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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine
Vol. 78 No. 1 (May 1909), 629‑634

The text is in the public domain.

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 p629  Was "Secession" Taught at West Point?

What the Records Show

by Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Edgar S. Dudley
Judge-advocate, United States Army

Was the right of a State to secede from the Union taught at the United States Military Academy?

Was Rawle's work "A View of the Constitution of the United States" a text-book at the military academy at any time prior to the Civil War? Did that book advocate the right of secession, and did it inculcate the duty of the individual to be loyal to his State rather than to the Union?

Was this work the legal and authorized text-book from which General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Albert Sidney Johnston (1826), Mr. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis (1828), Generals Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Robert E. Lee (1829), Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joseph E. Johnston (1829), Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas J. ("Stonewall") Jackson (1846), Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Dabney H. Maury (1846), Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Fitzhugh Lee (1856), and others graduated at West Point between the years 1825 and 1861, received instruction in constitutional law?

The above are questions which for years have been asked of the authorities at West Point as a result of statements made in public speeches, in newspapers, magazines, and books, that the right of "secession" of a State was there taught to the graduates named, and from the text-book mentioned above, and which, if unanswered, are tending toward being accepted as historical fact.

Several statements from various sources, made at different times, allege that Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, and other prominent graduates who entered the Southern Confederacy, were taught at the United States Military Academy that any State had a right to secede, and that their duty at that time was allegiance to their States. It has been asserted that the doctrine of the right of secession was inculcated at West Point as an admitted principle of constitutional law and, in each case, it has been said that "A View of the Constitution of the United States," published in Philadelphia in 1825, by William Rawle, was the text-book used.

The year of graduation is placed after each of the names mentioned above, and it will be apparent therefrom, after noting them, that instruction in the right of secession, if such instruction was given, as has been alleged, must have extended over a period of thirty years or more, or from the cadet days of General Albert Sidney Johnston, 1826, to those of General Fitzhugh Lee, 1856.

An exhaustive and impartial search through the records of the military academy was necessary to gather all the facts and determine the whole truth as to this question.

The assertions as to the text-book being confined to the use of Rawle's "View of the Constitution," it was necessary to discover whether the records of the academy gave any information as to the adoption of this work by the academic board or as to its use as a text-book. The book itself speaks the author's views, and portions bearing on the question of secession will be quoted later.

While the records of the military academy do not give the names of all the text-books used in the earlier years, they do  p630 contain the record of each examination for every year, together with the subject of examination, so that the question as to whether a certain subject was taught may be verified.

The effort to give some reason or to find some justification for the action of these graduates in joining the Confederacy, through the statement that they were taught the right of a State to secede at the military academy, appears unnecessary and without any good basis. We all understand to‑day, and can sympathize with them in their difficult situation, and the attempt to excuse their action seems without adequate cause.

The conflict in their minds and hearts was between two classes of duty; their decision was made for that which they believed to be most binding on them. They were called upon to decide between their legal and moral duty to support and maintain the Union and what they believed to be their moral and personal duty to their kindred, their homes, their locality, and their State. It seems to have been a personal matter which each felt called upon to decide for himself according to the dictates of his own conscience as to what was right. Many realized, as did General Robert E. Lee, that "Secession is nothing but revolution,"​1 and those who were in the United States Army at this time, feeling their legal obligation, endeavored to separate themselves from it by resigning their commissions.

In this conflict between two classes of duty requiring these graduates to decide which they felt to be the superior, many of those born in, and appointed from, Southern States, like Generals Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George H. Thomas, William Hays, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry D. Wallen, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John Newton, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Barton S. Alexander, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas J. Wood, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Richard I. Dodge, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stephen V. Benet, and many others, decided for what they considered to be their legal and moral duty, and remained loyal to the Union.

If the study of Rawle, if it was taught them, is urged as an excuse for the action of those who went to the Confederacy, what excuse can be made for these men who, receiving the same instruction, remained loyal to the Union under as great a pressure, and with a more intensified feeling against their action, because, in doing so, it severed them from home, kindred, and their native States?

