James McHenry, Forgotten Federalist
: KAREN E. ROBBINS
: Politics and government—1789–1816, Statesmen—United States, Biography
: University of Georgia Press
James McHenry’s life unfolds in stories. Writ large, the
tale is of a man who tried to live his life honorably and make a diff erence.
But this bigger narrative emerges from smaller ones that reveal important
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
the make. But McHenry was aft er more than just a comfortable living; he
wanted to rise in status, to become a gentleman, and to live by the gentleman’s
code of honor. It certainly helped that his family arrived from northern
Ireland with some property, enough to begin a dry goods importing
business in the growing town of Baltimore. But that was only the beginning.
McHenry also participated in his generation’s defi ning event—the
American Revolution. McHenry climbed from the lowest rank of surgeon’s
mate to serve on General George Washington’s staff , making contacts
that opened doors for a future in politics, fi rst at the state and then at
the national level. Equally important, James got to prove his manhood as
citizen- soldier, off ering his life in service and possible sacrifi ce to the republic.
His younger brother John was not so fortunate, as someone needed to
stay in Baltimore to take care of their aging father and the mercantile business.
John’s unhappiness over being left out of the Revolution led him to excessive
behavior that ultimately killed him.
The Revolution, of course, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, from
which comes another theme. Enlightenment ideals led James McHenry to
embrace fairly advanced views regarding the equality of men and women,
as well as of the races, even if he was unable to live up to them fully. Benjamin
Banneker, African American mathematician, requested and received from McHenry a laudatory introduction to Banneker’s almanac. Despite
this, McHenry compromised for his convenience and chose to own domestic
slaves. The slaves’ attempts to negotiate for their freedom become an
important part of this story. In addition, although a youthful McHenry insisted
upon the intellectual equality of men and women, the middle- aged
McHenry thought his young daughter ought to be educated religiously, in
order to learn to submit to her future husband. Two equal partners in a
household, he thought, would only lead to confl ict.
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