U.S. Military Academy Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Creation of the first military academy and first engineering school in the United States helped erode Federalist domination of the army’s officer corps and laid the foundation for a professionally trained officer corps.

Summary of Event

Even after emerging victorious from the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the United States faced potentially hostile forces from all directions. Monarchical European countries to the east were eager for the American experiment in democracy to fail. Native Americans menaced settlement and further advancement in the American West. Great Britain occupied the territory to the north and Spain the land to the south and southwest. The new nation obviously needed a system of national defense. However, many Americans had a strong suspicion of standing armies—a sentiment that dated back to England’s civil war in the seventeenth century. Many Americans regarded an aristocracy as the most formidable threat to their democracy, and they believed that aristocracies had their roots in standing armies. Some Americans thought an army of citizen-soldiers led by a trained officer corps might be the answer. The disloyal actions by Continental Army officers at Newburgh in the winter of 1782-1783 and the elitist, self-perpetuating, and politically dangerous Society of Cincinnati formed by Colonel Henry Knox Knox, Henry , George Washington’s chief of artillery, and other army officers at the end of the Revolutionary War American Revolution (1775-1783);and officer training[Officer training] underscored concerns of those who feared the creation of a military officer class. Military Academy, U.S. West Point Education;U.S. Military Academy [kw]U.S. Military Academy Is Established (Mar. 16, 1802) [kw]Military Academy Is Established, U.S. (Mar. 16, 1802) [kw]Academy Is Established, U.S. Military (Mar. 16, 1802) [kw]Established, U.S. Military Academy Is (Mar. 16, 1802) Military Academy, U.S. West Point Education;U.S. Military Academy [g]United States;Mar. 16, 1802: U.S. Military Academy Is Established[0130] [c]Education;Mar. 16, 1802: U.S. Military Academy Is Established[0130] [c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 16, 1802: U.S. Military Academy Is Established[0130] [c]Military history;Mar. 16, 1802: U.S. Military Academy Is Established[0130] [c]Engineering;Mar. 16, 1802: U.S. Military Academy Is Established[0130] Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] Dearborn, Henry Hamilton, Alexander [p]Hamilton, Alexander;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] Knox, Henry Thayer, Sylvanus McHenry, James Washington, George [p]Washington, George;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] Tousard, Louis de

Knox was one of the earliest advocates of a national military academy. In 1783, Washington Washington, George [p]Washington, George;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] had called for the establishment of one or more academies for instruction in the military arts. No action was taken, however, and by 1785 the national army had dwindled to a force with fewer than one hundred officers and men. In 1790, the federal government purchased the fort of West Point on the Hudson River Hudson River for $11,085 at a moment when the United States seemed to be once again on the brink of war.

At that time, France, the U.S. ally, was at war with Great Britain and Spain, and it was apparent that the United States would have to bolster its national defenses in order to remain neutral in that conflict. On May 7, 1794, Congress authorized an increase in the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers at West Point. Congress also established the rank of cadet for junior officers assigned to West Point to be trained in the arts of war. With other duties absorbing most of their time, however, the cadets received little actual training. Meanwhile, the war in Europe continued to expand, bringing pressures in the United States not only to enlarge the army drastically but also to found a military academy. On July 16, 1798, Congress empowered President John Adams Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] to appoint four teachers for the purpose of instructing the cadets and young officers in the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers; however, no qualified teachers were found.

At that juncture, after years of failure, Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton Hamilton, Alexander [p]Hamilton, Alexander;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] informed Secretary of War James McHenry McHenry, James that the United States needed a system of military education. He wanted an army officer school at West Point, another for artillerists and engineers, a third for cavalry and infantry, and a fourth for the Navy. Navy, U.S.;academy In his plan, students would attend West Point for two years and then spend two more years at one of the other schools. Washington Washington, George [p]Washington, George;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] echoed Hamilton’s sentiment. Shortly before his death, he wrote that “the Establishment of an Institution of this kind . . . has ever been considered by me as an Object of primary importance to this Country.”