Many of the authorities for the assertion as to the use of Rawle's work as a text-book at the military academy have been collected by Colonel Robert Bingham of Asheville, North Carolina, and are inserted in a preface to a pamphlet reprint of an article entitled "Sectional Misunderstandings," which was originally published in the "North American Review" of September, 1904. In this preface he says:

The crux of the following paper is the historic fact, often asserted and never officially denied, that, from 1825 (the year during which Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis entered the U. S. Military Academy)​2 to as late as 1840, and probably later, the United States Government taught its cadets at West Point from Rawle's View of the Constitution that the Union was dissoluble, and that, if it should be dissolved, allegiance reverted to the STATES. Some conclusive documentary proof of this historic fact is hereby offered, for the first time, as far as the writer has been able to ascertain.

This statement, with the documents quoted, covers the gist of the claim. To ascertain the truth of the matter, a thorough examination of the academic records has now for the first time been made.

The "documentary proof" following this statement of Colonel Bingham consists of letters from the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, from its librarian, some from descendants  p631 of the Rawle family, and from others, none of which states definitely and positively from certain knowledge that Rawle's "View of the Constitution" was used as a text-book, though some of them say that they have heard it stated as a fact, and believe it to be true. Among the letters are two from graduates of the period covered in this inquiry. Almost every statement is based upon "recollection" or "hearsay and belief."

In addition to these letters, there is quoted one from the Hon. Charles Francis Adams, inclosing a copy of one of his own publications entitled, "The Constitutional Ethics of Secession," in which it is said that "anterior to 1840 the doctrine of the right of secession seems to have been inculcated at West Point as an admitted principle of Constitutional Law. . . . Prior to 1840, his [Rawle's] View was the text-book in use at West Point."

General Adams wrote this upon information he then had at hand, and refers to correspondence with "the librarian and authorities at West Point."

A letter dated November 23, 1904, and written by the librarian of the United States Military Academy, is quoted by Colonel Bingham, to the effect that "the copy" of Rawle's "View of the Constitution" "owned by the Library U. S. M. A., contains Ms. notes which make it very probable that this book was used as a text-book at the Military Academy, inasmuch as there is a list of sections and lessons marked."

A rigid and careful examination of this book, with a decipherment of the pencil notes and marks in it, shows that the librarian, while correct in his statement as to the probable use of Rawle's work, was mistaken in his ground therefor as to this particular book, and that these notes and marks do not indicate a list of sections or a division of the text into lessons, as might have been the case if it had been used as a text-book.

The superintendent of the military academy wrote, November 14, 1904, that in the "Memorial Volume of the Military Academy," soon to be published, the following note would appear:

The text-book of the law department, from (?) to (?). The copy of this book owned by the Library U. S. Military Academy makes it very probable that it was used as a text-book.

But the same superintendent, after a further examination of the matter, wrote later, July 10, 1905, to the Hon. W. A. Calderhead, Marysville, Kansas:

The records of the Department have been carefully searched and they do not show that Rawle was ever used either as a text-book or work of reference.

General Adams published his pamphlet in 1903, and his letter inclosing it was written in 1904, so that it is very probable that he had the first statements given above, or similar information, upon which he based his assertion. In a personal letter to the writer hereof, dated March 4, 1908, he has since written:

I freely confess, and with some mortification, that the reference in my booklet, "The Ethics of Secession," was too strong. I should have stated that Rawle's "View" "is said to have been used as a text-book at West Point" during the period named. As it stands, I have stated it as a fact. I did so on the authority of others, mainly Southern writers, including Jefferson Davis. He, however, gave different limits of time for its use.

My own final impression on the matter is, that Rawle's "View" never was an established and authorized text-book at the Academy for any course of instruction; but, between 1825 and 1832, the question of Nullification and the right of secession were freely discussed among the students, and Rawle's view was that certainly accepted by the Southern students, and, in all probability, by the mass of both students and instructors. I have equally little question that frequent reference was made to the book.

The facts as above set forth remove the letters mentioned above, and quoted by Colonel Bingham, from acceptance as "conclusive documentary proof."

