Sylvanus Thayer

Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, Class of 1808, served as Superintendent from 1817-1833, the longest tenure in Academy history.

Taken from the Annual Report, June 12,1922
The Life and Character of General Sylvanus Thayer

The life of Sylvanus Thayer was, from birth to death, typically American. There was no environment, I should say, anywhere else in the world that could produce such a character. His life was deep rooted in the soil of New England. He was of the seventh generation in direct line from Richard Thayer, a Puritan immigrant, who came from the parish of Thornsbury in Gloucestershire, England, and settled in Braintree, Massachusetts, about 1635. He was born in Braintree, June 9, 1785, the fifth child of Nathaniel and Dorcas Faxon Thayer, one of a family of seven children. His parents were a sober, God-fearing couple, intelligent and upright; without pretention and without humility. Theirs was a home of probity, piety, strict justice, and straight grained honesty.

The boys of Sylvanus Thayer’s day felt dimly perhaps, but certainly deeply that days of hard struggle and high achievement were before them. They sensed that a time was coming when to them should be sounded the stern admonition of the apostles: “Quit ye like men; be strong and fight.” Our Puritan forbears most assuredly were not puppets of an arbitrary control, or ritual, or pageantry of life; they early transmitted to their sons that vital lesson in democracy that they as young men should have the liberty, unhampered, to explore and bring to light, and to set in action the unfathomed mysteries of their powers.

Such a challenge came early indeed in life to young Thayer. At the tender age of eight he lost his mother. As Lincoln said of his mother years after he had lost her at a tender age, so Sylvanus Thayer might well have said through the retrospect of the years of Dorcas Faxon Thayer, “I remember her prayers. They have clung to me through life.”
The death of his mother brought a change both in his manner of living and in his place of residence; he was summoned to Washington, N. H., to live with his maternal uncle, Azariah Faxon. A few months later Thayer’s father died, and Sylvanus, a youth of nine, became prematurely the arbiter of his own future. Thus it was from early youth that grim necessity compelled him to grapple single – handed with the flintiest of hardships. The grim condition of his early life which would have depressed and broken down a weaker lad, seemed only to give greater life, vigor, and purpose to his heroic spirit. His sturdy character was forged into its final form through the fiery furnace of sharp and persistent struggle; it was hammered out under the blows of obstacles and disasters until there was at last produced that finely tempered nature of the man whose memory you and I have come so deeply to respect.

Sylvanus Thayer never got beneath his skin that vulgar idea, so prevalent today, that the world owed him a living. He was ready for every kind and quality of work. And what he did, he did with implicit obedience and ready cheerfulness. On what more substantial foundation stone could Sylvanus Thayer have based his youth than the one which rests on the gospel of work? Do you officers know of any more salutary moulder and ennobler of men? Work! It is the balm of grief; it is the cure of vice; it is the very tonic of life. Sylvanus Thayer did not know what it was to leave a task half done “because five o’clock had come and damned if he’d do another stroke.” Sylvanus Thayer rose at five, the modern workman leaves at five-when he can’t sneak off before. Charles Dudley Warner has prophesied that when labor gets to be ten dollars a day the workmen will not come at all, “they will send their cards.”

When I see about me today so many young men who are striv- ing to see how many chips of time they can shave off each end of the day and off both sides of the middle, I am thankful that I have as my beacon light the memory of the founder of the Thayer Academy. The democracy that he did his part in vitalizing came to know that the only way to do better tomorrow is to do one’s best today; and you and I know how doing better and being better were the noble objects of this freeman’s life.

I think James Russell Lowell must have had a Sylvanus Thayer in mind when he paid tribute in homely phrase

“To the high stern-featured beauty Of plain devotedness to duty.
Steadfast and still, nor paid with mortal praise But finding amplest recompense
In work done squarely and unwasted days. ”

At the age of seventeen Thayer began teaching in a New Hampshlire district school; thenceforward his ambition was to obtain a col- lege education. To this end he bent all his efforts; he mastered the rudiments of the Latin and Greek languages and the elements of mathematics, in which he excelled. He was admitted to Dartmouth College with honorable mention in September, 1803. There amid the rugged hills of Hanover he laid the foundation of a liberal education. His vigorous intellect began at once to assert itself, and he was soon one of the leaders of his class. He had competitors for highest honors, I assure you; among them I would mention particularly George Ticknor, the distinguished author, who became his life-long friend, and Joseph Bell, the eminent jurist. But Thayer surpassed them all; he earned the highest final honors and was designated to deliver the valedictory of his class.

