- Thomas Jefferson's Military Academy: Founding West Point
Historians have long puzzled over Thomas Jefferson's many enigmas, but few have focused their attention on the role that the third president played in founding the United States Military Academy. As Robert McDonald points out in the introductory essay for Thomas Jefferson's Military [End Page 133] Academy: Founding West Point, as late as 1997, there had been as much scholarly work on Jefferson and prairie dogs as on Jefferson and the military academy (three entries each in Frank Shuffelton's annotated bibliography), and more on Jefferson and clocks (five entries) and wines (thirty-nine) than on Jefferson and West Point. This collection of essays does much to correct the profession's failure to investigate and to understand Jefferson's role in the academy's founding.
Peter Onuf's introductory essay lays out in clear terms the nature of the Jeffersonian enigma and places it in the context of the turbulent period immediately following the Revolution. Focusing on the conflicts between Federalists and Republicans over the locus and nature of federal power and on the ever more dangerous international situation resulting from the French Revolution, Onuf shows clearly that Jefferson's Republicans feared both a standing army and a military academy as threats to the nation's republican ideals, with Federalists finding each necessary to their defense. But, Onuf contends, "In his expansive, optimistic mode Jefferson could envision the development of an energetic, powerful central government. . . . [T]he caricature of Jefferson as an antistatist libertarian does not hold, either at the federal or state level" (16). Onuf's essay thus provides the backdrop for those that follow.
Don Higginbotham's "Military Education before West Point" addresses the transmission of military knowledge to and among Americans during and after the Revolution, and it outlines the various proposals regarding the establishment of a military academy that were discussed, debated, and eventually rejected in the republic's early years. Higginbotham makes clear that significant intellectual groundwork had been laid for the establishment of a military academy well before Jefferson had assumed the presidency. Jennings L. Wagoner and Christine Coalwell McDonald's contribution, "Mr. Jefferson's Academy: An Educational Interpretation," places Jefferson's establishment of the United States Military Academy (USMA) in a somewhat different light. Accepting that the academy clearly was meant to train military officers, they argue convincingly that it must also be seen as a function of Jefferson's desire to establish national educational institutions. Jefferson placed an enormous emphasis on education because "He was convinced that the future security of his 'country' . . . was tied much more directly to the general enlightenment of the population than to military strength" (121). Political stability in the new republic, Jefferson believed, was to be found in the education of the nation's citizenry. Few of Jefferson's ideas in this field, [End Page 134] including his much-desired national university, bore fruit in the 1780s or 1790s. But, once president, Jefferson could (with Congress's help) establish a military academy "that would be directed toward useful national and scientific as well as military ends" (131).
Theodore Crackel places Jefferson's actions in the larger framework of his presidency. Agreeing with Onuf that Jefferson was not opposed to an energetic government, Crackel points out that Jefferson used his executive power to remove Federalist appointees or to reduce their power, and he argues that Jefferson's establishment of a military academy must be viewed in the same vein. The officer corps was overwhelmingly Federalist in its sympathies, he contends, and thus viewed by Jefferson as a threat to republican government. A military academy whose cadets would be appointed by elected representatives from the now ascendant Republican Party would serve both to republicanize and to Republicanize the officer corps. In this and other actions Crackel finds "a carefully modulated program of reform . . . [that] had brought . . . Federalist instruments of government into consonance with the broad aspirations and goals of Jefferson's new Republican regime" (115).