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Book Review: The Scouting Party: Pioneering and Preservation, Progressivism and Preparedness in the Making of the Boy Scouts of America by David C. Scott and Brendan Murphy

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“Friends don’t stab you in the chest.”  Ever heard that one?  Ernest Thompson Seton would certainly agree.  Seton founded a group for boys in America called “Woodcraft Indians” and made the mistake of telling a British war hero about it, sharing the details of his organization.  General Robert Baden-Powell then started scouting in England — by stealing Seton’s idea, his organizational structure, and plagiarizing the manual.  And it gets worse!

Seton had almost as many wounds as Caesar by the time it was all over.  David C. Scott and Brendan Murphy detail the action, the drama, and the agony that was the beginning of the Boy Scouts of America in their new book, The Scouting Party, Pioneering and Preservation, Progressivism and Preparedness in the Making of the Boy Scouts of America. Credit William Faulkner with the title?

Not a chapter goes by in The Scouting Party, Pioneering and Preservation, Progressivism and Preparedness in the Making of the Boy Scouts of America that more details and juicy stories don’t turn up of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as the nation’s premier organization for boys is born.  It was almost as difficult as real childbirth with three sets of DNA.  Just who was the father anyway?

Each of the founding fathers gets a biographical chapter:  Seton, the outdoorsman British expatriate, the war-hero Baden-Powell, and Daniel C. Beard, founder of the Sons of Daniel Boone and illustrator of Mark Twain’s, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Then it gets complicated.  

William Dickson Boyce, a publisher from Chicago makes up a story about an encounter with a Boy Scout in the fog in London who introduces him to the scouting concept.  The legend of the “Unknown Scout” inspires Boyce to go to Washington, D.C. and use his influence and contacts there (with the help of a descendant of the storied African missionary-explorer, David Lingstone) to incorporate “The Boy Scouts of America”.

Scott and Murphy leave no stone unturned as their thorough and meticulous research results in a nine-page bibliography and more than 30 pages of notes.  Eight pages of glossy black and white photos put faces to the names of all the many fathers of Scouting.  Theodore Roosevelt was the patron saint of scouting, although he was unable to attend the meeting at the Waldorf Astoria to help set things up. Their writing style is engaging and interesting although the story becomes repetitious and leaves us wondering what injustice or underhanded trick one of the “Big Three” of Scouting is going to pull on the others next.

Perhaps this reviewer was naive, but it was disconcerting to me to learn of such a sordid origin and past for an organization which is held in such high esteem.  In my hometown, we didn’t have Boy Scouts and when my sons were younger, they were involved in “Indian Guides” through the YMCA.  Although the YMCA was involved with Scouting in the beginning, somewhere along the way, the two organizations parted ways and both went on to help shape the nation’s youth for service.  What type of service (pacifism versus [military] preparedness) was one of the first issues that challenged the fledgling scout organization. Seton was a pacifist and of course, “TR” was a bully rough rider.

Fortunately, for the more than 110 million participants to date, Boy Scouts of America has persevered and survived not only the trauma of getting started, but the travails of the ages to celebrate their 100th birthday on February 8, 2010. Good luck for the next 100 years!

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