But two of the letters quoted later by Colonel Bingham contain direct statements from graduates of their recollection that Rawle's "View of the Constitution" was used as a text-book while they were cadets. As far as it relates to themselves, their assertion as to its use may be accepted as direct  p632 personal evidence based upon their memory, recollection, and belief. But others are named as using it who were not with them, or in their classes, at the academy, and what is said of them is therefore based upon "hearsay," and is not direct evidence, but depends upon the statements and recollection of others.

The two following extracts from the "Preface" of Colonel Bingham contain the most direct statements made, and name the individual graduates who are said to have been instructed in Rawle's "View of the Constitution"; they are therefore given in full:

(From Fitzhugh Lee)

Norfolk, Va., Dec. 5, 1904.

. . . My recollection is that Rawle's View of the Constitution was the legal text-book at West Point when Generals Lee, Joseph E. Johnston and Stonewall Jackson were cadets there, and later on was a text-book when I was a cadet there.

(Signed) Fitzhugh Lee.

(From Gen. Dabney H. Maury)

In Vol. 6, p249, "Southern Historical Society Papers":

. . . It [Rawle] remained as a text-book at West Point till –––––; and Mr. Davis and Sidney Johnston and General Joe Johnston and General Lee, and all the rest of us who retired with Virginia from the Federal Union, were not only obeying the plain instincts of our nature and dictates of duty, but we were obeying the very inculcations we had received in the National School. It is not probable that any of us ever read the Constitution or any exposition of it except this work of Rawle, which we studied in our graduating year at West Point. I know I did not. . . .

(Signed) Dabney H. Maury.

As stated above by General Maury, the subject of constitutional law was taught in the "graduating year." As Jefferson Davis was graduated in 1828, General Fitzhugh Lee in 1856, and General Albert Sidney Johnston in 1826, the examination of the records was from the year 1825 until the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, and even beyond the latter date. Where the text-books used are not specifically named in the record, resort was had to the records of examinations, which give the subjects of each examination and the standing of cadets therein for each year.

The department of geography, history, and ethics, in which instruction in law was given during the period under consideration, was created by the Act of April 14, 1818, with the chaplain as professor. He seems to have had great latitude as to the subjects of instruction in his department. In the Report of the Board of Visitors, June 7, 1826, which shows that there was an examination that year in political economy and the Constitution of the United States, the Board says:

A department has, therefore, gradually grown up into which several branches have been successively crowded, little connected with each other, or with the rest of the studies pursued here, and which can find no suitable place in the Academic course, but at the expense of something more immediate to the wants and objects of the Institution. In this way there have been introduced, from time to time, English Grammar, Geography, History, Rhetoric, Natural and Political Law, Constitutional Law, and Political Economy. Some of them have been taught every year, but in no one year have all of them been taught because it was impossible to find place and room for them all. During the last year English Grammar, Rhetoric, the Constitutional Law of the United States, and Political Economy, have been taught, each very imperfectly and superficially for want of time and means.

and the Board therefore recommended that "this department of studies be broken up."

It will be noted that the professor apparently selected from this list of subjects those to be taught in any one year, and those so taught were likely to be displaced by some other subject the following year. "In no one year were all of them taught."

Constitutional law was one of the subjects taught in the year 1825, and it became important to ascertain, if possible, the text-book used. The records mention no text-book; it was undoubtedly selected by the professor on his own motion, and it became a question as to which of two works, Sergeant's, published in 1822, or Rawle's, published in 1825, may have been  p633 used, copies of each being found in the academy library.

No authority is to be found in the academic records for the use of either of these works or any reference to either of them; but in the journal of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.S. P. Heintzelman, United States Army, kept while a cadet at the military academy, which is now in the academy library, reference is found to recitation and examination in "Rawle on the Constitution." General Heintzelman was graduated in the class of 1826, with General Albert Sidney Johnston, and it affords evidence, therefore, that Albert Sidney Johnston received instruction in this text-book.

The following year, 1827, and in 1829 and 1830, the records show that the examinations were in "Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy" only,​a there being no reference to constitutional law and no indication that it was taught in those years.

