United States Military Academy at West Point

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The United States Military Academy[1], also known as West Point, was formed by Thomas Jefferson in 1802.

On January 1821, Professor Jared Mansfield wrote to Thomas Jefferson from West Point:

“The Superintendent, Officers, Professors, Instructors, & Cadets of the United States Military Academy, impressed, with a high sense of the great services, you have rendered the Nation, & that this Institution, with which they are connected, originated under your patronage, & presidency, are anxious for some special, & appropriate memorial of your person, which may descend to posterity.”[2]
Sully portrait. United States Military Academy
Sully portrait. United States Military Academy

The library at the U.S. Military Academy, Mansfield informed Jefferson, had portraits of George Washington and of Jonathan Williams, the academy’s first superintendent. Would Jefferson, Mansfield asked, “gratify them” by sitting for Thomas Sully, one of the “best Portrait Painters of our Country,” at Monticello?

By 1802, when President Jefferson established the United States Military Academy, he had fully embraced the importance of “useful sciences” in education and in the protection of the young nation. Two years earlier, Jefferson had written to Pierre S. du Pont de Nemours, asking: “What are the branches of science which in the present state of man, and particularly with us, should be introduced into an academy?” DuPont proposed an all inclusive plan of national education with primary schools, colleges, and four specialty schools – medicine, mines, social science and legislation, and “higher geometry and the sciences that it explains.” With engineering “urging forward the other sciences,” this school would be of the greatest benefit to the nation, du Pont explained. As he told Jefferson: “No nation is in such need of canals as the United States, and most of their ports have no means of exterior defense.”

Just two months after Jefferson’s inauguration, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn announced that the president had “decided in favor of the immediate establishment of a military school at West Point and also on the appointment of Major Jonathan Williams” to direct “the necessary arrangements, at that place for the commencement of the school.”

On March 16, 1802, Jefferson affixed his name to the Military Peace Establishment Act, directing that a corps of engineers be established and “stationed at West Point in the state of New York, and shall constitute a Military Academy.” The academy’s sole function would be to train engineers, and Williams, grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, was named superintendent. On July 4, 1802, the U.S. Military Academy formally opened for instruction. “Our guiding star,” Superintendent Williams said, “is not a little mathematical School, but a great national establishment. … We must always have it in view that our Officers are to be men of Science, and as such will by their acquirements be entitled to the notice of learned societies.”

In the War of 1812, the enemy British did not capture any works constructed by a graduate of West Point, and perhaps, as historian Henry Adams suggested, “had an engineer been employed at Washington … the city would have been easily saved.” Jefferson’s military academy, Adams wrote, had “doubled the capacity of the new little American army for resistance, and introduced and scientific character into American life.” Jefferson himself said that he “ever considered that establishment as of major importance to our country, and in whatever I could do for it, I viewed myself as performing a duty.” Today, the Thomas Sully portrait of Thomas Jefferson commissioned by the “Superintendent, Officers, Professors, Instructors, & Cadets of the United States Military Academy” hangs at West Point.

West Point's Lost Founder: Thomas Jefferson Remembered, Forgotten & Reconsidered

Before the commandant stood a worried cadet, unjustly accused of disregarding orders and disparaging the memories of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Both men had died on July 4, 1826-exactly fifty years after the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson drafted and Adams championed, and exactly twenty-four years after the official commencement of operations at the United States Military Academy, which Jefferson established and Adams supported. When officers at West Point heard the startling news-a coincidence that young mathematicians at Jefferson's other school, the University of Virginia, would calculate the odds against to be more than 1.7 billion to one-they decided that the academy should pay its respects. The cadet, as sergeant of the guard, had been directed to see to it that his peers fire two guns, from reveille to retreat, in quick succession every fifteen minutes. Instead of the regular issue of two clear shots, however, Major William J. Worth, the commandant, had heard haphazard gunfire. "Shortly after morning parade I was sent for in great haste by the Commandant," the cadet later remembered. I denied disobeying the order, and insisted that the guns were discharged at proper intervals." Worth dismissed the cadet who, "to avoid any further trouble . . . loaded and touched them off myself, watch in hand." Yet "again I was sent for, and rated soundly for failure. What it all meant I could not understaud, but the Major went with me to the guard-tent, and just as I touched off the gun, before its echoes died away," another shot thundered in the distance. "The cause," he then realized, "was the blasting of rocks" around nearby Fort Putnam, which Worth "had heard, but which I had not." Worth "apologized before the whole guard for his unjust censure," ordered an end to the blasting, and the tribute to Jefferson and Adams continued. Such a demonstration of solicitude for Jefferson's memory would not again occur at West Point for nearly a century.

