Review of Thomas Jefferson's Military Academy

Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy, Founding West Point, ed. Robert M. S. McDonald, Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2004, 233 pp.
My good friend Ben House sent me a free copy of this volume on condition that I write a review of it. As I am not by any means a Thomas Jefferson scholar, perhaps one should not rely much on my review, but read those of experts in the field.
Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy is a collection of eight essays on the relationship of the third president and West Point. As one largely unfamiliar with the details of the history, much of the book was enlightening to me. While I found the third and fifth essays, respectively, rather boring and/or written in dry academic style, the other essays were quite interesting and insightful. The editor probably could have done a better job preventing some of the redundancies in the book. That is, the essays overlap each other in places and repeat some of the same material.
Two regular items of discussions in the book are (1) how Thomas Jefferson switched from being an opponent of forming a military academy in the 1790s to promoting it during his presidency in the early 1800s, and (2) how Jefferson’s legacy as a founder of the school was overlooked for a time and is now coming back into view. As for the first issue, as the essays make clear, Jefferson was opposed to a military academy when the Federalists were in control of the government because, at least in part, they would have solidified the already Federalist military as even more Federalist with an academy. But, when Jefferson becomes president he sees the creation of an academy as an opportunity to appoint Republican leaders to it and to train Republican students. Part of his desire was to have a meritocracy rather than finding military leaders from the wealthy families as had been the historical norm. Then, to the second issue emphasized in the book, various political circumstances in later U.S. administrations along with Jefferson’s somewhat lacking interest in West Point (as compared to the University of Virginia for example) lead to his being largely forgotten as a founder of the school.
I particularly enjoyed Don Higginbotham’s essay on “Military Education Before West Point.” He discusses the tutorial or apprenticeship method of officer training which was prominent and promoted in the 18th century and prior. His essay well sets the stage of the history before military schools in the United States.
The book itself is a worthwhile read, written by experts in the field of Thomas Jefferson studies.

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