James E. West: Chief Scout Executive (1911-43)

James E. West
Figure 1.--Here we see Chief Scout Executive James E. West in 1925 with BSA troop 17. Notice how he does not wear a uniform and seems a little uncomfortable. Also notice that some of the Scouts swear nevktids rather than neckerchiefs.

Boyce wanted the BSA based in natioanal capital to demonstrate the organization's national character. West changed his title to Chief Scout Executive. Showing the same determination that got him through law school with limited finances. He was forced to make a range of decessions, not all of them to his liking. One of the most difficult issues was race. West provided the organizational skill needed to build Scouting into the largest and most effective youth organization in the country. West remained Chief Scout Executive from 1911 until he retired in 1943--a rather long 6 months. When he retired in 1943, Dr. West was recognized throughout the country as the true architect of the Boy Scouts of America. He more than any other person created a well-organized national structure that was a key to the BSA's growth and reputation. He intended to make Scouting only a temporary diversion from his legal career, but that changed with the tremendous growth of the movement.

New York Office

West opened the new BSA office on 5th Avenue with six employees (January 1911). The idea of Scouting proved enormously popular. The Scout movement grew rapidly. West organized 60 councils in that first month. He set out commissioning hundreds of Scout masters. This all required a great deal of staff work. West hired many new employees and the BSA soon had a staff of 25 (May 1911).

Official Handbook for Boys

The BSA needed a handbook. Some troops were using Baden-Powell's Handbook cor Boys. But the BSA needed an American handbook. West played a major role in this effort. He expanding the third part of the Scout Oath: "To help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight". He also worked on the Scout Law: "brave, clean, and reverent". Labor unions complained about the wording in the handbook first distruibuted, essentially a copy of Baden-Powell's book. They thought that there was some anti-union wording.


West changed his title, and became the first Chief Scout Executive (November 11). His starting salary was $4,000 per year and was raised to $6,000 per year (July 1911). This was a substantial salary at the time. Probably equivalent to what he would have earned as a lawyer.

Boys' Life

West arranged for the BSA to purchase Boys' Life (1912). He made it the official magazine of the BSA. He discouraged pulp fiction articles.


Race was an issue that West was forced to deal with. From the very veginning he received complaints about including blacl boys in the program. West insisted that they be included in Scouting. He was realistic enough to understand that integrated Scouting was impossible in the South. To insist would make it impossible for the BSA to operate in the South and might even violate state laws. e thus came up with a compromise. The BSA thus ruked that local communities should follow the same policies asopted by the school systems. Most of the south as well as states like Kansas had segregated programs with "colored troops" into the 1950s. Even after integration began, the fact that Scout troops were organized by schools, churches, and other communities mean that the movement was largely segregated into the 1970s. The increasing association with churches has meant that segregation continues to be a problem with modern Scouting.


The BSA had an early tie with the YMCA. Edgar Robinson who opened up the original BSA office was a YMCA worker. Many early Scout troops were organized by local YMCAs. The YMCA was, however, a Protestant movement. (Jews and Catholics were excluded.) Thus the Catholic Church prohibited Catholic boys from joining. (In Europe Catholics often formed separate assocoations.) West wanted Scouting to be a non-denominational movememt. He insisted on a non-sectarian approach and managed to win over the American Catholic Church. The Church accepted the BSA program (1913).

Beard and Seaton

Although West was now the Chief Scout Executive, there were two well know Americans who were involved in scouting long before West and even before Baden-Powell. Daniel Carter Beard and Ernest Thompson Seton quareled over who really founded Scouting. Scouting programs for boys had been conceived by Seton (1902), Beard (1905) and Baden-Powell (1907). Baden-Powell and Seaton had exchanged ideas and Baden-Powell had used many of Seaton's Seton's work, Seton claimed to be the real founder Scoting. He was appointed Chief Scout before West was hired. He argued with both V=Beard and Baden-Powell. The conflict between Beard and Seaton began to disrupt BSA operations. West attempted to defuse the situation, but with little success. Not only Beard and Seton did not get on with each along with each other, but neither had much use for West who they saw as an interloper and paper pusher. To them West was a city lawyer and thought that the BSA leader should be an outdoorsman like themselves. Seton had a substantially different vision for the program. They had no problem with West administering the program, but they wanted to set the policies. Seton who was appointed Chief Scout commonly challenged West's authority and finally West had enough of it. The National Executive Board did not re-elect Seton as Chief Scout (1915). He soon stopped submitting articles to Boys' Life. Seton was officially out of the BSA program (1916). His contributions were removed from the 1916 edition of the Handbook.

