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Book Review: The Scouting Party: The Making of the Boy Scouts of America by David C. Scott and Brendan Murphy

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Any organization or institution is bound to change over the course of a century. As Boy Scouts of America celebrates its 100th anniversary, it seems like it has always been viewed as a somewhat conservative organization with a military bent. More recently, its stances on atheists and gays have prompted controversy and litigation. Yet David Scott and Brendan Murphy’s The Scouting Party: Pioneering and Preservation, Progressivism and Preparedness in the Making of the Boy Scouts of America not only indicates questions of religion and militarism confronted the organization from its inception but that today’s organization is different from what its founders envisioned.

The Scouting Party focuses on BSA’s formative years and the personalities and viewpoints that gave rise to it. Much of the meticulously researched book looks at the three men — only one of whom was American — who laid claim to originating the concept that became the Boy Scouts.

Robert Baden-Powell, who became a household name in England due to his service in the British Army during the Second Boer War, is frequently considered the founder of Scouting. Yet also factoring in the mix were Ernest Thompson Seton, born in Scotland but whose family emigrated to Canada when he was a boy, and Daniel Carter Beard, the American illustrator of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

A book Baden-Powell wrote in 1899 about military scouting became a bestseller in England. Seton was the author of popular books of animal stories and a naturalist. While Baden-Powell was serving in Africa, Seton formed the Woodcraft Indians, a youth organization aimed at preparing boys for life by activities involving nature, animals, camping, and Indian lore. Shortly after, Beard, who wrote successful books for boys, formed the Sons of Daniel Boone, aimed at using outdoor activities to teach boys about nature and conservation.

In 1906, Seton traveled to England, hoping to find support to grow the Woodcraft Indians organization. He gave Baden-Powell a copy of his book about the organization. In early 1908, Baden-Powell published Scouting for Boys, and Scout organizations began to spring up in England. Seton claimed, rightfully in several respects, that Baden-Powell’s book and Boy Scouts organization borrowed heavily from his book. It would be a source of contention for the remainder of their lives, one in which Beard also chimed in, claiming his earlier books and the Sons of Daniel Boone were the basis for the Boy Scouts of America.

Because both Beard and Seton lived in the U.S. and worked with BSA, the exchanges between them were most frequent. In fact, James West, BSA’s chief executive from 1911 to 1943, said that during the first years of his tenure he spent one-third of his time mediating the “everlasting controversy” between Seton and Beard. Seton frequently did battle with the BSA on a wide variety of other issues, large and small. He even once criticized chewing gum ads in Boy’s Life magazine as promoting “a dope habit” foisted on American youth by “the unscrupulous gum trust.”

While The Scouting Party documents the controversy over who deserved credit for Boy Scouts and the various disputes over primacy between Beard and Seton, it does so objectively. Quoting frequently from contemporary correspondence, Scott and Murphy allow those involved, particularly Beard and Seton, to state their own cases, even when they are claiming more credit than probably appropriate. At the same time, though, the book doesn’t ignore the major role of West and others in building the organization. Equally important, rather than just focusing on the conflict among the men, it provides insight into what they thought should be the guiding principles of Scouting.

Perhaps most notable, if not surprising, is that they did not want Boy Scouts seen as a militaristic organization. While they believed the training Scouting provided would be beneficial in time of war, they viewed the organization as more of a pacifist organization aimed at public service and preparedness for civil emergencies. In fact, the same year BSA was established, publisher William Randolph Hearst launched the American Boy Scouts, which was going to instruct its members in military drill and tactics. Baden-Powell, in contrast, called his Scouts “peace scouts.” Seton continually labored against any militaristic bent to the organization and Beard even saw the motto “Be Prepared” as too militaristic.

Yet while the BSA aligned itself with peace organizations and movements in the early years of World War I, that position began to change with public attitude in the U.S. As the country came closer to and eventually entered the war, BSA would distance itself from the pacifist groups, a distance that would never be narrowed. The Scouting Party suggests the Scouts may want to revisit some of the principles advocated by Seton and Beard and reintegrate them into BSA.

With the title, Murphy and Scott also suggest the BSA grew into such a national institution it need not worry about alignment with any political party. Yet their research reveals that the tide of political opinion could and did influence the organization — something that remains true today. In so doing, they provide perhaps unparalleled insight into the unique personalities behind the birth and growth of Scouting and how and why they promoted ideas many would not associate with the movement today. Ultimately, the reader wonders, as they do, what BSA would be like today had those initial attitudes prevailed.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.