Who Was Sylvanus Thayer?
He was more than the man who gave engineering to America. From West Point to Thayer School, he was my hero.
By Nardi Reeder Campion
I fell in love with Sylvanus Thayer the first time I saw him. An Army family, my parents had taken me to West Point, the United States Military Academy, for the graduation of my brother Red. I was nine. We stayed at the old Thayer Hotel — now long gone — a rambling Victorian structure with porches and spittoons. I remember sitting in a rocking chair, gazing up the wide, blue Hudson River, and wondering who Thayer was. I loved his hotel.
Then I saw him. So stylish in his uniform: high-button, long-skirted jacket, tasseled sash at his waist. So handsome: sharp features, wavy hair, erect posture. And so cold — he was chiseled granite. His statue says in bold letters: Colonel Thayer, Father of the Military Academy. No wonder he looked serious.
That night at dinner, I asked Red, “Who was the Mother of the Military Academy?” He threw back his head and laughed. “Colonel Thayer never married,” Red told me, “but he raised hundreds of sons while he was Superintendent. ”
I wanted to know more. I made my way to the West Point library, where the librarian gave me a book about Sylvanus Thayer. It was slow going. I learned that he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1807 and one year later from West Point. Only one year? I wondered. And why two colleges?
I also read that after Thayer left West Point, he founded the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. “What makes a man into a founder?” I asked Red.
He shrugged. “All I know is Sylvanus Thayer was hipped on engineering and on training young men. He drilled into all his cadets the essentials for a military man: discipline, precision, reliability, and honor. The West Point motto, ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ came from him.”
I trotted across the Plain for another look at the statue. I asked my brother, “Do you think Sylvanus Thayer had a sense of humor?”
“Not a chance. You can tell by looking at him that he wasn’t a laugher. Maybe that’s why he accomplished so much.”
I studied Thayer’s strong face and said to myself, “I bet he had a sense of humor but nobody wrote about it.”
Sylvanus Thayer was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, June 9, 1785, the fifth of seven children. His mother, Dorcas, and father, Nathaniel, a sturdy New England farmer whose family had been there for generations, had little money, so they sent their brilliant son to live with his uncle Azariah Faxon and attend school in Washington, New Hampshire. Sylvanus earned his way by helping in his uncle’s store, where, fortuitously, he met General Benjamin Pierce, father of future President Franklin Pierce. Both General Pierce and Sylvanus’ Uncle Azaria, who had fought in the Revolutionary War, fed Sylvanus’ growing fascination with military matters, including the dazzling campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte.
At 16, Sylvanus was teaching school in Washington and preparing for college. What he wanted was a technical education that would prepare him to be an engineer, but at the time no such institution existed in this country. So he pursued the next-best thing: a college that offered advanced mathematics as well as a classical education. In 1803 he entered 34-year-old Dartmouth College.
He quickly distinguished himself on the Hanover Plain as a top student and man of high ideals. He was invited to join United Fraternity, one of Dartmouth’s two literary societies, which only opened its ranks to students who displayed “respectability of talents and acquirements, and a fair moral character.” His interest in world affairs and his passion for Napoleon stood out, too. He was well-known for being the only student on campus to subscribe to the National Intelligencer, a Washington, D.C., paper that covered foreign events, including the latest news of Napoleon’s exploits.
Dartmouth left its mark on Thayer. The College’s small classes, daily recitations, and prescribed curriculum — including the humanities — influenced his ideas of what education ought to be. Thayer was exposed to the formal bearing and austere educational leadership of Dartmouth President John Wheelock, a former military officer — and son of College founder Eleazar Wheelock. And like thousands of Dartmouth students who came after him, Thayer developed lifelong friendships with his classmates, including his best friend and roommate George Ticknor, who went on to become a leader in American liberal arts education.
One day in 1807 Thayer received two letters, one telling him he was valedictorian of his class; the other saying his old friend General Pierce had persuaded President James Madison to appoint Thayer to be a cadet at the five-year-old United States Military Academy.
