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West Point’s Aristocratic Traditions

Established in mid-March 1802 during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, West Point graduation became necessary for an officer commission through 1835, though a rising “Jacksonian Democracy” created a strong desire to end an academy which bred an aristocratic tradition. After Texas statehood, Sam Houston believed a regiment of Texas Rangers better to protect the frontier than US regular troops and officers who he saw as “unaccustomed to frontier life and therefore utterly incompetent” as an Indian fighting command. The Rangers “were men who could ride as well as the Comanches and Kiowas and who understood their dispositions, inclinations – as well as their points of foray and attack.”

In early August 1858, Houston made his harshest Senate speech against the professional military establishment. He attacked West Point as aristocratic and undermining the liberties of American citizens. And it was the untutored frontier military leader Ben McCulloch who peacefully settled the Mormon standoff in Utah circa 1857-58.

West Point’s Aristocratic Traditions

“Early in the nineteenth century, the image of the citizen soldier was strengthened by the hostility that flared against the institution that seemed to embody all the negative elements of a professional military force: the United States Military Academy at West Point. In an era of mass democracy and egalitarian aspirations, West Point became a symbol of aristocratic privilege. It was regarded as a potential threat to popular rule . . . [and] Jacksonian Democrats believed, the caste system created by the professional officer corps would inevitably degrade the enlisted men.

Critic David Crockett spoke for the majority on the frontier when he declared that “this academy did not suit the people of our country, and they were against it.” The officers it trained and commissioned, he maintained, “are too nice to work; they are first educated there for nothing, and they must have salaries to support them after they leave there – this does not suit the notions of the working people, of men who had to get their bread by labor.”

Sam Houston, addressing the United States Senate in 1858, declared that “a political influence” was “growing upon the country in connection with the army,” and “its inception is at the Military Academy.” Its “inmates,” he charged, were “the bantlings of the public” and were nursed, fostered and cherished by the government.” Upon their graduation, the army must be annually enlarged as places must be found for the newly commissioned officers. “The danger,” Houston warned, “is that as they multiply and increase, such will be the political influence disseminated through society that it will become a general infection, ruinous to the liberties of the country.”

As Crockett’s and Houston’s outspoken opposition would suggest, nowhere was the military academy more reviled than on the western Tennessee frontier where the area was yet raw and largely unsettled, and already producing a remarkable number of solider-statesmen whose names would dominate American political and military history until the Civil War. Foremost among them was Andrew Jackson, whose fame and untutored military genius and popularizer of a frontier brand of democracy propelled him into the White House in 1829. Second to Jackson was his political protégé Sam Houston, another product of the frontier as well as an untutored but highly successful military leader. Other Tennesseans of the Jacksonian mold were San Jacinto veteran and Southern cavalry general Tom Green, Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays, and two extraordinary brothers – Ben and Henry McCulloch.”

(Ben McCulloch and the Frontier Military Tradition. Thomas W. Cutrer. UNC Press, 1991, pp. 4-5; 147-149)

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