Jefferson wrote not only the Declaration of Independence but also the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia. He served in colonial Virginia's House of Burgesses, the Continental Congress, and the Virginia House of Delegates; he was his state's governor and his nation's minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President. He was a noted architect, spirited violinist, ardent farmer, and a leading scientist. He knew seven languages, doubled the nation's territory through the Louisiana Purchase, dispatched Lewis and Clark on their voyage of discovery, introduced pasta and ice cream to the American palate, and fathered the University of Virginia. He was, in short, a true polymath, a Renaissance man whose interests spanned wide and probed deep.

Among his many accomplishments, however, Jefferson's 1802 founding of the United States Military Academy is, and has been, often overlooked. Such was not the case in the early years of West Point - as the incident between Worth and the cadet makes clear. Jefferson was held up as the academy's founder, patron, and creator. His name was recognized aud his memory was perpetuated. Beginning in the 1830s, however, new considerations made a connection with Jefferson seem less attractive to the Army officers at West Point. At the centennial celebrations of the academy's birth, it was not Jefferson but George Washington who was described as founder. Only in the past half century, in fact, did Jefferson re-emerge. The new question was not whether Jefferson had a role in the creation of West Point-for certainly, he did-but what he did to foster the academy and why, as he wrote in 1821, he considered it "of major importance to our country."

Even so, the die had been cast. Jefferson had been divorced from West Point in the minds of many of its graduates and the public. Buildings had been named, statues erected, and a myth created that characterized as wasted time the years prior to the installation of Sylvanus Thayer as superintendent. The result was neglect, on the part of some, and ignorance, on the part of others, of Jefferson's contributions.

Despite lapses in historical memory, the fact that the United States Military Academy owes its existence to Jefferson is beyond refutation. Plans for a national institution charged with military education had been advanced since the time of the American Revolution. Colonel Henry Knox suggested it, treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton supported it, French- American Lieutenant Colonel Ann Louise de Toussard drew up ambitious plans for it, and Presidents George Washington and John Adams asked Congress to establish it. But their various proposals either languished or amounted to little until 1802, when President Jefferson convinced Congress to authorize the establishment of the military academy. It commenced operations officially on July 4 of that year, the twenty-sixth anniversary of American independence.

The early academy was a small institution with only a handful of faculty and cadets. Even so, it received a good deal of attention from the busy president, who corresponded with West Point professors and Jonathan Williams, its first superintendent, served as honorary leader of the United States Military Philosophical Society, a West Point scientific organization and booster group, and, in 1808, called for the Academy's dramatic enlargement. On April 12 of that vear. Conmess heeded Jefferson's call and increased the authorized enrollment to 256 cadets. Although years elapsed before the Academy succeeded in its efforts to attract this number of qualified students, the fact that Jefferson supported an Academy of this size suggests much about his commitment to the institution. In the census of 1810, the federal government counted 7.2 million Americans. As a percentage of the population, the academy envisioned by Jefferson was more than twice as large as today's West Point, when each year about 4,000 cadets prepare for the defeuse of a nation of about 281 million people.