Sylvanus Thayer, 22, never gave his valedictory speech. Instead, with his Dartmouth degree and Phi Beta Kappa key, he left for West Point. Ticknor thought his friend was relieved to forfeit the valedictory address. “He was always modest and shy and would have had difficulty facing an audience composed mostly of ladies,” Ticknor explained.
Arriving at West Point, Thayer was surprised at the laxness of the academy. There was no fixed curriculum. Cadets were graduated whenever the professors felt they were ready. Some cadets had been there since the academy opened in 1802. With his classical Dartmouth education, aptitude in math, and natural diligence, Cadet Thayer was graduated in one year.
During the War of 1812, Thayer, a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, planned and directed the defense of Norfolk, Virginia. Though the British captured many of our coastal fortifications, they were unable to take this one. For this achievement, Thayer was made brevet major. (Brevet means an officer receives higher rank without higher pay. No wonder it’s obsolete.)
Despite America’s victory, President Madison and Secretary of War James Monroe were alarmed at the educational deficiencies of the Army’s officer corps. When Major Thayer expressed interest in spending time abroad expanding his knowledge of military and technical studies, Madison and Monroe provided him with $5,000 to buy books, maps, and “other learning materials” for the nation’s struggling young military academy.
Thayer arrived in Europe on June 12, 1815, just three weeks after his hero Napoleon, whom he hoped to see, lost the Battle of Waterloo. Thayer spent two years studying at the French West Point, École Polytechnique, and traveling through Europe collecting military texts. His old Dartmouth friend George Tickner was also in Europe at the time, studying German educational systems for Harvard. Tickner was impressed with German liberalism and freedom. Thayer was impressed with École Polytechnique’s strict discipline and academic requirements. This led to lively arguments, the kind that cement relationships.
In 1817 President Monroe ordered Thayer to return to West Point to take over as Superintendent to bring order out of the academy’s chaos. Thayer began by weeding out loafers, establishing standards for admission, applying military discipline, creating a student-enforced honor system, and developing a rigorous curriculum centered on engineering. Drawing on his Dartmouth education, studies at Ecole Polytechnique, experience in the Corps of Engineers, and discussions with George Ticknor, Thayer insisted that America’s military engineers be educated in the sciences and the humanities. Between 1817 and 1833 he turned West Point into the world’s finest military academy and the country’s first college of engineering. Carried by West Point graduates to other colleges and universities, Thayer’s curriculum became the springboard for technological instruction throughout the country.
In the early 19th century, a college head did it all — appointing trustees and faculty, deciding on courses of study. Thayer also was treasurer, disciplinarian, even director of architectural projects. The Superintendent’s quarters he built in 1820 attest to his sense of beauty and keen foresight. Still in use today, the capacious rooms, with fireplaces for heating, are large enough for Superintendents and their families yet to come.
Thayer himself was a kind of military monk. He lived in solitude, attended only by an orderly. He was famous for punctuality, arriving at his office on the strike of the bell and at parties on the precise moment of the invitation. He was equally stringent with the cadets, who received demerits for every instance of tardiness. Nevertheless, the cadets admired him extravagantly.
Thayer had an uncanny memory and knew every cadet by name. He took an interest in each one and amazed them with his knowledge of their activities. Thayer’s desk helped in this regard. Large and high in front, the back was built with pigeon holes where Thayer filed each cadet’s weekly grades, financial standings, and demerits. When cadets reported to the Superintendent, they were surprised to find their every flaw on the tip of his tongue. Because they could not see behind the partition, they would leave convinced that he knew everything about them. (I say that a man who could dream up such a clever desk must have had a sense of humor.)
During the 16 years Thayer was Superintendent of West Point, he earned the respect and admiration of the cadets, sometimes by being unpredictable. One night the “Supe” ferried across the Hudson to attend a party in Garrison. He was shocked to run into one of his cadets, off-limits. Thayer conversed pleasantly with the illegal visitor. The stunned sinner knew he would be severely punished. Instead, it was the commandant of cadets who received a severe rebuke for permitting such an infraction to occur. The story spread among the cadets like wildfire, increasing their awe of the Superintendent.
