. Like Benjamin Franklin, he consciously made himself into a gentleman, starting with an education at Newark Academy, poetry writing, and a medical apprenticeship with Benjamin Rush, through whom he met many leaders of the growing resistance to the British government.

When war came, McHenry joined Washington’s army outside Boston as a surgeon’s mate, rose to full surgeon, and was captured during the fall of New York to General Howe. Soon exchanged and back in the army, he became an aide to Washington and then to Lafayette, at the rank of major. During the war McHenry developed an intense respect for Washington and a close relationship with Hamilton, but he also cultivated Maryland’s political leaders, and after Yorktown was elected to the state senate.

The second part of the book follows McHenry’s career in Maryland and national politics in the 1780s. In two separate five-year terms as senator, McHenry proposed a state bank and public schools (unsuccessfully), supported the Impost of 1781, and denounced pro-debtor measures; and simultaneously served, from 1783 to 1785, as a delegate to Congress. There he generally sided with the ‘‘nationalists’’ who wanted to strengthen congressional powers, although he was quick to defend Maryland’s local interests when required. As a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he made only minor contributions to the final document but vigorously supported Maryland’s ratification.

In the 1790s, Maryland was among the two or three most competitive states politically, electing 27 Federalists and 25 Republicans to the first seven congresses. If the Federalists were to have any chance at a longterm governing majority, this was precisely the kind of state they would have to win on a regular basis. Despite McHenry’s gentlemanly dislike of ‘‘party spirit,’’ Robbins shows him to be a leading party organizer, [End Page 678] recommending patronage appointments to federal offices and working to offset Republican strength in Baltimore.

The book’s third and longest section is of most value for students of national politics, being a firmly argued and well-supported defense of McHenry’s time as secretary of war. The settled belief until quite recently was that McHenry conducted his office ineptly, that during the administration of John Adams he and his colleagues Oliver Wolcott and Timothy Pickering were more loyal to Alexander Hamilton than to the president, and that the trio actually tried to marginalize Adams in the conduct of his own presidency.

Robbins works meticulously through these three critiques of McHenry’s tour of office and convincingly disposes of them all. Responsible for more than one-third of all federal spending with only five clerks to handle paperwork, McHenry was constantly overworked, apart from his having to endure the stress of factional and party conflict in the capital. He helped to overcome Republican opposition...


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