James McHenry papers (1777-1832)

Collection processed and finding aid created by Caitlin Marineau, February 2011
Manuscripts Division, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Summary Information

Title: James McHenry papers
Creator: William L. Clements Library
Inclusive dates: 1777-1832
Extent: 3 linear feet
The James McHenry papers contain correspondence and documents related to the political career of James McHenry. The majority of the materials pertain to his tenure as Secretary of War from 1796 to 1800.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu

Access and Use

Acquisition Information

1951-1990. M-844, M-868, M-919, M-1048, M-1049, M-1050, M-1051, M-1055, M-1057, M-1063, M-1064, M-1065, M-1071, M-1087, M-1089, M-1090, M-1096, M-1098, M-1137, M-1150, M-1163, M-1223, M-1226, M-1229, M-1244, M-1248, M-1266, M-1270, M-1277, M-1282, M-1297, M-1300, M-1312, M-1326, M-1341, M-1375, M-1397, M-1401, M-1420, M-1439, M-1475, M-1477, M-1566, M-1664, M-1690, M-1703, M-1860, M-2520, M-2584, M-4822.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Other Finding Aids:

In addition to this finding aid, the Clements Library has created a full list of letter-writers in the James McHenry papers: James McHenry Contributor List.

Processing Information

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation

James McHenry Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


The James McHenry papers are arranged into two series:

  • Correspondence and Documents
  • Bound Items

Within these series, items are arranged chronologically, with undated items at the end.


James McHenry was born on November 16, 1753, in Ballymena, Ireland, to Daniel and Agnes McHenry. In 1771, he emigrated to Philadelphia, and was joined by his father the next year in Baltimore, where the elder McHenry started a successful importing business. Having first received his education in Dublin, James continued his studies at Newark Academy in Delaware in 1772, before beginning the study of medicine in Philadelphia under Dr. Benjamin Rush. McHenry first volunteered for military service in 1775, and he served as an assistant surgeon at the Cambridge military hospital in Massachusetts, before being appointed surgeon of the 5th Pennsylvania Battalion in August 1776. The British captured McHenry at Fort Washington in November, and he was paroled the next January, before being exchanged in March 1778. On May 15, 1778, George Washington appointed him as his secretary, a position he held until he became a member of Lafayette's staff in 1780. In 1781, Maryland elected McHenry to its State Senate, where he served until 1786. The next year, he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he created a private record of the proceedings.

After the convention, McHenry returned to Maryland and was a member of the constitutional ratifying convention for the state. He served as a member of the Maryland Assembly and then the Maryland Senate, before being offered the position of secretary of war to replace Timothy Pickering in January 1796. He served until 1800, when President John Adams forced his resignation over increasing tensions arising from McHenry's alignment with Alexander Hamilton. After his resignation, McHenry came under attack from Republicans, who accused him of misusing funds during his tenure as secretary of war. A congressional committee declined a formal investigation, but McHenry delivered a defense before Congress on December 28, 1802. Afterwards, McHenry retired to Fayetteville, his estate near Baltimore, where he founded the first Bible society in Baltimore, in 1813. McHenry died in 1816, survived by his wife Margaret Caldwell, and two children.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The James McHenry papers contain over 800 items related the life and career of James McHenry. Included in the materials are approximately 670 letters and 106 documents, primarily related to McHenry's political career, as well as financial records and miscellaneous documents, including poetry and genealogical materials. The majority of the correspondence and documents are drafts or retained manuscript copies.

The Correspondence and Documents series spans 1777-1832, with the bulk of materials concentrated around 1796 to 1803. The first box of the collection contains documents and correspondence related to McHenry's service in the Revolutionary War, including correspondence with Sir Henry Clinton, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton. The materials include a draft of a letter to British general Henry Clinton regarding his military failures, written in McHenry's hand but signed "Z" (October 26, 1779), as well as a copy of a letter allegedly written by Clinton to Lord George Germain, which McHenry sent to Samuel Louden of the New York Packet to be published (March 24, 1780). The postwar materials in the collection pertain to McHenry's tenure as a Maryland statesman. Along with documents related to McHenry's political career during those years is a letter dated August 13, 1794, which relates news of the massacre of French colonists at Fort Dauphin in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), led by Jean-François, an important figure in the Haitian Revolution.

The bulk of the collection, representing 1796 to 1803, documents McHenry's tenure as secretary of war under presidents Washington and Adams. The correspondence and documents relate to military structures, provisions, international relations, treaties, politics, and relations with Native American tribes. The collection contains frequent correspondence with other cabinet members and politicians, including Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott as well as President George Washington, John Adams, and the Marquis de Lafayette. McHenry served as secretary of war during the Quasi-War with France and, as a staunch Federalist, favored positive relations with Britain over France. A large portion of the correspondence during this period relates to the ongoing feud with that country. A letter from James Winchester to McHenry describes the suspicion with which the Federalists regarded Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, who favored closer relations with France: "…tho' they will not openly shew at this time their predilection for France, they will discover it in the first calamitous event which may happen to our Country. Depend on it they are not to be trusted. I speak of the party here" (April 18, 1789). Several months later McHenry wrote in an unaddressed letter draft that he believed the President should recommend a declaration of war with France to Congress. He also expressed his concerns over "a faction within the country constantly on the watch and ready to seize upon every act of the Executive which may be converted into an engine to disaffect the people to the government" (November 25, 1798).

