Sylvanus Thayer, the superintendent of West Point from 1817 to 1833, was not the U.S. Military Academy’s first chief, but he so thoroughly reorganized it and instilled in it a spirit of discipline and excellence that he became known as the "Father of the Military Academy." His singular achievement was the development of a system of military education that uniquely combined the principles of republicanism with the requirements of military leadership.
A strategic military post since 1778, West Point was chosen as the site of the U.S. military academy in 1802. George Washington had sought an institution to train the fledgling country’s officer corps. He had also wanted officers to transmit gentlemanly, republican virtues to the army and the army to demonstrate the same to the nation. Even Thomas Jefferson, who had initially opposed the academy’s formation on philosophical grounds, understood that citizen–soldiers had to be trained and led by competent, committed professionals. All the better if its graduates were educated men of competence and character dedicated to American Revolutionary ideals and to the defense of the U.S. Constitution.
In its early years, the academy’s program was unsettled. Instruction lacked both textbooks and academic rigor, order and discipline were frequently neglected, and favoritism was rife. Thayer, born in 1785, graduated from West Point in 1808 and served as an instructor of mathematics there until 1812. In 1815, after having served in the War of 1812, Thayer was sent to France to study European military establishments, fortifications, and schools and to collect books and maps needed by the academy. Soon after his return, President James Monroe appointed him superintendent.
Thayer drew upon successful French approaches to education, especially that of the École Polytechnique, whose prescribed curriculum and rigid discipline served as a model for West Point. He asked the institution’s academic board to fix the curriculum, select textbooks, and schedule regular exams; he established regular times for admissions and graduation; and he instituted a four-year, cumulative military and academic course program.
Although engineering dominated the course of study, fourth-year cadets also received instruction in rhetoric and the humanities. Thayer also initiated discussion-based ethics training and required cadets to attend weekly chapel services. He expected officers to be able not only to execute military orders exactly but also to think through profoundly difficult moral situations and choose the harder right over the easier wrong.
A stern disciplinarian, Thayer suspended or removed scores of cadets, notwithstanding emotional appeals from loved ones. In his words, he would not waste "the public money" on incompetent or undisciplined cadets, and he would not stop until he produced an "indispensable" state of military discipline. In a letter to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun (1818), Thayer expressed his belief that "the honor of our country . . . must receive its tone and character from the initial formation of its officers" at West Point. He promised to do everything in his power to resist attempts to substitute "dullness for genius, or idleness and vice for energy and a faithful discharge of duty." Thayer felt that a diminution of integrity or intellectual competence at West Point would in turn affect the army and the nation.
The "Thayer System" combined technical education (which broadened over time) with socialization into a strict military culture. This culture stressed not only traditional Roman military virtues, such as loyalty and honor, but also individual accountability and thoughtful allegiance to the highest of ethical standards and to the Constitution and the rule of law.
Thayer recognized the importance of educating officers to give their allegiance to the Constitution and American ideals rather than to individual leaders. The classical and American values of Thayer’s system were encapsulated by the academy’s coat of arms, which bears the famous motto, "Duty, Honor, Country."
In the so-called Age of Jackson, when government appointments were handed out according to a "spoils system" run by the political party in charge, Thayer sought to inoculate West Point’s admissions process by inviting all congressmen to nominate the best qualified candidates from their home districts.
Thayer died in 1872, but a statue of him still watches over his domain from a corner of the plain at West Point. Thayer’s biographer, Richard E. Dupuy, describes the Thayer System as "a novitiate, in which every man suffers equally, and every man is rewarded according to his performance, moving toward a common goal, under an impartial, impersonal command." Instead of an aristocracy, his system produced a meritocracy to serve the constitutional Republic, stressing the "citizen" in "citizen–soldier" and making citizenship part of the American professional military ethos.