His support did not go unnoticed. In 1821, more than a decade after his retirement as commander-in-chief, mathematics professor Jared Mansfield wrote to Jefferson in behalf of Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer, the faculty, and the cadets. "Impressed with a high sense of the great services you have rendered the nation, and this institution, with which they are connected, originated under your patronage, and presidency," Mansfield informed Jefferson, they were "anxious for some special, and appropriate memorial of your person which may descend to posterity. They have already in the Academy Library the portraits of the great Washington, the Founder of Our Republic, and Col. (Jonathan) Williams, the first chief of the Mil(itary) Academy, and they wish to add yours to the number, as being alike the Founders, and Patrons of both." Jefferson agreed to stand for the poitrait, which noted Philadelphia artist Thomas Sully traveled to Monticello to sketch and then paint in the spring of the following year. Sully's 8 1/2' x 5 1/2 "Thomas Jefferson" depicts the academy's founder on the verge of his seventy-ninth birthday. Still vigorous in mind and body, at 6'3" he towers over many of his contemporaries and stands, like the column beside him, as an enduring pillar of strength. He wears a black coat, knee breaches, and the furlined bear skin topcoat given to him in 1798 by Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish officer whose Continental Army service during the War for Independence included a tour of duty constructing fortifications at West Point. In his left hand Jefferson holds a parchment scroll-perhaps his I802 law establishing the United States Military Academy. Sully's portrait, the prize of a collection that has hung for nearly two centuries in buildings that have housed the Cadet Library, would be the first and last major monument at West Point to the man to whom the military academy owes its existence.

What explains ignorance of Jefferson's role in the years leading up to the Civil War? The reasons are both political and personal. What first must be understood is the devotion of West Point officers to Superintendent Thayer-to him, to his superintendency, and to its significance. Thayer's reign as West Point's chief was successful and long, but both his arrival and departure were clouded in controversy. The turbulent 1817 transfer of power from Alden Partridge to Thayer-so turbulent, in fact, that for a while Partridge refused to step aside perhaps has led chroniclers of West Point's past to depreciate the contributions of Partridge and his predecessors in order to underscore the legitimacy of Thayer's appointment and the contributions of his tenure. Thayer's 1833 resignation, after a conflict with President Andrew Jackson, also may have had a negative impact as Jefferson's fame as founder. Like Thayer, many antebellum West Pointers, including the ones who wrote the academy's history, found themselves at odds with Jackson's party and allied themselves with its Whig opponents. They had little reason to exalt the political symbols of Jacksonian Democrats, the most prominent of which was Thomas Jefferson.

Democrats appropriated Jefferson despite the fact that the party of Jackson was hardly the party of Jefferson. Jefferson-and James Madison also-disliked the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. After an 1824 visit to Monticello, Daniel Webster reported that Jefferson said that he felt "much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson, president." Jackson had "very little respect for laws or constitutions," Jefferson told Webster, and he impulsively sacrificed means to ends. All things considered, Jackson was "a dangerous man." Nonetheless, in the minds of Jacksonian Democrats and their Whig opponents, Jefferson and Jackson were linked. According to historian Merrill Peterson, "so tight was the association of these three elements-the Jefferson symbol, democracy, and the Democratic Party-that one scarcely existed in the public mind apart from tlie others and attempts to disengage them met with fleeting success."

Thayer's dispute with Jackson must be understood in this context. When, in 1833, New York Cadet H. Ariel Norris planted in the middle of the parade ground a "hickory pole," he took a stand not only for Jackson-widely known as "Old Hickory" - but also for Jefferson and the American revolutionary tradition, which had used liberty poles to protest the British imperial regime. He also had taken a stand against Thayer, whose disciplinary system had been described as oppressive by Cadets Nicholas P. Trist, Jefferson's future grandson-in- law, and Andrew Jackson Donelson, Jackson's nephew, both of whom entered West Point in 1818, shortly after Thayer's installation as superintendent. Thayer understood the impropriety of the existence of this symbol of partisanship and insubordination on the parade ground. He ordered the removal of the hickory pole as well as the removal of Norris. Norris appealed the decision, so Thayer sent a faculty member to Washington to explain the situation. The professor met with Jackson to state his case, but almost immediately Jackson "became excited, and spoke of the 'tyranny' of Colonel Thayer and, rising from his chair, he stalked before me, swinging his arms as if in a rage and speaking of the case of Norris. . . . Why. said he, the autocrat of the Russias couldn't exercise more power!'" The professor stood his ground. Jackson dismissed him and ordered an investigation of the system of discipline at West Point. The resulting report recommended no changes and, for three or four months, all was quiet. But then another instance arose where Jackson interfered with Thayer-Norris's case had not been the first. Thayer, indignant, resigned in 1833.

