Book Review: The Scouting Party by David C. Scott and Brendan Murphy

When it comes to Scouting, I’m a washout. Not only didn’t I make it past Cub Scouts, tying my shoes is about as advanced as my knot repertoire gets. Fortunately, David Scott and Brendan Murphy’s The Scouting Party: Pioneering and Preservation, Progressivism and Preparedness in the Making of the Boy Scouts of America doesn’t require familiarity with the Boy Scouts or even any merit badges.

As Boy Scouts of America celebrates its 100th anniversary, The Scouting Party focuses on the organization’s formative years and the personalities and viewpoints that gave rise to it. Yet even 100 years doesn’t mean all the issues have changed. In the recent past, the Boy Scouts has been viewed as a somewhat militaristic, conservative organization and its stances on atheists and gays have prompted controversy and litigation. As Scott and Murphy observe in their meticulously researched book, questions of religion and militarism confronted the organization from its inception.

The bulk of the book focuses on 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 role of West and others. 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.

With the title, Murphy and Scott 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.

One hundred years after BSA’s founding it does not seem too late, and may be an opportune moment, to reconsider and reintegrate some of the unconventional and idiosyncratic values that Seton — and Beard too — brought to the Scouting Party[.]

David C. Scott and Brendan Murphy, The Scouting Party

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3 comments to Book Review: The Scouting Party by David C. Scott and Brendan Murphy

  • Do you think the popularity of the boy scouts is linked to its militaristic attitude or lack thereof?

  • Tim

    I think it may depend on a person’s definition of militaristic. If it includes young boys’ attraction to uniforms, for example, I think that does contribute to the popularity. By the same token, at least in my experience “back in the day,” the popularity came more from the outdoor activities, camping and the like than anything else.

  • If I could interject for a moment. The Boy Scouts of America has never been a militaristic operation…quite the opposite, in fact. It is true that worldwide Scouting founder, Robert Baden-Powell, incorported military concepts in his plan, like the ranks of First and Second Class and the patrol system, but even these ideas came from the non-militaristic Woodcraft Indians founded by Ernest Thompson Seton. During World War I, BSA managers took a decidedly non-militaristic slant, urged on by noted pacifists David Starr Jordan, who was a BSA vice-president at the time, and magnate Andrew Carnegie. However, Theodore Roosevelt threatened to withdraw his support unless BSA chose to fully embrace preparedness for the United States’ impending entrance into the conflict. So, in order to straddle the fence, BSA managers decided to let each Scouting unit decide how much they wanted to embrace the war effort and the result was an overwhelming desire to do so, thereby launching the organization towards a national iconic status. That is one reason why they became, in our opinion, the nonpartisan, “Scouting Party.”