Starting from a generalization of the standard axioms for a monoid we present a stepwise development of various, mutually equivalent foundational axiom systems for category theory. Our axiom sets have been formalized in the Isabelle/HOL interactive proof assistant, and this formalization utilizes a semantically correct embedding of free logic in classical higher-order logic. The modeling and formal analysis of our axiom sets has been significantly supported by series of experiments with automated reasoning tools integrated with Isabelle/HOL. We also address the relation of our axiom systems to alternative proposals from the literature, including an axiom set proposed by Freyd and Scedrov for which we reveal a technical issue (when encoded in free logic where free variables range over defined and undefined objects): either all operations, e.g. morphism composition, are total or their axiom system is inconsistent. The repair for this problem is quite straightforward, however.