The principled departure of Thayer helped to solidify his reputation as a hero of the academy. It also helped to galvanize Army officers in their opposition to Jacksonian Democrats. A case in point is Dennis Hart Mahan, an 1824. graduate of the academy who in 1830 returned as engineering professor, a position he retained for forty years. Mahan exhibited deep admiration for Thayer and deep mistrust of Jacksonian democracy, in part because of Thayer's battle with Jackson and subsequent resignation. The episode so much distressed Mahan that as soon as Jackson left office he hatched a plan to restore Thayer as superintendent. The scheme failed and Thayer never returned, but Mahan remained. He became one of the most influential faculty members in the history of the academy.

Like Mahan, Winfield Scott became involved in Thayer's superintendency. As a major general he presided over the 1817 court martial that found Partridge guilty of disobedience and mutiny for refusing to vacate his West Point post; he also presided over the academy's 1831 Board of Visitors, which, among other measures, called on the government to give Thayer a raise. Although not an academy graduate, he became a consummate academy insider; he spent summers at West Point and, when he finally died in 1866, was buried there. His political leanings mirrored those of Mahan and many others connected with the Army. He grew to despise Jackson, with whom he had a series of disputes, and by 1852, after triumphant leadership in the Mexican War, became so advanced in his partisanship that he stood as the Whig presidential candidate. Early in life, Scott considered himself an ardent Republican; Jefferson, in fact, interviewed him and awarded his Army commission. But then he developed a friendship with Federalist writer Washington Irving, an admiration for Hamilton, and a highly critical understanding of Jefferson. The third president was not only "highly ambitious," Scott later wrote, but also highly resentful, for "in the presence of Washington" he recoiled from a "painful sense of inferiority." While Washington had donned a uniform in the fight for independence, Jefferson had not, a fact that Scott believed led him to oppose Revolutionary War veteran Hamilton's plans for national finance, resign his cabinet post, and embrace states' rights principles that yielded the "first fruits" of the secessionist, rebellious impulses that led to the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee, the academy's eighth superintendent, did not share Scott's nationalism. But Lee, who was born a Federalist and matured as a Whig, did share Scott's hatred for Jefferson. The feud between Jefferson and the Lees dated all the way back to 1809, when General Henry ("Light-Horse Harry") Lee landed in debtor's prison as a result of business dealings gone bad. Lee, who blamed his financial condition on Jefferson's embargo of foreign trade, spent much of his prison term putting together his Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, which he published in 1812. The Memoirs made Jefferson's supposed "timidity and impotence" as Revolutionary War governor of Virginia a case study in the supposed need for energetic government by officials with coercive authority. Jefferson did not respond publicly to Henry Lee's assertions, but in private he derided the tract as "a tissue of errors from beginning to end," a "parody" based on "rumors," and a book so "ridiculous that it is almost ridiculous seriously to notice it."

There the matter rested-and the feud persisted- until 1826, when a younger Henry Lee, who had inherited not only his father's name but also the rights to his book, prepared a revision of the Memoirs. He recelved an invitation by Jefferson to visit him at Monticello and examine documents relating to his performance as governor. Robert Lee's brother accepted the offer, but when he arrived at Monticello in June he found Jefferson on his deathbed. "There he was extended," he remembered, "feeble, prostrate; but the fine and clear expression of his countenance not at all obscured. At the first glance he recognized me, and his hand and voice at once saluted me. The energy of his grasp, and the spirit of his conversation, were such as to make me hope he would yet rally and that the superiority of mind over matter. . . would preserve him yet longer." Jefferson never recovered, however, and Lee never did see his papers. But he departed with a changed heart. When he revised his father's Memoirs he not only softened the most damning passages but also reprinted a letter that Jefferson had written to him. After British troops captured Richmond in 1781, Jefferson recounted, he rode his horse through the countryside in pursuit of recruits for the militia. The animal collapsed beneath him, he said, so he walked with the saddle on his shoulders to a nearby farm, where he borrowed an unbroken colt and continued the journey.

