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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 251

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This is the grave of James McHenry.

Born in 1753 to a Protestant family in County Antrim, Ireland, McHenry’s parents sent the sickly child to the United States in 1771, hoping for better health. Given high American death rates at the time, I have trouble believing this was a good idea, but then I imagine they were high in Ireland too. Anyway, his family followed him over a year later. He ended up in Philadelphia and apprenticed as a doctor under Benjamin Rush. He was an ardent patriot in the American Revolution and joined the war soon after it began as a surgeon. We will leave just how bad the surgery must have been; after all, he probably wasn’t any worse than any other sawbones. He was taken prisoner by the British when Fort Washington in New York was captured and was held for about five months, being released in January 1777. He rejoined Washington’s armies and became close to the general, serving as his secretary from May 1779 to August 1780, when he took over the same position for the Marquis de Lafayette.

Having moved to Maryland by this time, voters elected him to their legislature in 1781 and then to the Continental Congress in 1784. By this time, the problem with the Articles of Confederation were becoming increasingly obvious and he participated in the Constitutional Convention as a delegate, although in a very minor way as he missed most of the sessions. He spent much of the late 1780s and early 1790s switching between public service in Maryland and his mercantile business. But in 1796, his old mentor George Washington named McHenry Secretary of War to replace Timothy Pickering. He had to implement the Jay Treaty and did a lot to establish the Department of the Navy. John Adams believed he should keep all of Washington’s Cabinet officials on when he took over, even though this was a very bad idea since some were more loyal to Alexander Hamilton than the new president and that very much included McHenry. But in any case, this kept McHenry on the job. Many felt that McHenry was not actually very good at administering his office and he fought with Adams constantly, especially over McHenry’s desire to be very aggressive toward France. McHenry called for a standing army of 20,000 men to fight the French. Adams was hesitant and the Jeffersonians were outraged by this infringement on American liberties and the threat of war with the French it represented. Eventually though, the army was expanded. Finally, Adams forced McHenry out in 1800, way too late to build an effective foreign policy of his own. McHenry got his revenge by convincing Hamilton to release his pamphlet calling Adams’ patriotism into question. All of this helped elect Thomas Jefferson in 1800. When Jefferson took over, McHenry was investigated for his terrible administration of the War Department but that was eventually dropped.

For the rest of his life, McHenry mostly stayed in private life, corresponding with his fellow Federalists, bitterly complaining about Jefferson and Madison and the War of 1812, and running his various business operations. He became very ill in 1814 and lost the use of his legs and then died in 1816.

You probably wouldn’t know McHenry’s name except that Fort McHenry in Baltimore was named for him and of course was the site of the famous bombing that led Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

James McHenry is buried in Westminster Burying Ground, Baltimore, Maryland.

This grave visit was supported by donations from the LGM community and I greatly appreciate that. If you would like this series to visit more Federalists, you help cover the required expenses here. Timothy Pickering is in Salem, Massachusetts and Samuel Decker is in Cambridge. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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