People & Places

Then Again: The idea behind a Vermont camp birthed the Peace Corps

Founders of Camp William James held a reunion in 1977, the first time they had gathered since the camp closed in 1942. Dartmouth College Library

William James was a philosophical heavyweight, but he’s hardly a household name today. If you’ve read him, you probably encountered James in a college philosophy course, or you have unusual reading habits. 

But James deserves recognition in Vermont because of the role he played in a shortlived and mostly forgotten social experiment here that had far-reaching effects. 

In 1910, the last year of his life, James wrote an influential essay titled “The Moral Equivalent of War.” In the piece, he outlined a way he hoped to harness the unity of commitment the public exhibits during wartime and put it to peaceful purposes. James argued that we need to look to the military to find a path to peace. 

“I do not believe that peace either ought to be or will be permanent on this globe, unless the states, pacifically organized, preserve some of the old elements of army-discipline,” he wrote. “A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy.” 

Along with his love of peace, James admired many virtues the military promoted. Society needed citizens who would be intrepid, he said, forgo “private interest” and condemn “softness.” James wanted to use these qualities to ignite “civic passion.” 

“It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent,” he wrote. He was setting the scene for his big idea — one that wouldn’t be attempted until some college students decided to try it in Vermont three decades after his death.

Philosopher William James called on society to act with what he called the “moral equivalent of war” in everyday life, mustering the determination with which we fight wars and putting it to work for the community good. Camp William James in Vermont was a short-lived but highly influential effort to fulfill that goal. Wikimedia Commons

James called for the formation of a new kind of national service. He wanted to replace military conscription with a draft of young men, especially the wealthy, who he believed could benefit from it the most, to do the hard labor of society. (Given that this was 1910, it’s not surprising that James didn’t include women in his calculation.) 

“To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them,” James wrote, “and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.” 

He saw such projects as society’s best hope, because “war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way.” 

But societal change seldom comes quickly; James was a thinker, and thinkers rarely change the world without help. Before his idea was taken up seriously, the world’s nations had slaughtered an estimated 16 million during World War I, or the ill-named “War to End All Wars.” 

‘American life is barren’

German scholar Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy sought to realize James’ dream by helping create voluntary youth service work camps during the 1920s in Germany. When the Nazis rose to power, however, they took over the camps for their purposes and Rosenstock-Huessy fled to the United States, where he accepted a teaching position at Harvard. 

After an academic dispute, Rosenstock-Huessy moved in 1935 to Norwich, Vermont, and taught at nearby Dartmouth College. 

The United States was just then starting its own youth service work camps, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed jobless, unmarried young men. Rosenstock-Huessy faulted the CCC for admitting only disadvantaged youths, which he said created another barrier between social classes. He wanted to bring college-educated, mostly urban, young men back to rural areas. “American life is barren because the city and the farm have become separate,” he said. 

Dartmouth professor Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy inspired students to take up the call of philosopher William James to serve others. Wikimedia Commons

Rosenstock-Huessy’s passionate support for James’ ideal of the “moral equivalent of war” rubbed off on his students, who sought to help him put those ideals into action. Shortly after graduating from Dartmouth in 1940, one of those students, Robert O’Brien, met a farmer in Tunbridge who needed a farmhand. O’Brien took the job and soon persuaded five other recent Dartmouth graduates to join him. 

O’Brien found numerous local jobs that needed doing just down the road from a CCC camp that had recently closed for lack of projects. 

At the same time, a group of Harvard graduates contacted Rosenstock-Huessy about starting a work camp in the Tunbridge area. Together with the Dartmouth men, they hatched the idea for Camp William James to be located at the CCC’s former Camp Sharon in the Downer State Forest. 

Working with Rosenstock-Huessy, they found three influential women to promote their cause. Two were Vermonters: writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher and newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson (whom the Nazis had expelled from Germany in 1934 for her criticism of Hitler). The third was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who managed to get her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, on board. 

Idealists vs. realists

In December 1940, an initial group of 40 young men, a mix of recent college graduates and others on economic relief, started rehabilitating the abandoned Camp Sharon. The men planned to tackle forestry, soil conservation, land resettlement and community revitalization projects. 

The enrollees’ first order of business was learning to live and work together. “There was remarkably little friction over the past fortnight,” reported one. But some complaints arose over the quality of the food and the lack of hot water. “Also some hot words about policies and tactics, but no black eyes. … Everyone in the group came to know the others as people. There was no brooding. Any conflicts came out quickly, which was much healthier. We assumed shape, confidence and above all, a concrete unity.” 

