Founding of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point

Sail up the Hudson River north of Manhattan for about 50 miles, and the river turns left to the northwest. On the west side, a commanding bluff rises about 150 feet above the river. According to the generals of both the British and Continental Armies, this location was a wonderful place to emplace artillery to deter ships from going either north or south on the Hudson. This bluff, known as West Point, was so important strategically that Benedict Arnold committed treason by trying to turn over control to the British. Now, the location is also the home of the United States Military Academy.

With independence won, the fortification, now named Fort Clinton, was used to store military supplies. Beginning in 1794, the place was also used to train officers entering what we now know as the U.S. Army. FYI, the modern U.S. Army was created when the Army Act of 1784 was passed.

After Alexander Hamilton left office as the Secretary of the Treasury, Washington appointed him as the Inspector General of the U.S. Army. Believing that the relations with France would continue to deteriorate and lead to armed conflict, in 1798 Hamilton introduced “a bill for establishing a military academy” in Congress to train officers. In addition to details on the curriculum, Hamilton recommended Fort Clinton, now the name of the fort at West Point, be the new school’s location.

While the Quasi-War with France was fought mostly in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic, the 5th Congress looked at his idea favorably but with the election of 1800 looming, no action was taken.

The 1800 presidential election was the most contested U.S. Presidential election in history and took 36 votes in the House of Representatives before Jefferson was elected. (See November 6th, 2022, post – American’s Most Contentious Election – https://marcliebman.com/americas-most-contentious-election/ )

Jefferson was now the President and the Democratic-Republicans had a two vote majority in the Senate and a larger one in the House. On one hand, Jefferson and his supporters did not want to fund a standing army or navy. On the other, the U.S. army was struggling to protect settlers moving west into what was called the Northwest Territory and the area that became the states of Kentucky and Tennessee.

The country was also struggling to deal with the Barbary Pirates and the debate on whether we should pay tribute or defend our ships was coming to the forefront. In 1803, payments to the Barbary States were a significant portion of the Federal Budget.

Being the good politician he was, shortly he was inaugurated, Jefferson signaled supporters in the House and Senate that he would look favorably on Hamilton’s idea. Admitting that the Federalist Hamilton had a good idea was a hard pill for Jefferson to swallow so he encouraged Robert Harper, a Federalist Representative from South Carolina, a man who voted for him, to re-introduce Hamilton’s bill into Congress. It passed on January 21st, 1802.

What Jefferson signed on March 16th, 1802, was the Military Peace Establishment Act. Among many other things, it authorized the founding of the United States Military Academy at West Point which opened on July 6th, 1802.

Image is 1780 French map of the fortress at West Point.

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