The History Behind President Trump's Speech to the Boy Scouts

Jul 25, 2017

When President Donald Trump addressed the 2017 Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia on Monday, his speech — which rehashed his victory in last year's election and attacked the "fake media" — quickly drew backlash from many parents, as well as current and former Scouts, who felt that the speech would have been a better fit for a campaign rally.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) responded by reminding observers that the invitation for the President to address the regularly scheduled national gathering is a "long-standing tradition and is in no way an endorsement of any political party or specific policies," and that the President of the U.S. at any given time is the non-partisan organization's honorary president too.

U.S. Presidents have been the "honorary president" of the Boy Scouts of America since it was founded in 1910, and Woodrow Wilson signed a congressional charter enabling it to recruit for patriotic purposes in 1916. (As Boy Scout Handbook author Robert Birkby once told TIME, the chartering established the claim of the BSA — one of several scouting groups popular at the time — as the "true" scouting organization for Americans.) But the history of presidents delivering formal addresses to the National Jamboree begins when the boys were scheduled to line Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. in 1935, in celebration of the organization's 25th anniversary. A polio outbreak in the area led to the cancellation of the event and forced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to address the boys by radio instead.

"When you go out into life, you have come to understand that the individual in your community who always says 'I can’t' or 'I won’t' or 'I don’t,' the individual who by inaction or by opposition slows up honest, practical, far-seeing community effort, is the fellow who is holding back civilization and holding back the objectives of the Constitution of the United States," he said. "We need more Scouts. The more the better. For the record shows that taking it by and large, boys trained as Scouts make good citizens."

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FDR would eventually get to address the youngsters in person at the first National Jamboree in 1937, and presidential addresses have followed the format set by FDR of appealing to the young boys' sense of civic duty. In most cases, when presidents' speeches have gotten political, it has been to warn of a threat to democratic values, especially during times of (hot or cold) war.

Harry S. Truman, addressing the 1950 Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pa., said "young people in Communist-dominated countries" being "regimented" and "exploited" should inspire the boy scouts to "work for freedom and peace with the same burning faith that inspired the men of George Washington's army here at Valley Forge." Decades later, in 1989, George H.W. Bush focused more on threats on the home front: "The number of people addicted to cocaine and crack has almost doubled...And I'm especially looking to you to encourage friends to refuse drugs — any illegal drugs," he said to the crowd in Bowling Green, Va.

And scouting does seem to inspire people to go into government; John F. Kennedy was the first Boy Scout to become President, Gerald Ford was the only Eagle Scout to become President, and today, more than a quarter of the members of the current Congress were either Boy Scouts themselves or volunteered for the organization.

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