McHenry, James (1753–1816), doctor, soldier, and statesman in America, was born 16 November 1753 at Ballymena, Co. Antrim, son of Daniel McHenry, merchant, and his wife, Agnes. Educated in Dublin, in 1771 he emigrated to America, where his family joined him in Philadelphia the following year. He attended the Newark Academy, Delaware; his predilection for poetry soon gave way to an interest in medicine, and he trained as a doctor in Philadelphia. When conflict between Britain and the colonies appeared inevitable in 1775, he volunteered for military service because of his dislike for England. With the outbreak of the war of independence he served as a surgeon, and was briefly captured by the British, although he was later paroled and exchanged. On 15 May 1778 he was appointed secretary to Gen. George Washington, thus ending his medical career. Establishing a lifelong friendship with Washington, he was transferred (1780) to the staff of the French general, Lafayette. In 1781 he became a major, and was elected to the Maryland senate (1781–6). Appointed to congress (1783–6), he was a Maryland delegate to the national convention that drafted the constitution (1787). Although a committed federalist, he was not a clever theorist, and his greatest contribution was keeping a record of the proceedings. Through his many contacts, McHenry had a vast array of patronage at his disposal, which he dispensed liberally in Maryland between 1780 and 1795.
With Washington as first president of the USA, in January 1796 McHenry was appointed secretary of war, after three others had declined the office. He engaged in a sweeping restructuring of the army; Fort Whetstone in Baltimore was renamed ‘Fort McHenry’ in his honour. His role in the creation of the ‘new army’ was important, but he had little ability as a politician or an administrator, and Washington soon regretted his appointment. Although he continued to serve under the second president, John Adams, their relationship was tense and he was forced to resign in 1800. It seems he had often acted behind Adams's back, but the real problem appears to have been his easy-going manner; he was so affable he always deferred to whoever he was with at the time. Retiring to his estate at Fayetteville, near Baltimore, he opposed the war of 1812. When Fort McHenry was attacked by British rockets during this conflict, it inspired the writing of ‘The star-spangled banner’, the American national anthem. McHenry was president of the first Bible society, in Baltimore (1813). An invalid after 1814, he died 3 May 1816. He married (8 January 1784) Margaret Allison Caldwell; they had four children, of whom a son and a daughter survived him.