THAYER'S REIGN ENDS WITH ARRIVAL OF ANDREW JACKSON - The Explorer: Import

THAYER'S REIGN ENDS WITH ARRIVAL OF ANDREW JACKSON

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Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2001 12:00 am | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

As Sylvanus Thayer assumed his position as superintendent of West Point, the new regime he began to institute reverberated across the academy and the cadets, many of whom did not appreciate or understand the motives behind some of the swift changes.

Thayer appointed an army officer to serve as Commandant of Cadets, which called for an overview of tactical training, the administering of discipline, handing out those dreaded demerits as well as the much sought after merits and basically keeping an eagle's eye on the cadets night and day. After having lived through a more liberal regime under Alden Partridge, this new life was down right stifling for the cadets. And the commandant that Thayer chose was a tough nut as well.

Capt. John Bliss was strict by all accounts and had a flash temper to boot. His continued harping and strict approach in dealing with the cadets lay the groundwork for an uprising from within the ranks of those he oversaw. When a cadet during parade practice continued to march out of step (intentionally) Bliss went (to use a modern metaphor) ballistic, grabbing the kid by the collar and giving him a good shaking.

Well, by that evening anyone who hadn't been present at the parade grounds got wind of the confrontation. There had been trouble brewing for some time but now the cadets finally had an excuse and so a committee of them was formed to air complaints to the superintendent. This committee of five was elected by a majority of the cadets, with nearly 200 of them signing a petition of grievances. The students whined about Bliss doing all kinds of mean things to them, including roughing them up and even throwing rocks when they did not respond correctly to the captain's orders.

The problem with the committee was most of them had been strong allies of Partridge and so their motives appeared tainted. Thayer was fast on the draw and advised them they could complain all they want as individuals, but they lacked any rights to officially form a committee or to present a petition. His response was short and sweet, they were not only ordered out of his office, but out of the academy as well.

Not only did a court of inquiry uphold Thayer, but so did the Secretary of War. And so Thayer's long reign began in earnest, with not only developing and overseeing the academy's instruction, but also improving the public perception about West Point and making certain that no one would ever doubt the need for a military academy in this country.

And for many years he succeeded. Since the academy was most certainly set up to train future officers for the military, Thayer set about to make certain it was a scientific institution as well. While most colleges and universities in the young Republic were centered on the classics (read Greek and Latin) and not much else, Thayer had his cadets/students learning math and French (then considered the diplomatic language of the world). Because mathematics was so much a part of the engineering curriculum, and also very successful, many future engineering schools that opened in the United States took their lead from West Point. It wasn't only curriculum they copied. Many professors hired by these schools were once West Point cadets.

To add icing on this cake, many of the 19th century US textbooks written about math, engineering and chemistry were authored by graduates of West Point. And not only were the sciences emphasized, so too were such subjects as grammar, geography, history and philosophy.

The American painter Robert W. Weir was persuaded to teach drawing at the academy. To give you an example of how important the artist was, had it not been for the heroes of United Airlines flight 93 who forced down the plane near Shanksville, Pa,. not only would more lives have been lost in Washington, but the target itself could very well have been the Capitol and the many national treasures held within, including a painting that appears on the rotunda of the Capitol building entitled "The Landing of the Pilgrims," which was painted by Robert W. Weir.

Thayer surrounded himself with impressive instructors whose teachings and published works were the mainstay of the academy and many other institutions for decades to come, even into the early years of the 20th Century. And Sylvanus Thayer was the steady hand that helped to prepare West Point for its most troubling time outside of the coming of the Civil War, the years when Andrew Jackson was president.

Better known to historians as the Jacksonian Era, the 1830s were a high tide for those who hated even the concept of elitism and the thought of any of it ever existing in America. "Old Hickory," as Andrew Jackson was fondly referred to, was never one to hold his tongue on this matter, and under his tutelage much that was considered highbrow was considered fair game for attack.

Unfortunately, West Point was suddenly on the list of elitist organizations worthy of a full frontal barrage. Jackson was said to firmly believe in the equality of all, unless you happened to be a Native American, which is a whole different story, and not a nice one either.

Politically speaking, Jackson was now the main power in the country, and would be for two full terms. Those who called themselves Jacksonians thought the entire country was filled with enough professionals and talented people in regard to defending this nation that no elitist academy was required. There was no need to spend good money training the sons of the rich (so they thought). And since Jackson was self schooled in the arts of war and the military, the very nature of West Point stuck in his craw.

The sad truth was politics being what they were, and Thayer being on such good terms with General Winfield Scott (who Jackson loathed) and John C. Calhoun (another loathed person), the superintendent's days as head of the academy were numbered.

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