The detente between Jefferson and the Lees did not last for long. Three years after Jefferson's death, his grandson published a collection of his correspondence that reopened old wounds, for it included an 1815 letter to James Monroe that disparaged Light-Horse Harry Lee's Memoirs as "a historical novel for the amusement of credulous and uninquisitive readers." It also contained a 1796 note to Washington in which Jefferson described Lee as "an intriguer" and a "miserable tergiversator, who ought indeed to have been of more truth, or less trusted by his countrymen." For Light-Horse Harry Lee's sons, including Robert, the recent West Point graduate, these were fighting words. The brothers, according to Robert E. Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, "Became more confnmed in their opposition to the party of Jefferson," which by then meant the party of Jackson. Henry Lee published in 1832 another printed attack on Jefferson, and seven years later brother Charles Carter Lee enlarged the work, heaping on to Jefferson even more opprobrium. Not to be left out, in 1869 Robert E. Lee, who had otherwise renounced all things bellicose, reissued the Memoirs-a final shot in a family feud that had lasted for more than half a century.

The Civil War gripped America not long after the conclusion of Lee's superintendency, and Lee was not the only officer to trade his Army blues for the gray uniform of the Confederacy. West Point graduate and Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard, who on April 12, 1861 ordered the shelling of Fort Sumter, had been relieved as the academy's superintendent only two and one-half months earlier. Cadets from southern states that had already seceded had been trickling out of West Point for several months; now, however, the number of resignations appeared more like a flood. By May, only 21 of the 86 southern cadets remained. The rest would join a Confederate officer corps that eventually included 296 academy graduates, 151 of whom, like Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, became the generals of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, yet another West Point alumnus.

Meanwhile, for most of the Civil War Alexander Hamilton Bowman served as superintendent, an unenviable position in no small part because of the heavy criticism directed at West Point. Secretary of War Simon Cameron submitted to Congress a report that dwelled on the "extraordinary treachery" of academy graduates, a symptom, he suggested, of "a radical defect in the system of education itself." Other northern critics, including many of Congress's radical Republicans, also depicted West Point as a nursery of secessionism. In addition, they characterized the graduates who remained in the Union army as too southern in their views on slavery and emancipation, too theoretical in their tactics, and too timid in their efforts to engage the enemy. When, in December 1861, Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler called for the closing of the academy, several of his colleagues concurred.

Superintendent Bowman faced a crisis. West Point's enemies aimed at its destruction, many of his faculty (most in Union blue) had marched south and the Corps of Cadets stood depleted. Given this context, it is not surprising that Jefferson's reputation as founder of the military academy continued to slip from public memory as Alexander Hamilton Bowman made no effort to promote his institution through a closer association with his namesake's nemesis. Like the academy, Jefferson had also been described as too southern, too theoretical, and too timid. These criticisms, which originated during his own lifetime (and Henry Lee was not the first to levy them), still reverberated during the Civil War years, when Jefferson's reputation plummeted.

Although the embattled reputations of both West Point and Jefferson during the Civil War combined to discourage the resurrection of Jefferson's image as its founder, the 1902 centennial celebration of its founding provided a clear opportunity to recognize the third president. Yet the academy snubbed Jefferson on its birthday. The massive two-volume Centennial of the United States Militaiy Academy at West Point, a collection of speeches, banquet toasts, and histories marking the occasion, mentions his name only twice. In an essay on the academy's origins, Edward S. Holden, the West Point librarian, called attention to Secretary of State Jefferson's doubts, in 1793, about the constitutionality of a national military school. He did not, however, point toward Jefferson's supprt for the Academy in 1802; instead, he wrote that "by the act of Congress . . . the Military Academy was instituted." He gave Jefferson only a single positive nod, and that came in the middle of a long list of benefactors. Among them, he wrote, "two names stand preeminent- Knox and Hamilton." During the Revolution, Holden pointed out, Knox "was the first proposer and the steady advocate of a military school of the very type of our own. To Hamilton the Academy and the Army owe a well-considered plan for military education that, in its main features, has sufficed for the needs of the century just passed." Holden's tepid recognition excepted, all celebrants of the centennial seem to have ignored Jefferson's support for the early military academy. Many coutinued to fix their attention on later years, heralding Thayer as the academy's father, and some, such as the author of the brief history of the academy that soon began to appear in Bugle Notes, the cadet handbook, concurred with Holden's assertion that "its founder is Washington." No one thought to mention that Washington, in 1802, was dead.