They do show, however, an examination in constitutional law in 1828. This was the year when Jefferson Davis was graduated, and he has stated in a letter to the Hon. R. T. Bennett of North Carolina, quoted by General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Morris Schaff in "The Spirit of Old West Point," note, p229, as appearing in vol. 22, p83, "Southern Historical Society Papers," as follows:

Rawle on the Constitution was the text-book at West Point, but when the class of which I was a member entered the graduating year Kent's Commentaries were introduced as the text-book on the Constitution and International Law.

There is confirmatory evidence of the correctness of his statement in the fact that while no text-book is named, the records show that his class was examined in "National and Constitutional Law," and there is no book of that period, to my knowledge, that in plan and character will fulfil the conditions of a work to be used for such instruction, or that corresponds to this description, so nearly as Kent's "Commentaries." The first volume of Kent begins, Part I, with "The Law of Nations," and is followed, Part II, by "The Government and Constitutional Jurisprudence of the United States," or constitutional law. The use of the words "National Law" in the sense of the "Law of Nations" in connection with "Constitutional Law" as the subject of the examination pertains so closely to the description of Kent's "Commentaries" in this text that it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that this was the book used, and it is corroborative of the statement of Mr. Davis that he was instructed in Kent's "Commentaries," and evidence, therefore, that he did not receive instruction in Rawle's "View of the Constitution."

General Robert E. Lee and General Joseph E. Johnston were graduated the following year, 1829, and, as stated above, the record for that year shows the examination to have been in "Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy." Constitutional law was apparently not taught that class. If it had been, Kent's "Commentaries," being in use the previous year, would in all likelihood have been continued, as it was later, the report of the Board of Visitors for June, 1831, showing it then in use; and it is on the list of class books published in the register of the United States Military Academy in 1832.

Generals Thomas J. ("Stonewall") Jackson and Dabney H. Maury were graduated in 1846, and General Fitzhugh Lee in 1856.

In the official "Cadet Register" in 1841, and for each successive year to 1862, and for several years later, Kent's "Commentaries" is specifically named as the text-book, and is the only work on constitutional law mentioned as used. No other text-book on that subject is referred to, and the statements made that Rawle's "View of the Constitution" was the adopted and legal text-book during that period is directly opposed to, and controverted by, these records, so that neither of these officers, nor any other graduating during this period, could, according to the records of the academy, have been instructed there from Rawle's work as an authorized text-book, but did actually receive instruction from Kent's "Commentaries."

It is undoubtedly true that the question of the right of a State to secede was under discussion by cadets and that Rawle's work was often referred to in these discussions and its views quoted in support of the right of secession. It is because of this fact that it is probable that the memories of these graduates are at fault in thinking  p634 and believing it to have been used as an authorized text-book. Their recollection and the records, however, are in conflict on this point.

General Fitzhugh Lee speaks from his "recollection," and while General Maury does not thus limit his statement, it is evident, as will appear, that he was also speaking from memory and not from the record.

That Rawle's work had its influence, although not used as a text-book, may be accepted as true; but the question here is not as to such influence, but as to whether it was the authorized text-book used at the United States Military Academy for the years in question, and, therefore, for the instruction of the graduates named, and which claim, as to its use, extends from 1825 to include at least the class of Fitzhugh Lee, who was graduated in 1856, and approximately up to the beginning of the Civil War.

General Maury, General Fitzhugh Lee, and Mr. Davis were all graduates of the military academy, and not for one moment will any one who knew them believe that an incorrect statement was knowingly made by any of them. But years had elapsed since they were cadets, during which events changed the whole tenor of thought of the entire country, and led many to endeavor to recall the origin of their earlier beliefs. Questions of great national importance had been discussed and decided, while the personal experiences of a great war, with its subsequent events and trials, had been passed through, so that if memory failed properly to connect the dates and events of those earlier years, it is certainly pardonable. It is unquestionable that they stated that which they believed to be true, whether speaking from recollection or from hearsay. It must also be remembered that at the period under investigation the question as to the right of a State to secede was not definitely settled. Even with Northern writers there was a difference of opinion on the subject, and it was finally adjudicated only after an appeal to arms.

