Balancing Traditional and Modern Manhood and Authority

The following is an excerpt from MODERN MANHOOD AND THE BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA: CITIZENSHIP, RACE, AND THE ENVIRONMENT, 1910-1930 by Benjamin René Jordan. You can also watch this exclusive interview with the author on a previous post about the inspiration for the book HERE. Copyright © 2016 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

The BSA’s Triumph

Balancing Traditional and Modern Manhood and Authority

At the BSA’s first large public event—a September 1910 dinner at New York City’s posh Waldorf Astoria Hotel—over two hundred of the country’s elite gathered to welcome British Boy Scout founder General Robert Baden-Powell and to receive his official blessing for the American branch. John D. Rockefeller Jr., psychologist G. Stanley Hall, and muck-raking editor Jacob Riis agreed with the other philanthropic representatives, bankers, reformers, educators, clergy, and youth organization leaders at the banquet that Boy Scouting offered a highly effective solution to a broad array of boys’ and men’s concerns resulting from the modernization of society. What has most intrigued historians and gender studies researchers alike about the event is that following BSA Chief Scout Ernest Thompson Seton’s introduction of Baden-Powell as the “Father of Scouting,” the general diplomatically responded that there were many who deserved credit for originating the Scouting idea—and that he was but one of its uncles. He was alluding to the influence of Seton’s Woodcraft Indians and Beard’s Sons of Daniel Boone on outdoor programs for boys, but Baden-Powell’s organization was notably different. Moreover, in focusing on Baden-Powell’s statement and the question of which of these three men was the true originator of the Boy Scout ideal, most researchers have tended to overlook other remarks made at the banquet about the importance of peacetime civic responsibilities and corporate values in the emerging BSA. The expansion of supervisory oversight and bureaucratic processes partly explains the BSA’s victory over competing youth organizations such as Beard’s and Seton’s. The balance between traditional and modern men’s authority and values that the BSA’s corporate-style administration and teachings helped achieve made an even larger contribution to the organization’s rapid growth and popular support. Its efficient bureaucratization aided a tilt from the American heritage of individualistic volunteer men toward twentieth-century society’s professional standards and expert management and governance. BSA administrators soon modernized Baden-Powell’s character and civic teachings to the point that it can sometimes be more revealing to contrast BSA manhood against that of the British Boy Scouts and, especially, the Woodcraft Indians and Sons of Daniel Boone rather than lump them together, as does the “three uncles concept.

Despite the military-like uniforms, the association of the term “Scout” with forward military units, and General Baden-Powell’s having originated Boy Scouting in London, most BSA officials and local practices would soon come to stress civilian duties and corporate values over primitive virility and military aggression. One of the banquet’s most impressive moments came when a letter was read aloud from former president Theodore Roosevelt accepting the honorary vice presidency of the BSA, in which he emphasized that Scouting should primarily teach boys to be good citizens and men for times of peace rather than war. In addition to Baden-Powell having declined that day to review troops from publisher William Randolph Hearst’s rival and more militarist American Boy Scout organization, his speech stressed that proper Scouting taught British boys civic service, Life Saving, and doing a Good Turn to others daily. Baden-Powell stated that while British Scouting needed to “put back some of the wild man in the city boys,” the BSA should instead teach a balanced program of chivalry, discipline, and helpfulness to American boys, who already had enough of the pioneer spirit in them. Finally, he commented that the BSA’s organizers had exhibited more foresight in planning a corporate-like organization than had the movement he led in England. An article in the New York Times summed up the speech: “With true American genius, too, he went on, they had organized a combine, a trust, and then had got Col. Theodore Roosevelt to be Vice President of it. ‘Upon this trust you can depend.’ ” While he seemed to be paying the BSA a compliment and may have aimed the remark at the many captains of industry, banking, and commerce present in the Waldorf Astoria’s banquet room that evening, the early BSA had already steered away from British Scouting’s values and begun to shift toward a corporate makeup and governance.

Focusing on Baden-Powell’s remark that he shared credit with Beard and Seton for developing Boy Scouting also obscures the man who would help resolve these core tensions as the lead BSA administrator from 1911 to 1943: child welfare specialist and lawyer James West. While realizing that Beard and Seton were becoming disgruntled with the new direction the organization and its masculine teachings were taking, the Executive Board hired West as the new Executive Secretary to replace the staff on loan from the Young Men’s Christian Association and moved the BSA out of its original YMCA home to larger, separate headquarters on Fifth Avenue in January 1911. On the surface, West’s hiring seemed to point the organization toward an even greater focus on underprivileged, immigrant urban youth than the YMCA leaders provided. As a crippled orphan who put himself through law school, West embodied a prime example of how poor urban children could be redeemed by education and effort paired with a proactive social welfare system. A key authority on prominent Progressive reform institutions for poor urban youth like the Playground Movement, the juvenile court system, and the National Child Rescue League, West had recently organized the seminal White House Conference on Dependent Children in 1909, which helped shift parentless children’s placement from orphanages to foster homes. The BSA, however, did not become another destitute boys’ organization. American Scouting increasingly focused on the needs of white middle- and working-class town and urban boys at the expense of rural farm and destitute boys. West helped guide the transformation of the BSA into a centralized bureaucracy that hedged Seton’s and Beard’s self-reliant primitivism and Baden-Powell’s military tone with modern virtues like scientific efficiency, expert management, and loyalty to corporate hierarchy. BSA administrators, partly due to their desire to cleanse the organization from any debt to Seton and his writings, curtailed use of his Indian model in national Scout publications and conferences after 1910. Some local leaders continued to deploy Indian lore in camp rituals and Scout fraternal societies like the Order of the Arrow, but it was clearly not the dominant ideal in the BSA through the 1920s. The change of West’s title from Executive Secretary to Chief Scout Executive exemplified his triumph over the ousted Chief Scout Seton and symbolized the BSA’s merger of traditional and modern masculine values.