Pacifism and Militarism

Militarism was an issue with British Scouting and the same basic issue sufaced in America. From the beginning patriotism was a major theme of Scouting. And like the British Scours, the BSA adopted essentially a military uniform. This did not sit well with some parents. Some wanted a degree of military training. Here West negotiated a middle-of-the road approach. While some saw the BSA as too militaristic. Here the military style uniform was often sited. And there was a degree of military discipline. Others thought the BSA was unpatriotic in not persuing more formal military training. The issue surfaced over rifelry and the markmanship badge. The BSA at first had a competing association--the American Boy Scouts (ABS). Unlike the competing association Baden-Powell's Scouts faced, the ABS had a more military oriented program. A ABS boy accidentally shot another boy (1912). West more aggresively distanced BSA from the ABS and any military training or discipline. He also attempted to move the BSA away from rifelry. Rifles and hunting were still very important in America. Beard was an especially strong proponent of rifelry. West ordered the BSA Supply group to stop selling the Remington rifle endorsed by the ABS, He also de-emphasized the Marksmanship merit badge. The influential National Rifle Association lobbied the Executive Board to issue the badge. Colonel Leonard Wood resigned from the board after a pacifistic article was published in Boys' Life (1914). He called it "almost treasonable". Even Theodore Roosevelt admonished West. Fighting Beard and Seaton was one thing. Taking on former President Roosevely was too much even for West. He toned down the rhetoric in BSA publications. Eventually the BSA began to issue the Marksmanship merit badge.

Defending the Scout Label

West as lawyer saw the importance of the BSA to gain the exclusive title to the term "Scout". He attempted to defended the use of the term Scout and the right to market Scouting merchandise. West in 1930 claimed to have stopped 435 groups from either the unauthorized use of Scouting as an organizational name or in marketing commercial products.

Girl Scouts

West had a problem with the Girl Scouts when they were organized--primarily because their use of the term Scout. Not only did he not like anyone using the term, he particularly did not like girls using it. West had no problem with the girls having a youth program. He just didn't want them called Scouts. (In England the girls were called Guides. He worked with Luther Gulick when the Camp Fire Girls were established (1911). He always saw the Camp Fire Girls as rthe true sister association of the BSA. The Girl Scouts, however, refused to give up Scouting their name (1918). West appealed to Baden-Powell, but got no support. Lou Henry Hoover became the president of the Girl Scouts (1922). When Mrs Hoover became First Lady (1929), West gave up on campaign to rename the Girl Scouts.


West for many years resisted the creation of a Cubbing program for younger boys. This was one of the issues on which he quareled with Seaton. Beard agreed with West. Baden Powell introduced a Wolf Cub program in Britain which proved very popular. West felt Cubbing would take focus away from the main program and the older boys. He also thought that Cubbing might make identify Scouting with younger boys which might make the program less popular with older boys. He finally agreed to a pilot program. It proved so popular that he was eventually convinced. The BSA approved a Cub Scout program (1930).

International Scouting

West served on the World Scout Committee of the World Organization of the Scout Movement (1939-47). International Scouting honored him with the Bronze Wolf award.


West served as Chief Scout Executive for three decades. He played a critical role in building a stable, effecient national organization. This played a major role in the BSA's rapid growth and reputation. The BSA became one of the most highly respected national organization. He did not have the charisma of Beard and Seaton and never shared their popularity. When he retired, he was given the honorary title of "Chief Scout"--the title that Seaton had first held. He cont


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Created: 4:03 AM 10/12/2007
Last updated: 4:03 AM 10/12/2007