An apparent injustice has been done to Judge Rawle by some writers in the inference to be drawn from their statements that he was an advocate of secession. It is important to bear in mind that this is far from being the case. He was, on the contrary, a strong advocate of the maintenance of the Union. While holding to the abstract right of the people of a State to withdraw from the Union in this work, "A View on the Constitution of the United States of America," he earnestly discourages it in forcible language as disastrous and parricidal. He says:

The consequences of an absolute secession cannot be mistaken, and they would be serious and afflicting. . . . Separation would produce jealousies and discord, which in time would ripen into mutual hostilities, and while our country would be weakened by internal war, foreign enemies would be encouraged to invade with the flattering prospect of subduing in detail those whom, collectively, they would dread to encounter. P. 299.

In every aspect therefore which this great subject presents, we feel the deepest impression of a sacred obligation to preserve the union of our country; we feel our glory, our safety, and our happiness, involved in it; we unite the interests of those who coldly calculate advantages with those who glow with what is little short of filial affection; and we must resist the attempt of its own citizens to destroy it, with the same feelings that we should avert the dagger of the parricide. P. 301.

A statement has also frequently been made, and Colonel Bingham quotes it from "The Republic of Republics," 4th Ed., 1878, Preface, p. v, and from a letter of the Rev. Dr. L. W. Bacon of Massachusetts, to the effect that in case of the trial of Jefferson Davis for high treason,

the defense would have offered in evidence the text-book on constitutional law (Rawle's "View of the Constitution") from which Davis had been instructed at West Point by the authority of the United States Government, and in which the right of secession is maintained as one of the constitutional rights of a State.

It need only be said as to this that it was an unsupported proposition, not acted on, and which could not have been sustained from the academic records, and which, accepting Mr. Davis's own statement with reference to it, as given above, could not have been maintained. It was  p635 "in his own interest" for Mr. Davis to state that he was taught Rawle, if such was the fact, and when he says the contrary, — that Kent's "Commentaries" were introduced for his class, — it is "against interest," and must be accepted as stating the actual fact in the case.


The result of this examination of the records of the United States Military Academy, and of the review of statements on both sides of the subject, shows conclusively, to my mind, that Rawle's work "A View of the Constitution of the United States" was introduced as a text-book by the professor of geography, history, and ethics for one year only (1826), and was then discontinued, never again being used; that it was never officially adopted as a text-book by action of the academic board; that of all the graduates named only one, General Albert Sidney Johnston, of the class of 1826, received instruction in that work; that the records show positively the use of Kent's "Commentaries" from 1841 until after the beginning of the Civil War, so that no one who was graduated during that period could ever have had Rawle as an authorized text-book.

There is no necessity to seek to assign "instruction at the military academy" as an excuse for the action of those who joined the Confederacy or for those who remained loyal to the Union. Each graduate made his choice in honest and conscientious belief that he was in the right, and, whatever the origin of his belief, fought for it, while many on each side of the issue died fighting for it.

The question of the right of a State to secede from the Union has been settled forever, and no defense is now needed for those who fought for their opinions, following the dictates of their own consciences.

The records are on file at the military academy, and speak for themselves; the conclusions drawn are of course my own, and made on my own responsibility.

The Author's Notes:

1 See "Letter to his son," January 23, 1861, "Memoirs of Robert E. Lee," A. L. Long, p85; also letter to his sister, "The whole South is in a state of revolution," April 20, 1861, "Recollections and Letters of General Lee," by his son, p26; "Life of General Robert E. Lee," Cooke, p30; "The Life and Times of Robert E. Lee," Pollard, p51.

He said to Mr. Blair: "I look upon secession as anarchy," Address of John W. Daniel, LL. D., Lexington, Virginia, June 28, 1883, "Ceremonies connected with the Inauguration of the Mausoleum, etc." pp29‑33; and was "opposed to secession," see letter to the Hon. Reverdy Johnson, February 25, 1868, "Recollections and Letters of General Lee," by his son, p27; "Robert E. Lee, the Southerner," Thomas Nelson Page, p33.

These statements, and others in his letters, are at variance with the claim that he received and acted on instruction given him as a cadet that secession was a right reserved to any State.

[decorative delimiter]

2 An error, as Jefferson Davis entered in 1824, and General Robert E. Lee in 1825.

Thayer's Note:

a This statement is corrected by Freeman, R. E. Lee, Vol. I, p79, note.

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