Jefferson's banishment from the West Point pantheon cannot be written off solely as confoimity to what, by that time, was fairly well established tradition. The centennial fixed the date of the founding with precision. Jefferson was president in 1802, and the bill supporting the establishment of the academy came not from Congress but from him. In all likelihood, historians of the academy ignored Jefferson in 1902 for two other reasons. The first was a body of scholarship on diplomacy that attached Jefferson's defense policies; the second was the fact that the chief proponents of this neo-Hamiltonian assessment were influential men with powerful West Point connections.

As in the Civil War, nearly all of Jefferson's detractors considered themselves members of the Republican Party; unlike the Civil War, when a good number of West Pointers allied themselves with Democrats, in 1902 the "big stick" policy of President Theodore Roosevelt won admiration, if not active political participation, from the majority of Army officers. Perhaps the most prominent neo-Hamiltonian was Roosevelt himself, a former Army officer, veteran of the Spanish-American War, and prolific author. Others included his secretary of war, Elihu Root, and Alfred Thayer Mahan, son of popular West Point Professor Dennis Hart Mahan. Each, echoing the contentions of previous generations, directed sharp criticisms toward Jefferson.

While Roosevelt praised "Hamilton's wonderful genius." he portrayed Jefferson as a conniving, impractical, and self-deluding ideologue. The third president was "unscrupulous," a "pacifist" who established a "tradition of timid avoidance of all physical danger." "I have always regarded Jefferson," Roosevelt affirmed in 1915, as "one of the most mischievous enemies of democracy, one of the very weakest we have ever had in public life." The twenty sixth president blamed Jefferson for the War of 1812. Jefferson, he wrote, "was perhaps the most incapable Executive that ever filled the presidential chair."

The worst of Jefferson's defense measures, Roosevelt thought, was his plan for "an enormous force of very worthless gun-boats-a scheme," he wrote, "whose wisdom was about on a par with some of that statesman's political and military theories." Roosevelt's blast at Jefferson's proudest naval project-based on the assumption that an American ocean-going navy, which could never match the strength of Britain's, would draw the nation into an unwinnable naval war and should he replaced by small, agile, and economical defensive craft piloted by citizen-sailors-was echoed by that other prominent neo-Hamiltonian, Alfred Thayer Mahan. Mahan's important book on The Influence of Sea Power in History argued for a large, formidable navy of large, formidable ships. To correspondents, Mahan expressed his disdain for Jefferson and his "seductive cheap gunboat policy, in which ensured "a minimum of military usefulness at a maximum of pecuniaty outlay."

Despite the efforts of neo-Hamiltonian detractors, Jefferson's reputation among West Pointers and citizens in general improved during the next fifty years, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Franklin Roosevelt. Unlike his cousin, the younger Roosevelt cast himself as a neo-Jeffersonian, sculpted Jefferson's image as a political experimenter and advocate of liberty,.. and in 1943 dedicated the Jefferson Memorial. Even before Roosevelt's campaign to renovate Jefferson's image, however, West Point fashioned a humble monument to his memory. His name joined those of a handful of notables inscribed onto the stone walls of the 1910 administration and headquarters building. According to a pamphlet published shortly after the building's completion, Jefferson deserved recognition as the president "during whose administration . . . the Military Academy was founded." Thayer, described as "Father of the Military Academy, and James Monroe, "under whose administration the Military Academy developed and was encouraged," were similarly honored. (Washington received special treatment, for his personal coat of arms appeared high on the courtyard's east wall directly across from the seal of the United States.) Jefferson's inclusion within the headquarters honor roll demonstrated that the willful disregard for his contributions seen at the centennial did not endure.

