The Boy Scouts Of America; A Progressive History

Not the American Boy Scouts (ABS), an invention of William Randolph Hearst, W.D. Boyce created the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) as the U.S. versions of the UK’s Boy Scouts Association.


As legend has it, he’d had a chance encounter with a helpful Scout one day in London. The boy offered Boyce help finding his way in London. He refused compensation from Boyce, citing his loyalty to the scouts as motivation enough.

In recent history, the Scouts have been in the press as they’ve just decided to include transgender boys in the program. In less recent history, they tackled the issue of gay Scouts and Scout leaders.

For sure this topic is one that divides parents, but the Scouts have been consistent over time. It was the wishes of the U.S. founder that the organization include all boys.

The BSA has had to resolve many conflicts over the years. It hasn’t always been a matter of inclusion, but when the issue comes up, they always take a progressive stance.



There were two sides to this perspective. Some thought the Boy Scouts were not patriotic enough, that they should be more supportive of the military. Other critics saw the Boy Scouts as too militaristic, with their uniforms, ceremonies and badges.

The fleur-de-lis, a symbol used throughout the organization, to many connoted war. Adding to the confusion, at least in the early days,  the ABS suffered the death of a scout at the hands of another scout holding a rifle. That was the organization run by Hearst.

The BSA separated by de-emphasizing the merit badge for marksmanship, and by removing the sale of Remington rifles by supply houses.

The NRA lobbied the BSA to keep the badge. It was a tough call for the BSA. In the end, they kept the badge, but moved to air-compressed BB guns over rifles. This allowed the Scouts (and their parents) to make the decision to pursue the badge if they wanted.

The Name Scouts


There was controversy over the use of the term Scouts. Boyce may get credit for bringing the Scouts to the united States, for incorporating the organization, but once the organization took flight, Boyce stepped back from day-to-day management.

The organization folded in many similar organizations, the Boy Scouts of the United States and the National Scouts of America to name a couple. Those who didn’t meld, like the ABS, failed.

By June of 1910, the BSA was the authority on all things Scouting. As such, in 1911, when James West took control, he worked hard to defend the BSA’s right to the term Scout.

The U.S. courts agreed, favoring West when he sued the United States Boy Scouts (USBS) for naming rights.

The USBS, incidentally, was the reformed ABS. They changed their name to the American Cadets, but soon shuttered their program. 

Labor Union Concerns

(James E. West | source:

The handbook of the BSA, James West, one of the people in charge after Boyce handed over the reigns, crafted from the UK book.

West baked American values into the new handbook’s scout law: bravery, cleanliness, and reverence. The also added religious principles, something that would lead to further conflict down the road. We’ll come back to that.

It was the part they adopted about loyalty to employers that caused an early ruckus. American labor unions objected to this implied obedience.

When West revised the book for the second editions, he edited that part out.

The Religious Divide


In the early days of the BSA, the YMCA took notice of their work. Early leadership in the BSA was often former YMCA leaders.

The YMCA was and still is a Protestant organization. [Read: Not Catholic.]

At first, Catholics refused to let their boys join the BSA. It took three years before Catholic leadership approved the inclusion of their boys in the BSA.

The Mormon Church also stumbled at first, but ceded the point over time, letting their boys join the BSA.

In the end, they came back to inclusion, regardless of creed.

African Americans


The end of slavery came long before the Scouts, but early-20th century United States was still divided. Part of Boyce’s parting wishes for the Scouts was an organization that included all boys, that they would not discriminate on race or creed.

Because of this, the BSA took the position that they would include any boy in the program. It was this very precedent that would later call into question the BSA aversion to including gay and transgender boys.

Today’s troops are as multicultural as the neighborhoods they represent, but for the early black Scouts, the experience varied. In the American South, troops suffered the same separate-but-equal divisions experienced everywhere. “Colored troops,” as they called them, lasted until the 1940s.

Considering the BSA has lasted over 100 years, this writer is confident they’ll be fine. Heck, they stood up to William Randolph Hearst and lived to tell the tale. Hearst was a powerhouse of conflict himself, but that’s a story for another time.