West Point owes its distinctive character mainly to one man. He was Sylvanus Thayer, who transformed the country’s new military academy from a marginal and shaky enterprise into a school whose supremacy in the fields of science and engineering was unchallenged in America for some forty years. Thayer was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1785, and was educated at Dartmouth and, later, at West Point, where he spent a postgraduate year before joining the Corps of Engineers as a second lieutenant. A close student of Napoleon’s campaigns, and an admirer of Napoleon’s efforts to put the military arts on a scientific footing, Thayer was picked by the Army, in 1815, to go to France, with orders to buy badly needed books, maps, and equipment for West Point, and to see what Americans could learn from Prance’s famous military schools. Two years later President Monroe decided to remove West Point’s superintendent, a touchy martinet named Alden Partridge, and Thayer was a logical choice to succeed him.
When Thayer took up his new post in August, 1817, he found the academy in a state of near anarchy. Convinced that his professors were conspiring against him, Partridge had placed them under arrest and was teaching all courses himself. Thayer sent the professors back to their classrooms, dismissed more than forty cadets whom he found unqualified—according to legend they included one cadet who was forty years old and had a wife and family, and another who had only one arm—and disabused those who were allowed to remain at West Point of the “erroneous and unmilitary notion,” that they had a right to “intrude their views and opinions with respect to the conduct of the Acad’y.”
Other changes quickly followed. In the interest of egalitarianism, Thayer forbade cadets to bring any money with them when they came to West Point, or to send for money from their families; henceforth, rich and poor alike would have to get along on their eighteen-dollar monthly pay. He established a Department of Tactics, whose officers were to be responsible—as they still are today—for the discipline, bearing, and military instruction of the cadets. The cadets were organized into companies, each with its own cadet officers. In the classroom, cadets were required to recite daily, and were graded on each recitation. At the same time, Thayer recruited a distinguished faculty whose students were soon in demand as canal and railroad builders, and as presidents and deans of the newer scientific and engineering schools, most of them modeled on West Point, that sprang up later in the century.
A reserved and austere man, a bachelor with no known vices, Thayer exemplified the soldierly virtues he tried to instill in his cadets. “Throughout the day,” a West Point historian has written, “he was always prompt, always courteous, and always I looked as if he had just shaved, bathed, and dressed.” He seemed to know everything about every cadet, an impression he cultivated by keeping up-to-date abstracts of each cadet’s debts, demerits, and grades. When a cadet came to him to ask, for example, for an advance on his pay in order to buy a new coat, Thayer would glance surreptitiously into the depths of his huge desk and say, “Sir, you are in debt thirty-five dollars and forty-two cents, and will have to make do with the coat you have.” He was a stern disciplinarian, but a fair one.
In 1832 a cadet named Ariel Norris, who had been dismissed from West Point for being absent without leave, was reinstated after he had appealed directly to President Andrew Jackson. Upset by this and other incidents of what seemed to him to be intolerable political interference, Thayer sent in his resignation. The faculty was dismayed, and wanted to honor him on his departure. But Thayer was determined to allow no demonstration that might be interpreted as a disloyal attack on the President, and he refused even to let anyone know when he planned to leave the academy. One evening in the summer of 1833 he strolled down to the steamboat dock with a group of officers, and when the down-river boat stopped, he quickly shook hands all around and stepped aboard. Although he stayed in the Army for twenty-five more years, serving briefly as chief of the Corps of Engineers at the ripe age of seventy-two, he never laid eyes on West Point again.