It had been steady, persistent, intelligent, courageous work. His valedictory was not delivered! Duty had called him, as he believed, to another field of service; he had been appointed a cadet at the West Point Military Academy and the summons had come to report immediately.

Sylvanus Thayer was of the stuff of which good soldiers are made. In becoming a West Point cadet he sensed at once that he had. taken upon himself a covenant that made him, in a very special sense, a son of the nation. He seemed to realize that every act of his life would form a part of the public record of the West Point Military Academy, and that that record would be a part of the history of his country. If ever a cadet walked always and steadily in “the path of duty, virtue, and honor”, that cadet was Sylvanus Thayer. Within a year, to be exact on February 23, 1808, he was graduated from West Point, the most brilliant cadet in his class. He had been trained under the wise and efficient supervision of Colonel Williams, at that time superintendent of the Academy.

“From that date till he was called to the field in 1812” – I am quoting from General Cullum of the West Point Class of 1833 -“Syl vanus Thayer was actively employed on engineer service; in giving mathematical instruction at West Point, where he was also the Adju tant of the Academy; and upon ordnance duty, there being then scarcely an officer in our army who knew how to make even a musket cartridge.”

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Lieutenant Thayer entered immediately into active service as an officer of engineers. He was chief engineer of the Northern army under the command of Major General Dearborn in the campaign of 1812, of the right division of the same army under command of Major General Hampton, to whom he was aide de camp in the campaign of 1813, and of the forces under command of Brigadier General Porter in the defense of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1814. “For distinguished and meritorious services” against the British in the defense of Norfolk he was brevetted a Major, February 20, 1815.

The United States government had discovered Major (General) Thayer’s marked ability and great promise. Almost immediately he was selected, with Colonel William McRee of North Carolina, to accompany Commodore Decatur’s expedition to chastise the Algerine pirates who had been preying upon American trading vessels in the Mediterranean. But happily for West Point Academy, before the expedition set sail, these two men were entrusted with the greater responsibility of studying the military systems of Europe, particularly the science of war as practised in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. A voyage of a month in the frigate Congress brought them to the English Channel. As they sailed into the Channel the news reached them that the Battle of Waterloo had been fought only two days, before! But they had the honor of riding into Paris with the staff of the Duke of Wellington. In Paris, occupied immediately after by the allied forces, they had unique opportunities for perfecting a military education by witnessing and studying daily the evolutions of the troops who had defeated Napoleon’s army on the field at Waterloo. Sylvanus Thayer spent two years in the mastering of this government trust. The military organizations of the Great Powers-their armies, their equipments, their arsenals and their military schools – were carefully examined, and the fundamentals thoroughly mastered.

Shortly after Major (General) Thayer’s return from his mission abroad, in the spring of 1817, President Monroe visited the West Point Military Academy. The President’s eyes were opened! I am adhering strictly to facts gleaned from your most trustworthy records when I summarize conditions as follows: First, nearly all the cadets were missing. Evidently they had left for the different parts of the country on furlough. Moreover, there was no registration enrollment which gave the cadet’s place of residence. When Major (General) Thayer took the helm he had actually to resort to the newspapers to advertise for the return of the cadets. Some never came back and were by order of President Monroe dismissed on March 1st of the following year.

The cadets remaining at the Academy ranged in age between 12 and 34. Some were deformed and altogether disqualified for the profession of arms. Both physical and mental examinations had been dispensed with; there was no merit list whatever. The law of 1812 regulating attendance at West Point specifically required that cadets should go “through all the classes”. Yet the evidence is conclusive that cadets at this time were becoming full fledged officers in four months’ time.