He also earned their respect by running West Point as a meritocracy, a revolutionary idea in education at the time. Thayer insisted that privileged students should never be accepted over more talented plebeians. He made continuance at the academy conditional on performance. He dismissed cadets who failed academically or breached the academy’s rules. And he avoided favoritism of any sort. When his nephew was admitted to the academy, Thayer called him in to his office. “Sir, your relationship to me is known and I am liable to be suspected of partiality to a relative,” Thayer informed him, “therefore, I have prepared your resignation, which you are to sign now. If at any time you commit a serious offense, this resignation will be published by the adjutant at evening parade and you will cease to be a member of the Corps of cadets.”
The most famous of the Superintendent’s student failures was a cadet named Edgar Allen Poe. Orphaned young, a poet, dreamer, gambler, drinker, Cadet Poe was the worst possible misfit. However, the strict Superintendent granted Poe permission to publish a collection of poems and deducted the 75-cent price from each cadet’s pay. Poe lasted seven months before being court-martialed for failure to attend classes, disobedience of orders, and gross neglect of duty. The only good thing the poet ever had to say about West Point was to express admiration for Thayer.
Superintendent Thayer had always demanded a free hand in discharging cadets he believed unsuited to the ideals he had established. When Andrew Jackson became President, everything changed. Thayer would dismiss a man for good reason; then Jackson, for political reasons, would return him by presidential order. Finally, not wanting Jackson’s apparent personal animosity toward him to wreak further havoc on the military academy, Thayer resigned as Superintendent. Stunned, every cadet and professor shook his hand in farewell. Then the man who had educated 711 “sons” boarded a boat on the Hudson and quietly took his leave. He never returned.
Sylvanus Thayer returned to active duty in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructing harbor defenses for New England. During the next 30 years his educational and organizational expertise was tapped by several institutions, including Harvard and the University of Virginia. Harvard, Dartmouth, and other colleges awarded him honorary degrees. By 1860 his influence had spread throughout the nation. Seventy-eight West Point graduates were on the faculties of the country’s 203 colleges, 40 as math professors and 16 as professors of civil engineering.
When failing health finally induced Thayer to retire from active service in 1863, at the rank of brevet of brigadier general, he returned to his home in Braintree. There he drew up plans for a new addition to education at Dartmouth.
Thayer wanted to establish a civilian school to train engineers, desperately needed in our young country. On April 4, 1867, he wrote to Dartmouth President Rev. Asa Smith: “I hope to be prepared to place in the hands of trustees thirty thousand dollars … to be applied to the establishment and maintenance of a Department or School of Architecture and Civil Engineering connected with Dartmouth College, the institution in which I was educated and in the prosperity of which as my Alma Mater I feel the deepest interest.”
President Smith and Dartmouth’s trustees welcomed the proposal, and Thayer proceeded with his plans for a mainly postgraduate engineering program. One of his greatest challenges was finding the right man to lead the new school. Naturally, he turned to a West Point graduate — Dennis Mahan — for help. Mahan, who taught civil and military engineering at the Academy, suggested several qualified Army officers, but none could be persuaded to resign his commission for the smaller salary Thayer’s nascent school could offer. Finally in 1870, Mahan suggested a young officer just two years out of West Point: Lieutenant Robert Fletcher. “He is a pious and pure man, one who would harmonize, on all points, with the society at Dartmouth,” Mahan wrote Thayer. After meeting Fletcher, Thayer wrote a note of approval to President Smith: “I have sounded him on all points to the best of my ability, resulting in the conviction that he will prove himself to be ‘the right man in the right place.’ His disposition, morals, principles, & intellectual powers seem to me all we could wish.”
