“Another ‘Sore on the Body Politic’”

July 5, 1879

Thomas Nast

“Another ‘Sore on the Body Politic’”

Education, College; Tammany Hall, John Kelly; U.S. Military; U.S. Military Academy/West Point;

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Statesman. "I can tell an Aristocrat by his Clean Collar."

Cartoonist Thomas Nast defends the United States Military Academy at West Point from charges of elitism by contracting the image of a clean-cut cadet against the political ruffians of Tammany Hall.  His illustration is similar in subject and composition to a later cartoon in which he champions the New York National Guard.  Here, the dutiful young man is literally upright, while the shoulder-hitters lounge informally in chairs, as they smoke, drink (notice the broken bottle), and gripe at the Five Points Inn.  (Five Points was a poor, gang-infested neighborhood in New York City, and is used here as a symbolic counterpoint to West Point.) 

This cartoon appeared at a time when the Democratically-controlled Congress was reducing military appropriations across the board.  The Democratic policy reflected traditional American hostility against a large standing army in peacetime, but also resentment over recently ended Reconstruction (which had been enforced by the U.S. Army in the South), and an attempt to foreclose the military's ability to police elections in the Democratic strongholds of Northern cities as well as the South.  (For more information, see Nast's cartoon of January 25, 1879.) Nast sarcastically applies to West Point the condemnation by Congressman Washington Witthorne of Tennessee, the Democratic chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, that the army was a "sore on the body politic.”

Since serving as General George Washington's headquarters in 1779, during the Revolutionary War, West Point has been the oldest continuously occupied fort in the United States.  In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill establishing it as the location of the United States Military Academy.  Under Colonel Sylvanus Thayer (1817-1833), military discipline and a code of honor were instilled, and civil engineering formed the core of the curriculum.  West Point alum first gained national recognition in the War with Mexico (1846-1848) and dominated the military leadership of both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The decades following the Civil War, however, are often viewed as years of stagnation in the history of West Point, with the number of cadets, the curriculum, and the physical layout of the campus changing little at a time when other American colleges experienced rapid expansion and development. Entrance requirements were not difficult to meet in the late-nineteenth century, so most candidates were accepted (although only 40% in 1879, for example, graduated).  Requests by reformers to raise academic standards were resisted by Congress and influential military leaders for fear that doing so would, in the words of General William Sherman, "exclude the sons of poor parents or of those so situated as to be unable to give their sons the education required."  

Both Sherman and his successor as general-in-chief, Philip Sheridan, were both determined to preserve West Point as it had existed in their youth, thus impeding change.  The college's professors (overwhelmingly alumni) controlled much of the college administration in these years (since the superintendent was a temporary position) and heavily favored the status quo.  Congressional oversight of West Point was strict, and congressmen were quick to intervene when one of their district's nominees faced academic or disciplinary trouble.

In addition to the general hostility against the military, West Point was criticized for several specific reasons.  While West Pointers had performed well in the Civil War, several opinion-makers were galled that so many from that national institution had fought for the Confederacy.  With the rise of state universities during the post-war period, the school lost it edge in engineering and science, which undercut its ability to justify its existence.  To critics, West Point produced an elite corps of officers, which ran contrary to the democratic tradition of citizen-soldiers.

Corresponding to Nast's cartoon, Harper's Weekly reprinted a letter that appeared in The New York Times, whose author denied that West Point was aristocratic.  Rather than the wealthy sons of privilege, the cadets came from all over the country, and the majority were awkward farm boys who the military academy made into first-class men.  Of the typical graduating cadet, the letter-writer observed:

"Four years ago he was probably such a green and gaping boy as several of those who are now staring at him. But he has been rubbed down and polished with merciless severity, and he bears himself like a gentleman. He stands uncovered, holding his hat in hand, because he is in the presence of his father and strangers, but his bearing is easy and self-possessed; his appearance is punctiliously neat; his manner polite and respectful. You see he has been taught self-respect in its highest sense, which means respect to others. He will neither overstep the proper line toward them nor permit it to be overstepped toward himself; and this is one of the things which West Point teaches, and which is not down in the text-books."

Robert C. Kennedy

“Another ‘Sore on the Body Politic’”
June 17, 2024

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