In addition to national and international politics, many of the items relate to U.S. relations with Native American tribes, including the Creek, Chickasaw, and Miami. The materials frequently concern attempts to maintain peace and create treaties with the tribes, as well as to prevent them from giving their loyalty to other countries, such as Britain, France, or Spain. Box 2 contains a copy of a "Talk of the Chickasaw Chiefs at the Bluffs represented by Wolf's Friend, Ugalayacabé" regarding the tribe's concerns about the Americans: "Tell me if I may return to my Nation to appease the tumult of their minds. Shall I tell them the talk of the Americans is falsehood? Shall I assure our warriors our children and our women that your flag will always wave over our land, or tell them to prepare to die?" [1797]. This box also contains a small series of letters from General Anthony Wayne, written from his headquarters in Detroit, where he was stationed before his death, after successfully leading U.S. troops in the Northwest Indian War (August 29 to October 3, 1796). After the war, Miami Chief Little Turtle, became a proponent of friendly relations with the Americans. McHenry wrote to him upon his resignation as secretary of war, thanking him for his friendship: "…I shall carry with me the remembrance of your fidelity, your good sense, your honest regard for your own people, your sensibility and eloquent discourse in their favour, and what is precious to me as an individual, a belief that I shall always retain your friendship" (May 30, 1800). Other documents include an extract of a letter from Major Thomas Cushing to Brigadier General James Wilkinson, writing that he had given gifts to the Native Americans in order to prevent them from siding with the Spanish at New Orleans, who were attempting to win their favor (February 15, 1800).

Boxes 6 through 8 contain correspondence and documents written after McHenry's resignation as secretary of war at the end of May 1800. Though he retired from politics, his letters document that he maintained a keen interest in domestic and international issues. Senator Uriah Tracy wrote regular letters to McHenry in February 1801, keeping him up-to-date on the daily events regarding the presidential election between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. After the election, McHenry wrote a letter to U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands William Vans Murray, in which he discussed the election and why public opinion had shifted from the Federalists to Jefferson: "I still am of opinion, that we should have gained nothing by the election of Mr. Burr, could it have been accomplished by federal means. The general sentiment is so strong and ardent for Mr. Jefferson, that experience alone can correct it" (February 23, 1801). This section of correspondence also contains a draft of a letter to the speaker of the House of Representatives containing McHenry's defense against charges brought against him regarding disbursements while secretary of war (December 22, 1802), as well as his opinions of current political happenings, including the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the Embargo Act of 1807. Several of the letters written during this period also relate to McHenry's low opinion of John Adams, who forced him out of office. In a series of letters exchanged by McHenry and Oliver Wolcott in 1800, McHenry described his anger regarding Adams, and expressed regret that Adams remained in office after George Washington left. Over ten years later, McHenry wrote a letter to Timothy Pickering, responding to a series of memoirs Adams had printed in the Boston Patriot . He accused Adams of making significant errors and misrepresentations, and mused, "How many recollections have these puerile letters awakened. Still in his own opinion, the greatest man of the age. I see he will carry with him to the grave, his vanity, his weaknesses and follies, specimens of which we have so often witnessed and always endeavored to veil from the public" (February 23, 1811).

The Bound Items series consists of a diary, a published book of letters, a book of U.S. Army regulations, an account book, and a book of poetry. McHenry kept the diary from June 18 to July 24, 1778, beginning it at Valley Forge. It contains accounts of daily events, intelligence, orders, the Battle of Monmouth, and the march of Washington's army to White Plains, New York. The 1931 book, entitled Letters of James McHenry to Governor Thomas Sim Lee is the correspondence written by James McHenry to Maryland governor Thomas Sim Lee during the 1781 Yorktown Campaign. The book of army regulations spans ca. 1797-1798, while the account book covers 1816-1824. The book of poetry is handwritten but undated and unsigned.

In addition to this finding aid, the Clements Library has created a full list of letter-writers in the James McHenry papers: James McHenry Contributor List.

