What does it take to leave a legacy?
What does it take to make an impact that lasts long after you are gone? Founders Day at Thayer provides us with an opportunity to consider the many and varied legacies that have shaped this place — the people and the actions that have left for us today not only the buildings, but the history and the culture and the community that nourishes us. At the outset, let me say how much I really miss Mr. Carlson right now. For the past few years, this has been his domain. I feel like a poor substitute. I have no sepia-tinted photographs to enhance my lecture, and I will most assuredly not be singing! You will have to wait for Mr. Carlson's return to this podium for those elements. I will, however, follow his lead by offering some thoughts about a most influential figure in Thayer's founding — the General himself.
Now, I am no expert on Sylvanus Thayer. Like most of you, I imagine, I am familiar enough with his name, his significant contributions to West Point, Robert Weir's impressive portrait now hanging at the U.S. Military Academy, and the statue that is abducted and held for ransom by our seniors each spring. Perhaps you know that his house, until recently the headmaster's residence, sits just across the street; that his birthplace, just down the block, is now home to the Braintree Historical Society; and that his name graces not only our school but the Braintree public library and the Engineering School at Dartmouth College.
But a little research — thanks, by the way, to Mrs. Starr '70 for pointing me to some excellent resources — a little research provided some very revealing stories that can, I think, help us all understand why the various legacies of General Sylvanus Thayer have been so very meaningful and can remain meaningful in our world today.
What did Sylvanus Thayer do to make his way in the world? What characteristics defined him? And how did his life shape his legacy?
I'm struck by a few outstanding virtues that might resonate for us all as educators and as students:
Thayer's legacy begins, I think, with a passion for learning. Sylvanus Thayer was born in 1785, just a few years after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, just a few years before the patriots who led that war formed the nation's new Constitution. Thayer's own family had few resources to support a fifth child, so they sent Sylvanus at a young age to live with and work for his uncle Azariah, who had served in the Continental Army. Sylvanus devoured the stories of the Revolution he heard from his uncle and from a close friend, General Benjamin Pierce, who would become an important mentor. Thayer learned accounting in his uncle's small country store in Washington, New Hampshire; he learned Latin, Greek, and French in preparation for college work at Dartmouth; he taught school himself as a way to earn money to pay his way through Dartmouth; he paid close attention to current events.
Thayer earned two college degrees: He graduated first in his class at Dartmouth, but headed off for a further degree at West Point before he could deliver his valedictory address. A year later, he graduated from West Point with his second college degree, again at the top of his class. He served admirably in the War of 1812, and at the conclusion of that war, President Madison and his advisors realized all too well that America's military leadership needed more modern training. At that time France, under Napoleon, set the standard for such military education. Madison selected the young Lieutenant Sylvanus Thayer to travel to France, giving him a $5,000 budget to spend on books. (Anyone else envious of that assignment?!) With that money, Thayer purchased some 1,000 books related to military science — which he sent back to the United States and they became the original core of West Point's library.
When President James Monroe appointed Sylvanus Thayer, at 32 years old, to take over as superintendent of West Point, Thayer had already formulated ideas of what would be required to educate America's military leaders: They would need grounding in mathematics and the sciences in order to prepare for engineering; they would need to learn foreign languages — especially French — since the most advanced texts on military strategies at the time were written in French; they would need to study the humanities in order to communicate effectively and to understand the implications of their actions and their decisions. From the start, Thayer promoted rigorous academic standards for the military academy that would train America's leading officers. One of his cadets said of Thayer: "[H]is comprehensive mind embraced principles and details more strongly than any man I ever knew."
Sylvanus Thayer was a lifetime learner, and his passion for learning established a wide legacy — at West Point, at Dartmouth College, and here at Thayer Academy.
How else to define Thayer's legacy?
Consider Thayer's commitment to character and his insistence on setting and observing high standards of conduct. As superintendent of West Point from 1817 to 1833, Major (and later Lieutenant Colonel) Sylvanus Thayer instilled a sense of discipline and a commitment to high standards that his predecessors had failed to establish. In the end, Thayer sacrificed himself and his position to the greater good of his ideals. That story seems worth telling. When Thayer arrived at West Point, he found an institution in disarray. His predecessor coddled the cadets and fought with his faculty. In fact, in his final days the previous superintendent had placed his entire faculty under house arrest and had taken to teaching all the classes himself. Immediately upon assuming his new position, Thayer dismissed 43 cadets. "Most," he explained, "are deficient in natural abilities and all are destitute of those qualities which would encourage a belief that they could be advanced through the four years' course of study."