One of your former highly esteemed superintendents of the Academy summarizes conditions as follows: “Up to 1817 nothing was positive in discipline, instruction, or administration, all being conducted by a military rule rather than upon any fixed military system. As courts martial for the trial of cadets had no existence, they had no dread of punishment beyond the arbitrary awards of the commandant, and deficiency, or being turned back for neglect of studies, had never occurred; the Professors, mostly old men, had little ambition, and were in a state of chronic feud with their superior; and the control of cadets’ supplies and the care of public property was mainly in the hands of the relations and proteges of the acting superintendent, who gave to them most of the patronage of the Academy.”

President Monroe was firmly convinced that conditions were chaotic, without system or regularity in administration. He immediately took the matter in hand and scarcely a month after his visit President Monroe relieved Colonel Partridge of his superintendency and sent Major (General) Thayer to reorganize the Military School of the nation.

At this point, I wish to bring to you the admirable contrast made by General George W. Cullum, highly esteemed former superintendent of this Academy. “The officer relieved,” writes General Cullum, “and his successor in command of the Military Academy were the very antipodes of each other, and both stamped the institution with their respective characters. Partridge was ungainly in person and uncouth in manner. Thayer of heroic mould and of stately dignity; the one a martinet drill-master and contracted pedant, and the other a scientific soldier and erudite scholar; the former partial and severe by turns, the latter uniform and just in discipline; the one controlling by temporary expedients, the other administering authority with intelligent wisdom; the former everywhere present and general factotum, the latter an unseen governor steadily regulating a complex machine; and while the one with restless activity accomplished little, the other buried in his study worked out with cool composure the great problem of military education.”

We have now come to the Golden Age of the West Point Military Academy. It would be presumptuous indeed for me to attempt to discuss with authority the changes and methods introduced and successfully enforced at West Point under the leadership of Major (General) Thayer. But the hundred and more years that have elapsed since Sylvanus Thayer assumed the superintendency have firmly fixed his place in the esteem of the Academy and justly earned for him the title which crowns his memory. Time has been impartial, just, and certain in its action. And even I at the present hour, ignorant as I am of the inner life of your institution, may with confidence call attention to a few outstanding features of his leadership.

It is manifest to me that Major (General) Thayer’s work was far more than reconstruction or reform; it was a new creation of the Academy. He found when he came, to use the words of General Cullum, “a drowsy school of supine students”; he left it a great sem- inary of science and military art. It is only just to say that Major (General) Thayer gave to West Point its unique character among the educational centers of the country and laid the foundation for its wide fame.

Major (General) Thayer’s first great problem was to bring order out of chaos. His advertising in the papers for the return of cadets was, as I have already pointed out, an irregularity forced upon him by conditions.

Major (General) Thayer must have had a tremendous fight on his hands in ridding the Academy of attempted domination by members of Congress. Drawn as the cadets were from all sections of the country, appointed by the Secretary of War, on the recommendation of members of Congress, I can readily see how the interest of Congressmen persisted in their appointees. Many Congressmen insisted on seeing that justice was done their proteges in the examinations; that none were found deficient who in their judgment had the brains to pass, and that no needless severity was exercised in discipline.

A few months after his appointment as superintendent, Major (General) Thayer faced a storm cloud. One hundred and ninety four cadets denied their amenability to trial by court martial, and asserted the right of free criticism of their superior officers; they brought the matter to court. Thank God the man they dealt with had an iron will! Sylvanus Thayer knew that in ancient times a little band of Spartans had withstood a whole army. He knew that epitaph that commemorated their noble death at the pass of Thermopylae – “Go tell to Sparta, thou that passest by; That here, obedient to her laws we lie.” He did not hesitate, he did not falter. He wrote in no uncertain way to the Secretary of War that the cadet corps at West Point should form a part of the land forces of the United States and be subject to the Rules and Articles of War.

The resolute action of Sylvanus Thayer was upheld by John Calhoun. “It spelled obedience and established,” as Lieutenant General Schofield has so pertinently said, “a principle which has been of untold. value to the military service of the Republic.”

Let me say right here that insistence on obedience to law was with Sylvanus Thayer the quintessence of patriotism. He believed with all the strength of his moral fibre that in the scrupulous maintenance of our laws lay the supreme safeguard of our democratic institutions.