Subject Terms

  • Cabinet officers--United States.
  • Embargo, 1807-1809.
  • Haiti--History--Revolution, 1791-1804.
  • Indians of North America--Government relations--1789-1869.
  • Indians of North America--Treaties.
  • Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826.
  • Lafayette, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Motier, marquis de, 1757-1834.
  • Louisiana Purchase.
  • Military supplies.
  • Presidents--United States--Election--1800.
  • United States. Army--Regulations.
  • United States--Continental Army.
  • United States--Foreign relations--France.
  • United States--Foreign relations--Great Britain.
  • United States--Foreign relations--Spain.
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783.
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Campaigns.
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Participation, French.
  • United States--Politics and government--1783-1809.
  • United States. War Dept.
  • XYZ Affair, 1797-1798.
  • Adams, John, 1735-1826.
  • Allen, John, 1763-1812.
  • Binney, Barnabas, 1751-1787.
  • Cass, Jonathan, d. 1830.
  • Claghorn, George, 1748-1824.
  • Claiborne, William C. C. (William Charles Cole), 1775-1817.
  • Cushing, Thomas H. (Thomas Humphrey), 1755-1822.
  • Dana, Samuel Whittlesey, 1760-1830.
  • Davenport, John, 1752-1830.
  • Davie, William Richardson, 1756-1820.
  • Dearborn, Henry, 1751-1829.
  • Dickinson, Philemon, 1739-1809.
  • Forrest, Uriah, ca. 1757-1805.
  • Francis, Tench, 1730-1800.
  • Gilman, John Taylor, 1753-1828.
  • Goodrich, Chauncey, 1759-1815.
  • Grove, William Barry, 1764-1818.
  • Hamilton, Alexander, 1757-1804.
  • Hamtramck, John Francis, 1756-1803.
  • Harper, Robert Goodloe, 1765-1825.
  • Hawkins, Benjamin, 1754-1816.
  • Hollingsworth, Levi, 1739-1824.
  • Horry, Charles Lucas Pinckney, 1769-1830.
  • Howard, John Eager, 1752-1827.
  • Jenifer, Daniel of St. Thomas, 1723-1790.
  • King, Rufus, 1755-1827.
  • Knox, Henry, 1750-1806.
  • Lee, Charles, 1758-1815.
  • Lewis, Thomas, d. 1809.
  • Lewis, William, 1752-1819.
  • Liston, Robert, Sir, 1742-1836.
  • Little Turtle, 1747?-1812.
  • Marbury, William, 1761 or 2-1835.
  • Matthews, William, 1755-1807 or 8.
  • McKee, John, 1771-1832.
  • Meredith, Samuel, 1741-1817.
  • Mountflorence, James C.
  • Murray, William Vans, 1760-1803.
  • Nourse, Joseph, 1754-1841.
  • Pickering, Timothy, 1745-1829.
  • Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth, 1746-1825.
  • Rawle, William, 1759-1836.
  • Rhea, Jonathan.
  • Rivardi, John J. U. (John Jacob Ulrich)
  • Ross, James, 1762-1847.
  • Rumford, Benjamin, Graf von, 1753-1814.
  • Sitgreaves, Samuel, 1764-1827.
  • Smith, William Loughton, 1758-1812.
  • Steele, John (1764-1815)
  • Stoddert, Benjamin (1751-1813)
  • Swan, Caleb, d. 1809.
  • Tallmadge, Benjamin, 1754-1835.
  • Tracy, Uriah, 1755-1807.
  • United States. Army.
  • United States. Congress. House.
  • United States. Continental Congress.
  • United States. Navy.
  • United States. War Dept.
  • Washington, George, 1732-1799.
  • Wayne, Anthony, 1745-1796.
  • Wayne, Isaac, 1772-1852.
  • Wells, William, 1770-1812.
  • Wilkinson, James, 1757-1825.
  • Wolcott, Oliver, 1760-1833.
Genre Terms:
  • Government records.
  • Ledgers (account books)
  • Legal documents.
  • Letters (correspondence)
  • Military records.
  • Poetry.

Contents List (Request Materials)

Request materials for use in the Clements Library
Container / Location Title
Correspondence and Documents [series]
Box   1  
 July 8, 1777-June 27, 1796
Box   2  
 July 1, 1796-December 28, 1797
Box   3  
 January 1, 1798-December 24, 1798
Box   4  
 January 8, 1799-December 26, 1799
Box   5  
 January 5, 1800-May 31, 1800
Box   6  
 June 3, 1800-December 31, 1802
Box   7  
 January 4, 1803-December 26, 1810
Box   8  
 January 1, 1811-May 17, 1832 + undated
Folder   : Oversize Manuscripts  
 1792-1799     Includes: Photocopy of plans of McHenry home [1792?]; Estimate of monies required by the Department of War [September 1798]; and List of North Carolina army commission applications, January 13, 1799. 
Bound Items [series]
Volume   1  
Valley Forge Diary,  June 18, 1778-July 24, 1778
Volume   2  
Letters of James McHenry to Governor Thomas Sim Lee ,  1931
Volume   3  
Regulations for U.S. Army,  [1797]-[Post January 18, 1798]
Volume   4  
Account Book,  1816-1824
Volume   5  
Book of Poetry,  [n.d.]

Additional Descriptive Data

In addition to this finding aid, the Clements Library has created a full list of letter-writers in the James McHenry papers: James McHenry Contributor List.

Alternate Locations

The following items are located in the Clements Library Map Division:

The following map is located in the Correspondence Series, but has been separately cataloged:

Related Materials

Related Collections at the Clements Library:

An additional collection of James McHenry papers is located at the Library of Congress.