Strategically Important: West Point

Today’s post comes from Adam Berenbak, archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC.

The Continental Army and Gen. Samuel Parsons first occupied the land at West Point, New York, owned by Steven Moore, in the winter of 1778. The fort was crucial in defending New York, the Hudson River, and the lines of communication to the northeastern states. The new American government continued to lease the property from Moore after the Revolutionary War.

During the First Congress, the House of Representatives received a petition, the fourth sent by Moore, to receive compensation for damages to his property. The House forwarded the claim to the Treasury Department. On June 10, 1790, the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, reported back to the House that a permanent military post should be established at West Point. Hamilton believed this purchase was “expedient and necessary,” as guarding the Hudson River was essential to the “public safety.” On June 15, a committee appointed to look into the matter reported out HR 76, which authorized the purchase of the land from Moore.

Page one of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page one of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page two of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page two of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page three of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Page three of the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the petition of Stephen Moore advocating the retention by the U.S. of West Point as a military post, June 10, 1790; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hamilton, as well as Secretary of War Henry Knox, emphasized West Point’s strategic importance, while others in Congress argued that passing HR 76 was important in order to rightfully compensate Moore. The bill passed, the land was appraised by a commission, and on November 22, 1790, the government paid Moore $6,576 for the property.

The idea for a national military school had been discussed at various times since the Revolutionary War, and the establishment of West Point as a military academy in 1802 came only after many years of debate. Thomas Jefferson, who eventually signed the legislation to create the school, argued that a military academy could not be established because there was no provision for it in the Constitution. Many members of Congress were worried about the aristocratic overtones of such a school and the implications of a “professional military.” The War of 1812 brought attention to the importance of funding and organizing the United States Military Academy, but graduation numbers were low. By 1830, the House was listening to arguments for its termination.

On January 21, 1830, a resolution was introduced in the House that would require the Military Academy to report to Congress detailed information about the Academy, including the names of all applicants and graduates, and if their fathers or guardians were part of the federal or state governments. The following day, Representative Davy Crockett of Tennessee argued against an amendment that was introduced to strike out the familial information requirement, and in doing so expressed both his and his state’s objection to the institution.

In fact, on February 25, 1830 Crockett submitted a bill calling for the abolition of West Point on the grounds that it was only a school for the “sons of the noble and wealthy,” complicating a larger problem that “no man could get a commission in the Army unless he had been educated at West Point.”

Page one of Congressman Davy Crockett’s resolution to abolish the military academy at West Point, February 25, 1830; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives. National Archives Identifier 2173241

Page one of Congressman Davy Crockett’s resolution to abolish the military academy at West Point, February 25, 1830; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives. National Archives Identifier 2173241

The resolution said:

Resolved further that the military academy at West Point is subject to the foregoing objections—in as much as those who are educated there, receive their instruction at the public expense and are generally the sons of the rich and influential who are able to educate their own children while the sons of the poor for want of active friends are often neglected…

Crockett’s resolution was ultimately tabled.

West Point’s fame came from the success of its graduates in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. It was accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools in 1928. Moore’s 1,617-acre tract at West Point is now the oldest continually occupied American military post.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

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