The balance the BSA achieved between self-reliant volunteerism and its emerging administrative apparatus helps account for the organization’s widespread popularity and rapid growth. This chapter illustrates how and why the BSA’s masculine and civic ideology, leadership structure, and membership focus shifted markedly after the September 1910 Waldorf Astoria banquet. As the BSA emphasized more corporate methods and modern masculine skills, it soon distanced itself from its Woodcraft Indian, Sons of Daniel Boone, British Boy Scout, and YMCA heritage. Moving the BSA beyond the narrow confines of aggressive militarism, primitive pioneer and Indian lore, and denominational leadership to lay claim to providing a universal model of modern American manhood and leading citizenship necessitated such changes. Only then did it triumph over other youth and Scout organizations and garner its broadest popular and governmental support. In the process of exploring these shifts, this chapter explains how the early BSA operated, of what and whom it consisted, and its key advocates. It examines two intertwined masculine and civic debates the BSA helped resolve: charismatic volunteerism versus professional management, and the balance of power between central and local authority. These debates connected with the broader shift from men’s self-made individualism of the nineteenth century toward their corporate-like, cooperative hierarchy of the twentieth century.


i. For varied descriptions of the attendees, banquet, and other early key BSA organizational developments and events, see Oursler, The Boy Scout Story, 34–36; Macleod, Building Character, 146; James E. West, “Historical Statement concerning the Early Days of the Boy Scouts of America,” for BSA National Training School (Sept. 24, 1934), folder of same name, Boy Scouts of America National Archive (hereafter referred to as BSANA); Edgar M. Robinson letter to Herschleb (Aug. 24, 1942), folder “First Troops,” BSANA; William D. Boyce, “Memorandum concerning How Scouting Came to America as Told by W. D. Boyce,” folder “History of the B.S. of A.,” BSANA; and Scott and Murphy, The Scouting Party, 4, 101-17.

ii. “Boy Scout Leaders Dine Baden-Powell,” New York Times, September 24, 1910, 8; “To Dine Baden-Powell: Boy Scouts of America to Honor the Head of Their English Cousins,” New York Times, September 23, 1910, 8.

iii. Beard overtook Seton as the BSA’s charismatic outdoorsman and public figurehead, but he never possessed the authority West had. Beard became the only remaining National Scout Commissioner  after the involvement  of two military officials, Bomus and Verbeck, declined. For central office moves, including the 1928 relocation to a much larger space in the new No. 2 Park Avenue Building, see “Boy Scouts of America Move National Office in New York,” Weekly News Bulletin of Boy Scout Activities, December 10, 1927. On West’s background, see Rowan, To Do My Best; Oursler, The Boy Scout Story, 47–52; and Boys’ Life, June 1926, 46. Seton’s disaffection (or ouster) from the BSA took several years, but significant tensions were present by the September 1910 BSA trial camp at Silver Bay and October’s Waldorf-Astoria banquet. For accounts of Seton, his Indian hero, and their ouster, refer to Wagner, “The Boy Scouts,” 142–52; Macleod, Building Character, 130–56, 180–81, 239; Scott and Murphy, The Scouting Party, 16–19, 36, 103–25, 141–55, 208–10; Deloria, “Playing Indian,” 261–81, 298–301; Wadland, “Ernest Thompson Seton”; Huhndorf, Going Native, 11, 72–77; Anderson, Ernest Thompson Seton; and Braude, “Making Men,” 123–24.

iv. Most gender historians have emphasized Scout quotations about manhood and antimodernity made by Beard, Seton, Alexander, and Baden-Powell between 1903 and 1910, before the major changes in BSA gender ideology and teaching methods. Some early BSA leaders occasionally encouraged boys to play pioneer or Indian in order to learn a dose of self-reliance and outdoorsmanship, but most officials hesitated to use either figure as a complete model of manhood, since neither self-reliance nor outdoor survival was the organization’s ultimate goal. As Macleod argued, “Beard’s berserker spirit . . . though attuned to American dreams of individualistic frontier manhood, was too anarchic and willful for an age groping towards social control.” Macleod, Building Character, 145. On Beard’s life, the Sons of Daniel Boone, and their relationship to early Scouting, consult Beard, The Boy Pioneers; Beard, Hardly a Man Is Now Alive, 352–57; Whitmore, “Beard, Boys and Buckskins”; and Kahler, “An Historical Analysis.”

Benjamin René Jordan is visiting associate professor of history at Christian Brothers University. His book Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930 is now available.
Posted by Josh Colfer at 5:05 PM

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