Major (General) Thayer never could have brought about the reorganization of West Point which he did if he had not been supported so strongly and surely by the iron minister of war, John Calhoun. I have always looked upon the eight years Calhoun served as President Monroe’s Secretary of War as the golden age of his service to the nation. At that time he looked upon the State of South Carolina and the nation as one and inseparable. He had a deep sentiment of nationality. The fact that Sylvanus Thayer was a New Englander did not bias him one jot or tittle. Calhoun’s first examination of the West Point problem developed to his mind all its conditions. He saw that the Academy, to be successful, must be placed under the dominion of law and positive regulations; and he saw at once that Sylvanus Thayer was the man to do it. A friendship sprang up which was warm and constant. Probably at no other time in the life of the Academy were intermeddling influences more strongly exerted, and at no other time were they so firmly and wisely resisted.
The course of studies which Major Thayer instituted at the Academy has, I understand, been closely followed up to the present time. Of course the steady advancement in science, and probably more improved methods of instruction, have brought about changes particularly in the departments of Mathematics and Engineering. But the organization of studies embraced all the necessary elements of a liberal education. “It was constructed”, as Professor Davies, himself a distinguished professor under Major Thayer, once remarked, “on the true principles of permanent equilibrium.”

Nothing is more admirable than the masterly way in which Major (General) Thayer surrounded himself with a group of picked men to build up the scholastic standards of the Academy. He put in the department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Colonel Jared Mansfield, one of the most distinguished scholars of his day; in the engineering department he placed a brilliant graduate of the schools of France. Sylvanus Thayer knew how to blend the theories of the French with the practical methods of the English. Professors Douglas, Davies, and Courtenay developed the analytical sciences; Pro- fessors Torrey, Hopkins, and Mather instructed in chemistry, miner- ology, and geology; Crozet and Mahan skillfully applied all these branches to military and civil engineering and the science of war.

“But the directing mind”, reflects General Calhoun, “was the great Superintendent himself, a ripe scholar, acquainted with every science taught, passionately fond of military literature, and singularly gifted for his elevated command.”

Morris Schaff in “The Spirit of Old West Point” pays this sterling tribute to Sylvanus Thayer: “When he left the Academy, as we all know, every feature of West Point life, and especially its martial features, were softly illuminated by the inherent glow of scholarship; not merely technical scholarship, not the patchy stenciling of pedagogy, but that deeply reflecting scholarship which comes from a mingling of science and literature with idealism.”
In bringing Major (General) Thayer’s administration at West Point to a conclusion, I want to present to you two pictures of Sylvanus Thayer, from the diary of his dear friend, Ticknor. Here they are:

June 12, 1826 – Breakfast precisely at seven; then we have all the newspapers, and, a little before eight o’clock, Thayer puts on his full dress coat and sword, and when the bugle sounds we are always at Mr. Cozzens’, where Thayer takes off his hat and inquires if the President of the Board is ready to attend at the examination room; if he is, the Commandant conducts him to it with great ceremony, followed by the Board. If he is not ready, Thayer goes without him; he waits for no man.

In the examination – room Thayer presides at one table, surrounded by the Academic Staff; General Houston at the other, surrounded by the visitors. In front of the last table, two enormous blackboards, eight feet by five, are placed on easels; and at each of these boards stand two cadets, one answering questions or demonstrating, and the other three preparing the problems that are given to them. In this way, in an examination of sixteen young men lasting four hours on one subject, each of them will have had one hour’s public examination on it; and the fact is, that each of the forty cadets in the upper class will tonight have had about five hours’ personal examination. While the examination goes on, one person sits between the tables and asks questions, but other members of the Staff and of the Board join in the examination frequently, as their interest moves them. The young men have that composure that comes from thoroughness, and unite, to a remarkable degree, ease with respectful manners towards their teachers.

