Who was James McHenry, and why was he an important figure in US history?

James McHenryAn Irish-born American military surgeon and statesman, James McHenry was born in Ballymena of Country Antrim, Ireland, in 1753. Immigrating to Philadelphia in 1771, he was soon followed by his family the following year, and together they established an import business in Baltimore, Maryland. He originally had a classical education in Dublin as he was a poet before he immigrated, but he continued to study medicine for two years under Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia. He participated in the War for Independence against the British and served as a military surgeon. He was captured by the British at Fort Washington in New York but was paroled early the next year and exchanged in March 1778. He returned immediately to duty, and after being assigned in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, he became the secretary to George Washington in May of the same year. His expertise, dedication, and contribution as a surgeon got him noticed during the Revolutionary War, but he left the army in 1781. He also quit practicing medicine because he wanted to focus on politics and administration and never needed to reestablish his practice because he became financially secure.

He stayed on with George Washington’s staff until 1780 but left when he joined the Maryland senate in 1981 to 1986, and he served three years in the continental congress during that time. Within those years, he married Margaret Allison Caldwell.

McHenry, along with physicians Hugh Williamson and James McClurg, took part in drafting the US Constitution, but he missed many proceedings during the Philadelphia convention. However, he became the secretary of war during the presidency of John Adams. This was after his stint in the state assembly from 1989 to 1791 and his time in Senate in 1791 to 1796. A federalist, he accepted the offer of the post from George Washington before the Adams administration, but he looked to Alexander Hamilton for leadership instead. President Adams later became dissatisfied with McHenry’s performance as war secretary due to the fact that he disagreed with him and his policies, and Adams forced him to resign in 1800 after becoming increasingly distrustful of McHenry’s political motives. Later he was accused of maladministration but was vindicated by a congressional senate.

After this, McHenry retired to his estate in Baltimore while remaining a loyal Federalist, opposing the war of 1812. He died in 1816 at the age of sixty-two and was buried in Baltimore’s Westminster Presbyterian Cemetery.



Constitution Day. “James McHenry, Maryland.” Accessed on April 28, 2017. http://www.constitutionday.com/mchenry-james-md.html.

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