West Point on the Hudson River during the mid-1870’s.

(Library of Congress)

McHenry received further advice in the form of a memorandum prepared by Louis de Tousard Tousard, Louis de , a major in the First Regiment of Artillerists and Engineers. In January, 1800, McHenry consolidated the recommendations of Hamilton Hamilton, Alexander [p]Hamilton, Alexander;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] and Major Tousard, and President Adams Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] sent his plan to Congress. Again, however, Congress did nothing, chiefly because of the real fear among Republicans that a trained corps of officers would threaten democracy. The use of federal troops in Pennsylvania during the so-called Fries Rebellion in 1799 had underscored Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the enlarged army Congress had authorized in 1798 and its potential to act as a domestic “spanking army.”

Some historians believe that the final impetus for the establishment of the U.S. Military Academy was the desire to create a national university that would emphasize science over the classics. Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] , who became president in 1801, was a leading advocate of offering more empirical courses in higher education. He believed that a military academy could fill this role and might also be supported by those who would oppose the idea of a national university. More important, Jefferson was concerned deeply with the domination of the army officer corps by Federalists and saw a military academy as a way to break Federalist power within the military by the appointment of politically reliable—presumably Republican—candidates into the army officer corps.

On March 16, 1802, Congress passed the Military Peace Establishment Act Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802 , which enpowered the president to establish a corps of engineers stationed at West Point, which would constitute a military academy. After years of efforts by Knox Knox, Henry , Washington, Washington, George [p]Washington, George;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] Hamilton, and others, a law was finally enacted that acknowledged the need for such a civilian-controlled academy emphasizing training in the military arts.

In concert with his secretary of war, Henry Dearborn, Dearborn, Henry Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and U.S. Military Academy[U.S. Military Academy] attempted to purge the officer corps of Federalists by restructuring and initially reducing the size of the officer corps. It was rebuilt with Antifederalist cadets drawn from Republican stock and trained at the U.S. Military Academy.

Significance

Although the new U.S. Military Academy began training cadets shortly after it was created, it would be nearly two decades before it became fully professionalized under the leadership of its third superintendent, Sylvanus Thayer Thayer, Sylvanus , who took charge in July, 1817. Before Thayer’s time, the academy had no definitive administration or instructional systems and inadequate teaching materials. The absence of systematic academic instruction and laxness in supervision made cadet discipline poor. Thayer, who was well acquainted with French engineering and methods of instruction and who had a keen analytical mind and organizing abilities, brought revolutionary changes to the academy. During his sixteen years as superintendent of West Point, he undertook reforms in teaching and administration that became the basis of the modern military academy.

In the long term, the establishment of the U.S. Military Academy paved the way for the nation’s modern armed forces and helped solidify the unity of the young United States. In 1846, the federal government established the U.S. Naval Academy Naval Academy, U.S. at Annapolis, Maryland. In 1955, it opened the U.S. Air Force Academy Air Force Academy, U.S. in Colorado.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen. Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966. A comprehensive and readable account of the history of the U.S. Military Academy up to the time of the Vietnam War that concentrates on the service of famous graduates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crackel, Theodore J. Mr. Jefferson’s Army: Political and Social Reform of the Military Establishment, 1801-1809. New York: New York University Press, 1987. A well-argued and well-documented study of Jefferson’s attempts to “republicanize” the army officer corps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. West Point: A Bicentennial History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Comprehensive history of the academy with generous attention to its early years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forman, Sidney. West Point: A History of the United States Military Academy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1950. A history of West Point from its beginnings as a fortification on the Hudson River to its transition to a military academy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohn, Richard H. Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783-1802. New York: Free Press, 1975. A contextual study useful for understanding the founding of West Point.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pappas, George S. To the Point: The United States Military Academy, 1802-1902. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993. This history of the academy’s early years emphasizes Thayer’s efforts to make the institution a high-caliber military academy and engineering school.

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