Steeped in the education system Thayer had established at West Point, Fletcher understood perfectly the curricular goals and standards Thayer set for his school of civil engineering. The two conferred constantly on the evolving program of study. They developed a preparatory program for prospective students and persuaded President Smith to allow Dartmouth undergraduates to forego German so they would have time to study the advanced mathematics they would need to pass Thayer School’s stringent entrance examinations. In 1871 Thayer School admitted its first three students. The sole professor, Fletcher taught every course, a load that should have been shared by three or four instructors. For the next 47 years Fletcher directed Thayer School with the care, devotion, and fortitude worthy of its founder.
On September 7, 1872, General Thayer died at age 87. He was buried in Old North Braintree Cemetery, near his father’s grave. President Smith and other illustrious men came for his funeral. Braintree had never seen anything like it: the parade from the church to the cemetery, the somber martial music, the honorary guard firing a salute over the grave. A local boy had brought world renown to their small New England village. Thayer gave the town a generous legacy, too: funds to build a Thayer Public Library and Thayer Academy, a secondary school on the grounds of his own home. Thayer wanted the school to “offer to youth the opportunity to rise, through the pursuit of duty, industry, and honor, from small beginnings to honorable achievements.” Once again he was creating a meritocracy, this time one that was coeducational from the beginning.
Over the years Sylvanus Thayer has continued to be part of my life. In the late 1960s my husband, Tom, and I took our children to see the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University. The curving colonnade overlooking the Hudson contained bronze busts of winning candidates. At the time only 93 Americans had been selected for this huge honor. And there, in the Hall of Fame, was my old friend. The handsome bronze bust carried the words: “Sylvanus Thayer, 1785–1872, Duty, Honor, Country.” Years later, after Tom and I moved to Hanover, I walked past Dartmouth’s engineering school; suddenly I stopped short. There, carved in stone on the front of Cummings Hall was a quote from Sylvanus stating the purpose of the school: “To prepare the most capable and faithful for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service.” As I read those words — the civilian equivalent of Duty, Honor, Country — I felt I was back at West Point.
Immersed in Sylvanus Thayer lore for this article, I decided to make a pilgrimage to his grave. I envisioned myself putting flowers on his grave and offering a prayer of thanks to him. When I consulted the Internet for directions to Braintree, I got a shock. Sylvanus Thayer had moved. In 1877, five years after his death, he was disinterred and reburied in the West Point Cemetery (where my brother Red now lies). I took a virtual tour of the cemetery. The General’s tombstone is a disappointing oblong block of marble.
I prefer his statue.
— Nardi Reeder Campion’s eighth book, a memoir, Everyday Matters: A Love Story, has just been published by University Press of New England.
The Dartmouth Factor: Ecole Polytechnique was not Thayer’s only educational model
Many historians point to Sylvanus Thayer’s two-year study of French military schools as the inspiration for his instrumental changes to instruction and administration at West Point, including rigid entrance standards and daily graded recitations. But his decision to round out the curriculum with courses in advanced mathematics and humanities may have been influenced by his own alma mater, Dartmouth.
By 1803, when Thayer entered the College, Dartmouth had established itself as an institution with a rigorous four-year liberal arts education. The class day began at 5 o’clock in the morning and ran until 6 o’clock in the evening. There were three classes per day, with breaks for meals, study periods, and prayers. Recitation was the most widely used form of instruction. Instructors asked questions about the assigned reading and students recited what they remembered. With no pre-selected courses of study or majors, all students received a comprehensive education, taking classes in a wide range of subjects. For the first three years, students focused on the Classics: from Greek they learned about art, literature, and science, and from Latin they learned about law. Grammar, logic, and geography were also a part of their studies. In their fourth year, students took courses in metaphysics, theology, natural philosophy, and French, the language in which most scientific texts were published.
Thayer chose Dartmouth in large part because it offered several courses in higher mathematics that were not yet available at other colleges, even Harvard. At Dartmouth Thayer was able to study algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. When he graduated in 1807, as class valedictorian, Thayer was the consummate scholar. He excelled not only in the scientific subjects that would lead to his military calling, but in the humanities as well. His accomplishments demonstrated a belief that a complete education would show him how best to serve his country.