So did the naming in Jefferson's honor of the avenue that linked the library with the superintendent's quarters, noted on maps of the academy beginning in the early 1930s, as well as the East Academic Building's 1937 rededication as Jefferson Hall. The honor was shortlived, for a year later academy officials voted to revert to the building's former name because, they claimed, the new designation "proved very confusing," could "lead to controversy and dissention," and seemed out of step with the generally established practice of naming edifices not for men but for their functions. (Later the academy again renamed the structure, this time in memory of William Bartlett, a long-serving science professor.) During this decade streets were named also after Washington and Thayer, and a few years earlier workmen completed Washington Hall, the building containing the cadet mess, and the Hotel Thayer. Both men retained their more exalted status (and their eponymous buildings), but Jefferson-especially during the Franklin Roosevelt era-at least made inroads.

Thus by the time of the academy's 150th birthday Jefferson had regained some of his stature, not only among Americans generally but also within the Army. The 1950 annonncement of upcoming sesquicentennial exercises by the superintendent, Major General Bryant E. Moore, noted that "Thomas Jefferson, following the advice of George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others, established a national military academy on the Hudson River at West Point." Two years later, Superintendent Frederick A. Irving remarked at the sesquicentennial invocation that "Jefferson signed the act of Congress which established this institution" because he joined with Hamilton, Knox, and Adams in "realizing the need for a trained source of officers, a corps which would form the nucleus about which a civilian army could be built." As part of its birthday celebration, the academy published an official account marking the occasion. The first chapter, a brief synopsis of West Point's history, began by quoting Jefferson's Military Peace Establishment Act and mentioning that he "signed this legislation on March 16, 1802."

Although the recognition accorded to Jefferson marked a departure from centennial speakers' willful ignorance of his role, its tepid nature still left plenty of room for qualification. The official sesquicentennial history, for example, took care to mention that "the Military Academy did not spring into existence with a stroke of the pen. The Act of 1802 simply granted formal recognition to an institution that had been slowly evolving since the first American garrison occupied West Point during the Revolutionary War." Jefferson's advocacy constituted only "the final step" before Thayer's "first step," which was "to reorganize the Corps of Cadets." Once again, West Pointers pressed Jefferson into the humble and virtually thankless role of successor. Contrary to chronology, they lavished the role of the academy's origlnator and progenitor on Thayer.

The relatively newfound ability of West Point officials to enunciate Jefferson's name failed not only to alter the basic tenor of public commemorations of the academy's birth but also the substance. The major events of the sesquicentennial included the installation in the Cadet Library of a portrait of Confederate General Robert E. Lee-Jefferson's old adversary and on March 16 the laying of wreaths by delegations of cadets at the graves of Thayer and Washington. The cadet contingent at Mount Vernon had no corollary at Monticello.

Jefferson received less recognition from actual cadets than he did from actors who played ones in Warner Brothers' The West Point Story, a 1950 film starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Doris Day, and Gordon MacRea, who appeared as Cadet Tom Fletcher, a talented singer starring in the academy's annual "100th Night" variety show. Although not an official component of the sesquicentennial celebration, the film focused on the school's origins when, in the opening number of the fictionalized cadet production, Fletcher took the stage and stood before a chorus of classmates. "In the beginning as in all things it was only a dream" and he said, "but the dreamers had names: like Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson. They stood on a point of land on the west bank of the Hudson and planned that this fortress that guarded our newborn nation, should become our military academy." In Hollywood's version of history, however, Washington also trumped Jefferson. "The Corps was founded," Fletcher continued, "and the father of our country hecame the father of a legend."