June 17th – Thayer is a wonderful man. In the course of the fortnight I have been here, he has every morning been in his office doing business from six to seven o’clock; from seven to eight he breakfasts, generally with company; then he goes to the examination – room, and for five complete hours never so much as rises from his chair. From one to three he has his dinner party; from three to seven again unmoved in his chair, though he is neither stiff nor pretending about it. At seven he goes on parade; from half-past seven to eight does business with the cadets, and from eight to nine, or even till eleven, he is liable to have meetings with the Academic Staff. Yet with all this labor, and the whole responsibility of the institution, the examination, and the accommodation of the visitors, on his hands, he is always fresh, prompt, ready, and pleasant; never fails to receive me under all cir- cumstances with the same unencumbered and affectionate manner, and seems, in short, as if he were more of a spectator than I am. I do not believe there are three persons in the country who could fill his place; and Totten said very well the other day, when somebody told him – what is no doubt true – that if Thayer were to resign, he would be the only man who. could take his place – “No, no man would be indiscreet enough to take the place after Thayer; it would be as bad as being President of the Royal Society after Newton.”

Time forbids me to trace the honorable career of Sylvanus Thayer after he left the Academy, which he had so faithfully served for 16 years. He was immediately appointed to take charge of the fortifications between Boston and the British provinces. In December, 1843, he went a second time to Europe, under a commission from the government, to examine the state of military science and the fortifications on that continent. You know how he returned to this country and how the colleges of the land united to do him honor. In 1846. Dartmouth College conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws; five years later Harvard College conferred a like degree. Throughout these years he was an esteemed member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society. He retired from active service June 1, 1863, his name having been borne in the army register more than 45 years. Two days before his retirement he was brevetted a Brigadier General. In 1867 he generously remembered his Alma Mater by founding at Dartmouth College the Thayer School of Engineering.

Slowly his life grew old and rich like wine. When lengthening shadows marked the evening of his day, how natural and fine it was for him to return to the town of his birth in the land of New England that he loved so well. I can see him in his garden close to the soil, starting his hoeing with the streaks of dawn. I can see him remind- ing his leisurely workmen that the donning of their overalls was not a part of the day’s job in his garden. I can see the look of disgust that swept across his rugged face as he rebuked the politician who came to curry favor with him with the crisp comment, “I will never shake hands with a dishonest man.” I can see his set expression when he first surveyed that load of oak wood ordered for the fireplace and discovered crooked sticks among them. Can’t you hear him say, “I did not order crooked wood. I want straight sticks. Send the crooked things back and bring me straight ones.” How he hated sham! How he detested crooked things! I can see him bending over the big antique mahogany table in his study on which are spread plans and maps of the Civil War. Beside him are his lifelong friends, Winfield Scott, Ticknor, and Mahan. Too old for active service General Thayer is now the master adviser of the Northern Army, using every ounce of effort to preserve the Union cause. A sturdy patriot, a staunch defender of Abraham Lincoln. Finally, I can see him, before his earthly labors ended, preparing, out of the bigness of his heart and with a delicate sense of honor, his last will and testament. If ever the face of a man writing noble and generous words glowed with a solemn joy, it must have been the face of Sylvanus Thayer, as he wrought into shape the disposition of those legacies accumulated through years of self denial for friends, relatives, and the generations yet to be.

The richest legacy he left was for the founding, of a school in his native town-a school that should offer to the youth the opportunity to rise through the pursuit of duty, industry, and honor, from small beginnings, to honorable achievements. On the site of his home in Braintree the Thayer Academy was reared.

To his parent earth, near his father’s grave, Sylvanus Thayer was laid to rest in the Old North Braintree cemetery. Simply and appropriately priately he was buried there. But you also revered his memory, and five years later you demanded the earthly tenement of the master soul of this great and good man, “the Father” of your Academy. May you vow a more tender veneration for his memory as you recall how he loved, revered, and served the West Point Military Academy. He set before you the standard of honor – it is nowhere higher; he laid deep the foundation of respect and reverence for law and liberty; he taught you by precept and example how a soldier and a citizen should live; he made his life the incarnation of the delicate honor of honesty. He taught you that the supreme test of life is its consecrated service ableness. These are the foundations of your faith and mine.

God’s naked truth can never injure the fame of such a master buider.

Known as the “father of the Military Academy,” Thayer put his mark on this institution to a greater extent than any other individual. He strengthened the caliber of the faculty and quality of the academic instruction, brought discipline to the military environment and recognized the importance of instilling honor and integrity in cadets.

The Thayer Monument, erected in 1883, was sculpted by Carl Conrad 50 years after Thayer’s departure as Superintendent




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s