Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

James McHenry, Forgotten Federalist

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

James McHenry, Forgotten Federalist

Article excerpt

James McHenry, Forgotten Federalist. By Karen E. Robbins. Studies in the Legal History of the South. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, 2013. Pp. [xii], 333. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-4563-5.)

To read Karen E. Robbins's skillful biography of James McHenry is to follow the course of American independence and nation building from the perspective of an active participant in the key events of the Revolutionary era: service in the army, writing and ratifying the Constitution, the thorny internal politics of the George Washington and John Adams administrations, and the harrowing test of the War of 1812. James McHenry, dubbed by Robbins a "forgotten Federalist," was frequently at the heart of the action but has been dismissed by scholars, particularly in his capacity as secretary of war, as "incompetent" (p. 4). Far from it, Robbins asserts forcefully. McHenry emerges in this portrait as a committed and loyal Federalist, a devoted civil servant who performed his duties to the best of his ability despite hindrances and a lack of resources from all sides, and a "good and honorable man" who attempted to mediate and build common ground upon the quicksand of partisan politics in the early republic (p. 5).

McHenry was born in 1753 in Ireland and moved to America in 1771, settling in Baltimore. Trained as a physician, he joined the army in 1775 as a surgeon's mate before moving in 1778 to join "the Family" of officers closest to Washington (p. 38). McHenry's political career began shortly after the victory at Yorktown, and he rose rapidly in Maryland politics. He served in the Continental Congress and in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. Back in Maryland he fought hard for ratification, and when that had been achieved, he became his "state's Federalist leader," distributing patronage, corresponding with local and national Federalists, coordinating activities, authoring political tracts, drafting bills, and shepherding them through the political process (p. 122).

In 1796 Washington asked McHenry to serve as the nation's third secretary of war, a position he continued to hold through most of the Adams administration. …

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