One West Point cadet acknowledged of the new superintendent: "His objective was to make us gentlemen and soldiers. And he illustrated in his person the great object he sought to accomplish." That is, like any great leader, he led by example. But it was not always easy.
Under President Monroe and later under President John Quincy Adams, Thayer generally could rely on support for his decisions to dismiss cadets. The pattern did not hold, however, with Andrew Jackson as president. Jackson — with his commitment to "the common man" — surely appreciated Thayer's emphasis on merit over privilege, but Jackson also promoted his "spoils system." Political power, he believed, entitled victorious politicians to grant favors to their political supporters. So as those supporters turned to Jackson when their sons or sons of their friends got in trouble at West Point, Jackson responded to their pleas. In his first two years as president, Jackson reinstated 16 cadets who had been dismissed or court-martialed. Thayer obeyed the reinstatement orders, coming as they did from his commander-in-chief, but not without diplomatically worded protests. Jackson, it seems, took those protests personally. He began to see Thayer as an enemy. Thayer knew that Jackson's reinstatements damaged his own commitment to high standards of behavior.
One cadet's actions encapsulated the dilemma: One H. Ariel Norris found himself on the wrong side of a court-martial in 1832. Presidential connections got him reinstated. In the barracks, Norris boasted about his conviction that he could now get away with anything at West Point considering his parents' connections with the President. To make his point, Norris provocatively planted a hickory sapling in the middle of West Point's famous Plain, a tribute to "Old Hickory," as the president was known. Thayer faced a dilemma. He ordered Norris to remove the tree but realized a court-martial, though appropriate, would only erode his authority further.
Through diplomatic channels, Thayer explained the damage done by presidential favoritism. At the same time, he offered his own resignation. A few months later, when the Secretary of War officially accepted Thayer's resignation, Norris celebrated the news by firing buttons at his company officer through his barracks window. Another court martial followed. And, to Norris's dismay, this time it stuck. Two years after Thayer left West Point, President Jackson officially conceded that Thayer's inclinations had been correct, and he pledged to no longer intervene in proper and appropriate dismissals, regardless of any political connections.
Thayer sacrificed his job, but he preserved the culture of the place he loved. In that way, Thayer established another important legacy: A commitment to character, no matter the cost.
A final element of Thayer's legacy: Vision.
Thayer had a vision for West Point, a vision driven by the need to create an institution that would provide the best possible training for America's leading military officers. Thayer had a vision for engineering, which trained the country's leading engineers. His vision began at West Point and continued with his generous contributions to Dartmouth College where he established an innovative engineering school.
Thayer gained another opportunity to establish a different type of vision when he came into a large amount of money, unexpectedly. After his retirement, the federal government informed Sylvanus Thayer that, according to federal laws, a small percentage of all funds he had overseen for procurement during the course of his long career had been set aside for his benefit. Thayer tried to refuse the money. The government insisted. Thayer decided that money accrued from public service could best be applied to a public purpose — to contribute, as we note in our current mission statement, to the common good. He committed $10,000 to the establishment of a public library in Braintree – situated across the street from our campus and known as the Thayer Public Library. He set aside nearly $60,000 for the purchase of land and the building of "a suitable edifice or edifices for an Academy." He indicated that the new school should serve both boys and girls no younger than 12 years of age; that entering students must be "well versed in reading, spelling, writing, English grammar, arithmetic, and such branches of knowledge as my trustees may prescribe."
Thayer provided the vision. His generosity, his passion for learning, his insistence on high standards — these factors gave birth to Thayer Academy. These, I think, are the most impressive elements of the legacy Sylvanus Thayer left: A passion for learning, a commitment to high standards of behavior, a vision.
In some ways, Sylvanus Thayer could not possibly have envisioned the school we have today; at the same time, we could not possibly have the school we have today without his vision. That's his legacy, a legacy we honor today.