This high regard for a liberal arts education followed him through his successful careers as mathematics professor, soldier, engineer, and ultimately as academic administrator and benefactor. During his 16 years as superintendent of West Point, he encouraged his students to master French so they could translate the foreign texts, giving this country its first books on engineering. Students also studied history, art, moral philosophy, law, and geography to give context to their campaign planning and building projects.
As founder of Thayer School, Thayer wrote out requirements for admission that again emphasized the importance of grammar, geography, and history, along with the requisite background in mathematics and science. He understood that a good education was more than a study of discrete subjects. The ideal curriculum mixed philosophy and theory with skills and practical application. By challenging students to understand the necessary interaction between the two, he hoped “to prepare the most capable and faithful for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service.”
— Genevieve Chan
A Man for All Times: The Life of Sylvanus Thayer
Born June 9 in Braintree, Massachusetts.
Moves to Washington, New Hampshire, to live with and work for his uncle Azariah Faxon, a veteran of the American Revolution.
Develops interest in military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Teaches at Washington District School.
Enters Dartmouth College. Studies the classics and higher mathematics. Develops lifelong friendship with George Ticknor, future distinguished author and Harvard educator.
Named valedictorian, but departs before Commencement to take up appointment to United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point.
Graduates from USMA as second lieutenant in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Teaches mathematics at West Point.
Awarded Master of Arts degree by Dartmouth College.
Fights in War of 1812.
Awarded Brevet Major (promotion without pay increase) for design and erection of Norfolk Harbor.
Travels to Europe to study military operations, works, and schools, particularly France’s École Polytechnique.
Appointed Superintendent of West Point by President James Monroe. Within first two years, establishes discipline, standards, and nation’s first engineering curriculum and technical library.
Professor George Ticknor, classmate and friend from Dartmouth, requests Thayer’s advice on revamping curriculum at Harvard College.
Awarded Brevet of Lieutenant Colonel.
Awarded Master of Arts degree by Harvard College.
President Monroe consults Thayer on administration of the University of Virginia.
Resigns superintendency to prevent President Andrew Jackson’s rivalry with him from eroding USMA’s standards.
Constructs Boston harbor defenses. Forts Warren and Independence are models of engineering skill, economy, and construction.
President Martin Van Buren’s secretary of war invites Thayer to resume charge of USMA. Thayer declines.
Awarded LL. D. by Dartmouth College.
Awarded LL. D. by Harvard College.
Thayer’s influence on education felt nationally through the success of his cadets: Seventy-eight USMA graduates teach at the nation’s 203 colleges.
Retires from active duty and returns to family home in Braintree.
Donates $40,000 to the Trustees of Dartmouth College “for the purpose of establishing … a School or Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering.” Outlines a rigorous curriculum for a mainly post-graduate education in civil engineering.
Thayer School of Civil Engineering opens its doors, with Robert Fletcher as sole professor, a Board of Overseers, a program of admission requirements, a curriculum, an endowment, a drawing room, a recitation room, and three students.
Dies September 7 in Braintree.
Thayer Academy, a coed secondary school, established in Braintree from funds bequeathed by Thayer.
Thayer’s remains reinterred at West Point.
Thayer statue unveiled at West Point.
West Point presents first annual Sylvanus Thayer Award to recognize outstanding citizens. Future recipients include Bob Hope and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Thayer elected to New York University’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans as the ”Father of Technology in the United States.”
Thayer School of Engineering celebrates centennial with publication of school’s history and Thayer’s school-related correspondence.
U.S. Postal Service issues nine-cent Sylvanus Thayer stamp. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis declares June 9 Sylvanus Thayer Day.
Furthering Thayer’s goals, expansion of Thayer School of Engineering begins.
— Genevieve Chan
For more historical photos, visit our Thayer’s Past set on Flickr.