Fuzzy and Untestable Professionalism

Sat Jul 5 10:32:55 2008
I feel very ambivalent and uneasy about William B. Skelton’s article “Professionalism in the U. S. Army Officer Corps during the Age of Jackson” (Armed Forces and Society, August 1975). I think it is an interesting thesis, well defended in a lively and interesting prose style. The idea itself is appealing and his sensible and clear argument makes me want to accept his conclusion. However I feel very uncomfortable with several things.

The era itself is so full of social and political contradictions that it would be hard to use them to justify much of anything. Jacksonian democracy itself is an oxymoron. Andrew Jackson claimed to be the voice of democracy, but usually in pursuit of his own personal agenda. He strove to weaken and undermine federalism yet obsessed with his own personal executive power probably increased it. He spoke out against factionalism and corrupt powerful elites yet is credited with starting the spoils system and used the executive veto more times than all previous presidents combined. Does this approach to government encourage the building of a more professional officer corps to lead major national tasks? Hard to say, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Looking at a variety of other sources from the period does not offer unambiguous support for Skelton’s argument for a professional and politically independent officer corps either.

Ethan Allen Hitchcock’s published diaries, Fifty Years in Camp and Field (Putnam, 1909) present a number of possible objections to Skelton’s thesis. General Hitchcock is certainly an educated and enlightened officer, yet he clearly has a partisan interest in politics as evidenced by his pointed criticisms of President Polk. His reading of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Tractatus, which addresses notions of security, sovereignty and freedom of thought, also displays a serious interest in politics. The lithographs “The Scarecrow Militia” (c. 1836) and “The 38th New York State Militia” (1843) (in Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians, pp. 212, 231) could lead to very different interpretations. The differences between the 1836 and 1843 lithographs may suggest a professional transformation of the militia (unlike Skelton who argues that the regular army made the transformation) or it might demonstrate different opinions, a single change in perception, or merely different pictorial genre (e.g., the satire and the formal portrait).

Robert E. May’s “Young American Males and Filibustering in the Age of Manifest Destiny” (Journal of American History, December 1991) demonstrates widespread unprofessionalism, especially the use of the military for personal and political gain. Perhaps an extreme example can be found in “The Diary of Eliza Johnson” (The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, April 1957). She is most likely a sympathetic observer and not predisposed to criticism of her husband, the commanding officer Albert Sidney Johnston who graduated eighth in his class at West Point. Yet her description of his regiment seems anything but professional. She tells of a drunken soldier falling off his horse, slander, theft, cheating at cards, women and children being taken as prisoners, questionable treatment of Indians (including stoning) “& conduct unbecoming an officer & gentleman.” This isn’t just an assembly of untrained volunteers; this is “Jeff Davis’s Own” elite 2nd Cavalry Regiment with officers handpicked by Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War Jefferson Davis—-many of whom would soon become Generals in the Confederate Army.

I think the biggest problem with the essay is the notion of professionalism itself. Professionalism seems as fuzzy and untestable a concept as psychoanalysis, historical materialism and intelligent design. It tends to be in the eye of the beholder and not based on any clear empirical criteria. Outside of some objective and analytical model for measuring professionalism (which he does not offer in his essay) it seems to remain a slippery notion: undeniable because it is equally unconfirmable. While this may provide thoughtful, entertaining and enjoyable reading, it probably does not provide a really solid basis for good history.

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~ by severalfourmany on July 5, 2008.

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