James McHenry: Father of the United States Army

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

James McHenry was John Adams’s Secretary of War. His priority was to “create a navy and always maintain a formidable army.” However, McHenry did not consider himself a Navy man, and his attention was devoted to recruiting the new “additional army.” And so was created a separate Navy Department under Benjamin Stoddert.

Flag of the United States Assistant Secretary of War next to the US flag.
For all the back-stabbing, McHenry launched recruiting for the “additional army” along with a revived military staff. (Image: GoodIdeas/Shutterstock)

Command of the Additional Army

As the head of the “additional army,” McHenry wanted no one less than the retired 66-year-old former president, George Washington. Surprisingly, Washington agreed, but with a provision that Alexander Hamilton would be appointed as his second-in-command. John Adams had not forgiven Hamilton’s chilliness in supporting Adams’s difficult campaign for the presidency against Thomas Jefferson in 1796.

As much as Adams wanted Washington in command in order to fend off Republican critics who would accuse him of creating the provisional army for a coup against Congress, he was certain that Hamilton wanted to use this provisional army to undermine his own presidential authority.

However, Adams really had no choice; he signed a commission for Washington as lieutenant-general, with Hamilton joining him as the army’s inspector-general, with the rank of major-general.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Attacks on McHenry

Adams was right about Hamilton’s ambitions, and in fact, Hamilton started by bestowing unwanted advice on McHenry about the reorganization of the War Department staff.

“My friend, McHenry, is wholly insufficient for his place, with the additional misfortune, of not having the least suspicion of the fact” Hamilton breezily informed Washington, “It is so great as to leave no probability that the business of the War Department can make any tolerable progress in his hands.” One-upping even McHenry, Hamilton now proposed to Congress the recruitment of a further 24 regiments of infantry, battalions of riflemen, artillerists and engineers, and three regiments of cavalry.

But while Hamilton was lighting a fire in McHenry’s front, President Adams was lighting another at his rear, pressuring McHenry to get Washington to change his mind about designating Hamilton as his second-in-command, and when Washington refused, Adams blamed McHenry for conspiring against him.

And yet, for all the back-stabbing and backstairs maneuvering, McHenry launched recruiting for the “additional army”, along with a revived military staff. New fortifications were to be built, including one in Baltimore Harbor that would bear McHenry’s name; new uniform styles were adopted; and a new weapons manufacturing arsenal began at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on a Potomac river site.

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts.

McHenry’s Apprehensions about France

What no one among the Federalists seemed to have stopped to ask themselves was actually a very obvious question: Why? Why are we doing all this? And what is it going to look like?

McHenry was sincerely convinced, as he explained to Adams, that France was aiming at universal dominion; that the vices of her government and nature of her system rendered war indispensable to her; and that she really intended, at a fit moment, to bring the United States, or a part of them, added to her intrigues.

A political cartoon showing America as a female being looted by French men.
McHenry was sincerely convinced that France was aiming at universal dominion. (Image: SW Fores/Public domain)

It was only left, in McHenry’s thinking, for Adams to “recommend to Congress an immediate declaration of war, against that nation.” But did anyone seriously believe that the French republic’s army was poised to overleap 3,000 miles of ocean in order to conquer its American counterpart? Even Washington half-heartedly admitted that “disregardful as the French are of Treaties, and of the Law of Nations; and capable as I conceive them to be of any Species of Despotism and Injustice,” it seemed difficult to believe “that they will attempt to invade this Country after such a uniform and unequivocal expression of the sense of the People, in all parts, to oppose them with their lives and fortunes.”

Republican Paranoia

So what, then, was the purpose of the new United States Army? McHenry unwittingly fed Republican paranoia by asserting that the “additional army” was needed because “it is a maxim” in France’s policy “to prepare the country she designs to subdue by previous divisions, among its citizens, before she strikes it”—which was as much as saying that the “additional army’s” first target would be seditionists within the American Republic, and only then French invaders.

And, as if to confirm the bleak suspicions of the Republicans, the first employment McHenry had for his new recruits was the suppression of a minor uprising against the taxes levied for the new army in eastern Pennsylvania.

A portrait of William Vans Murray.
Adams sent William Vans Murray to France in 1799 to re-open the negotiations. (Image: Mather Brown/Public domain)

Resignation by McHenry

McHenry was aghast when, far from declaring war, Adams announced in February 1799 that he was sending William Vans Murray to France to re-open the negotiations. When Murray’s mission produced an agreement with the French, Congress cheerfully slashed funding for McHenry’s army.

Congress, however, only deprived McHenry of funding. President Adams deprived him of a job. In May 1800, the New York state legislative elections went against the Federalists, and Adams interpreted this a devious plot by Hamilton to undercut Adams’ upcoming battle for re-election against Thomas Jefferson. On May 5, Adams summoned McHenry for a meeting “of one minute,” which in fact turned into a maniacal tirade, accusing McHenry of complicity with Hamilton in “indecorous and at times outrageous” language. McHenry resigned as Secretary of War the next day.

Learn more about John Adams’s liberty.

McHenry’s Army

McHenry did not nurse Adams’s outburst quietly. But his real anger was directed toward the fantasy that a professional army is the enemy of a republic, and the militia its only true salvation.

In this case, McHenry was actually short-changing himself. The “additional army” had only recruited 3,400 men by the time it was ordered to disband by Congress in June 1800. But not even Thomas Jefferson, as the new president, could contemplate turning the clock entirely back to the days before McHenry’s secretaryship.

So the Army would remain set at four regiments of infantry, two of artillery and engineers, and two companies of light dragoons, along with its general staff—not any huge force, but not the pitiful business James McHenry had begun with. McHenry’s plan for a military academy was actually taken up by Jefferson in 1802, using the garrison facilities at West Point.

There have been many nominees for the title of Father of the United States Army, but among the Founders, James McHenry may well have the best claim of all.

Common Questions about James McHenry, father of the United States Army

Q: What did Washington ask for as the condition to head the “additional army”?

Washington agreed to become the head of the “additional army,” but with a provision that Alexander Hamilton would be appointed as his second-in-command.

Q: What did McHenry think about France?

McHenry was convinced that France was aiming at universal dominion; that the vices of her government and nature of her system rendered war indispensable to her; and that she really intended to add the United States to her intrigues.

Q: After his resignation, what was McHenry’s anger directed at?

McHenry’s real anger was directed toward the fantasy that a professional army is the enemy of a republic, and the militia is its only true salvation.

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