Despite these snubs, the highlight of the sesquicentennial- the May 20 address by President Harry S. Truman-gave to Jefferson more attention than he had received at West Point since the 1820s. Truman's speech recognized Jefferson as founder of the academy; it also praised his pragmatism and practicality. Yet so did nearly concurrent statements by Dwight Eisenhower, Truman's triumphant European theater World War II commander and Republican successor, who said that he admired Jefferson because "he understood and feared the implications of the shift we have seen in recent years from local government to Federal government, from freedom to regimentation, from decentralization to centralization."

Civilian leaders continued to praise Jefferson in the decades after the Second World War. President John F. Kennedy, for example, described his predecessor as his "hero," one of the "most exceptional men of the 18th century," and one of "our nation's . . . first great scholars." He said at a banquet honoring Nobel Prize winners from North and South America that "this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Robert F. Kennedy spotlighted the third president as a man who welcomed the free "exchange of views" between individuals, nations, and cultures.

While Democrats extolled Jefferson as an intellectual, Republicans embraced his ideology. Like Eisenhower and MacArthur before him, Barry Goldwater, the 1964. Republican presidential candidate, claimed Jefferson's mantle. He charged that the Democratic Party was "no longer the party of Jefferson" for it no longer subscribed to "principle and principled liberalism." That the Arizona senator described Jefferson as his favorite president is not surprising. Under his leadership the Cold War Republican Party renewed its commitment, through both foreign and domestic policy, to oppose big government and defend individual freedom. Jefferson, who Franklin Roosevelt had enlisted as a symbol of democracy and egalitarianism to combat Nazis and Republicans, now helped Republicans battle Communists and Democrats. Even Democrat Jimmy Carter admitted that Jeffersonian principles, which included the insistence that people "stop looking to the federal government as a bottomless cornucopia," no longer remained "popular . . . with some members of my party." Ronald Reagan, who said in his famous campaign speech for Goldwater that Democratic leaders were "taking the party of Jefferson . . . down the road under the banners of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin," in 1987 proclaimed from the steps of the Jefferson Memorial the Republican faith that "economic freedoms" and the political freedoms advocated by Jefferson were "inextricably linked."

The Republicanization of Jefferson's image- the emphasis on his support for limited government at home and the expansion of liberty abroad-resonated well within a Cold War context. It also fit perfectly the central themes of the Reagan administration, during which the bulk of the current officer corps came of age and began to undermine the old ideal of an a political military. Although during the 1970s more than half of up-and-coming officers described their politics as independent of any specific party, today (2002) only 28 percent make such a claim. Even more striking, those who identify themselves as Republicans constitute 64 percent, a figure eight times larger than the number who call themselves Democrats. While this phenomenon bodes ill for an all-volunteer military struggling to avoid estrangement from the public it defends, it probably constitutes good news for Jefferson's reputation within the Army, which for much of its existence was led by men who identified the third president with a party that many of them opposed. It also supgests that occasions such as the 2001 Senate confirmation hearing of retired General Colin Powell, Republican President George W. Bush's nominee for secretary of state, may well become more common. Powell, who during the Persian Gulf War commanded all of America's armed forces, described Jefferson as "ahead of the time in which he lived" and himself "as Jefferson's admiring successor."

These political changes bode well for Jefferson's image as the founder of the military academy. Both parties find reasons to embrace Jefferson's ideals. The military can now focus attention on Jefferson without offending most members of the public it serves. Witness the recent announcement that West Point's new library building, to be built in 2006, will be named Thomas Jefferson Hall. The scholarly environment has also changed. A year ago West Point convened a bicentennial conference on Jefferson's establishment of the academy; it featured presentations by nearly a dozen scholars, all of whom shed new light on his contributions to the military school.

How will Jefferson's reputation as the academy's founder fare in the future? What can be predicted with certainty is that West Point's view of its past will reflect its changing present. The question will continue to be what really it always has been: not whether Jefferson made West Point, but what West Point makes of Jefferson.


  1. This article is based on Christine Coalwell, Monticello Newsletter, 12 (Winter 2001)and Robert M. S. McDonald, "West Point's Lost Founder: Thomas Jefferson Remembered, Forgotten & Reconsidered", November 1, 2002.
  2. Jared Mansfield to Thomas Jefferson, January 26, 1821, NWM

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