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This Week in History
March 17-23, 1802:
Congress Founds a Military Academy at West Point

March 2013

The West Point Military Academy, West Point, New York.

On March 16, 1802, the United States Congress authorized President Thomas Jefferson to organize a Corps of Engineers, which "shall be stationed at West Point ... and shall constitute a military academy." The Chief Engineer of the Corps would be the Superintendent of the academy, and the Secretary of War would purchase books, implements, and apparatus for the institution.

The idea of an American military academy had developed during the American Revolution and was supported by many of the Founding Fathers, but it had a difficult journey to becoming reality. Americans were suspicious of military power because of their very unpleasant experiences under the British Empire. The Declaration of Independence had listed many grievances against George III, two of which were: "He has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures," and, "He has affected to render the Military independent of, and superior to the Civil Power." During the Revolution itself, the revolt of the Pennsylvania Line and the Newburgh plot added to the uneasiness over "standing armies." (Click here for more on the Newburgh plot.)

Nevertheless, the contacts between Continental Army officers and the European officers who had come to aid the American cause, convinced the Americans that they must have a trained officer corps, especially in the scientific fields of artillery and engineering. Key to this was the alliance with France, many of whose officers had been trained at the excellent Ecole Militaire. Even before the French arrived, however, Col. Henry Knox of the Artillery, Washington's future Secretary of War, was proposing a military academy. Knox, who had been the proprietor of the London Book Store in Boston before the Revolution, educated himself in military affairs not only by reading his stock of books, but also by talking with British officers who were stationed in the city. He eventually joined a local militia company, the crack Boston Grenadier Corps.

In 1776, Knox argued his views to Congressman John Adams, who then guided through the Continental Congress an act creating the Corps of Invalids. This organization for disabled officers stationed them at inactive posts and assigned them to teach their military knowledge to young ensigns assigned to the Corps. In 1781, this organization was moved from Philadelphia to West Point. Very few ensigns were assigned there, and at the end of the war the Corps was disbanded.

In 1783, George Washington supported Knox's views, calling for "academies, one or more, for the instruction of the art military." He said that "I cannot conclude without repeating the necessity of the proposed Institution, unless we intend to let the Science [of war] become extinct, and to depend entirely upon the Foreigners for their friendly aid." Congress did not act, and at the end of the Revolution, it drastically reduced the size of the army. By 1785, there were fewer than 100 officers and men in the United States Army, most of them stationed at West Point, America's largest fort and the spot which General Washington considered to be the most important military position in America.

During Washington's first term as President, he and Knox continued to press for a military academy, but during a cabinet meeting in 1793, Thomas Jefferson strongly opposed the idea, saying that "none of the specified powers given by the Constitution would authorize" such a national academy. But the following year Washington was able to persuade Congress to increase the numbers of the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers stationed at West Point, and created the rank of cadet. Cadets were junior officers who were supposed to attend classes taught by older officers, but no books were purchased and no classes were held.

After several encouraging developments, such as Congress giving President John Adams the power to appoint four teachers of the "Arts and Sciences" for the cadets, the fate of the military academy passed into the hands of President Jefferson. Because Jefferson favored the establishment of a national university, and felt Congress would only pass such a bill if the institution were military, he reversed his opinion on the constitutionality of such a proposal, and Congress established the academy in 1802. Part of the reason that Jefferson relaxed his objections was due to the fact that the Chief Engineer, who would become Superintendent, was Jonathan Williams.

Williams was the grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, and when Franklin was sent to London to represent the colonies, Williams followed him there to be educated in London. When Franklin moved to Paris at the start of the American Revolution, Williams followed him to France and became a merchant in Nantes. There, he worked with Franklin and Beaumarchais to forward supplies to the Continental Army. He also used his spare time to study French fortifications and military engineering. When Franklin returned to America in 1785, so did Williams, who gained a scientific reputation for his work on many of Franklin's scientific experiments. In 1799, he published a treatise titled "Thermometrical Navigation," and he also contributed to the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, of which he was secretary and vice-president. His scientific work brought him into contact with Thomas Jefferson, who appointed him a major in the 2nd Artillery and Engineers, and, in December of 1801, made him inspector of fortifications and commander of the post at West Point.

The new Superintendent had his hands full at the academy, for not only did he have to set up the school, but he was constantly sent out, in his engineering capacity, to build coastal forts. Once Congress had passed the enabling legislation, it turned a blind eye to the academy, and so Williams solved this problem in a unique way. He founded the American Military Philosophical Society at West Point, making the faculty and cadets members, but allowing civilians to join. The Society held meetings twice a month at West Point, where scientific papers on all subjects were discussed, and demonstrations were made of new technologies. The Society also became the archives for the Corps of Engineers, and built up the finest collection of technical works in America, the core of which was Jonathan Williams' private collection, much of which he had inherited from Ben Franklin.

As the Society expanded its membership, it held meetings outside West Point. When it met in New York City, Mayor DeWitt Clinton provided a room in City Hall and came himself to the meeting. In Washington, D.C., the Society met in the War Office. Civilian members included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, John Marshall, and Benjamin Latrobe. Inventors such as Robert Fulton and Eli Whitney also became members. By 1807, the Society had become an important center of scientific research and development.

But the small number of senior officers assigned to the Corps of Engineers, and their multiple duties of designing and building fortifications up and down the eastern seaboard, left little time for instruction at West Point. When the British attempt to recapture America broke out in the War of 1812, the engineers had to scatter to posts throughout the country, leaving the academy without a staff at the very time that new trained officers would be most needed. President Madison projected the nation's requirements for a combination of army and militia to be 145,000 soldiers, and to lead this large army West Point had only had time to graduate seventy-one cadets. Congress finally reacted and passed legislation in 1812 that would, after the war, enable a reorganized West Point to become a true national military academy.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.