While enrollees prepared to put James’ vision to the test, officials in Washington battled over how the camp would operate. One faction, sometimes dubbed the idealists, wanted the camp to be based on more democratic principles, with enrollees choosing their leader, who would supervise work. They also wanted enrollees to work closely with local residents on projects. 

The other faction, called the realists, argued for a top-down approach. They wanted the camp run along the lines of the CCC, with Washington appointing a military commander and dictating what work would be done and by whom. 

President Roosevelt’s opponents attacked the camp as they had attacked most of his New Deal projects. Republican Rep. Albert Engels of Michigan demanded an investigation of Camp William James. He called it a camp for the “overprivileged” that ran counter to the CCC’s mission to help the underprivileged. He also ignited rumors that the camp was secretly preparing the way for labor camps, like those in Nazi Germany. 

Some opponents pointed out that Rosenstock-Huessy was not yet an American citizen and that he had organized youth camps in Germany.  

The Bennington Banner defended Rosenstock-Huessy and the camp from Engels’ attacks. “Although we do not think Americans can be too careful in scrutinizing the records of Axis dupes in this country,” the paper editorialized, “it does seem that in the case of Rosenstock-Huessey (sic) the congressman has erred and been too cautious.” The paper said that, yes, Rosenstock-Huessy was German, but he had applied for American citizenship and had been “forced out of Germany for being anti-Hitler.” Furthermore, Rosenstock-Huessy “had been checked and passed as OK” by the FBI.

U.S. Sen. George Aiken of Vermont also defended the camp, mocking the idea that it resembled Nazi youth camps. The Bennington Banner backed the camp, calling it an improvement on the CCC model, which it said often built “unnecessary” projects, whereas “the Sharon group planned to paint and repair houses and barns, lay sewers, improve town property — do whatever members of the 9-town council, representing communities surrounding the camp, thought was genuinely necessary.”  

The camp’s opponents proved tenacious, orchestrating the dismissal of the commander who the enrollees had selected and the appointment of a military leader in his place. When it became clear that the camp would be run like a regular CCC camp, 25 enrollees left the camp late in the winter of 1941, the Rutland Herald reported. 

The Herald, which editorialized against the experiment, didn’t mention that the young men had left Camp Sharon because they believed there was nothing experimental about it. 

They moved to a long-abandoned farmhouse in North Tunbridge donated by a local woman, and continued Camp William James under its original philosophy. Wanting the camp to succeed, townspeople gave the young men a woodstove, tools and furniture.

First Lady visits

On Aug. 12, 1941, the camp received a famous visitor. Eleanor Roosevelt drove her Buick from her family’s home in Hyde Park, New York, to the camp to attend a nighttime meeting and show her support for the project. The gathering broke up a little before 11, and Roosevelt was invited to return for breakfast at 7:30 the next morning. She laughed and said that would make for a rather short night’s sleep. Nevertheless, she returned the next morning to inspect the camp. 

In reporting the First Lady’s visit, the Herald and News of Randolph noted that “the group has provided many farmers in the vicinity with a flexible labor supply that could be called upon for aid when other labor is scarce.” 

Across the country, many young men were taking higher-paying factory jobs making military materiel for the war, while others were being drafted, though the United States hadn’t yet joined the fighting.

The Banner wrote in October 1941 that the duration and outcome of the Second World War would determine “(w)hether or not the William James camp experiment at Tunbridge will remain an abused, much-walked-on acorn or will someday grow into something of great importance and utility to the nation.” 

Camp William James proved an inspiration. First, the camp’s principles inspired Dorothy Thompson to form the Volunteer Land Corps, which during World War II would bring hundreds of urban teenagers to work on Vermont farms to help make up for the labor shortage. 

The Rutland Herald covered the opening of Camp William James at a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Sharon in January 1941. When federal officials refused to let the camp operate as intended, organizers of the work-service camp dropped the federal affiliation and moved their operation to a farmhouse in Tunbridge.

The enrollees at Camp William James worked on into the summer of 1942, but eventually the demands of an actual war overshadowed the moral equivalent of war. “Camp William James is now closing up, for the duration of the war, at least,” the Bethel Courier announced on Sept. 3. 

The experimental volunteer work camp had died, but it continued to inspire. Two decades later, in 1961, President John Kennedy launched his own service program, the Peace Corps, which drew on James’ call to action but set it in an international context. 

The Peace Corps, Kennedy said, “is designed to permit our people to exercise more fully their responsibilities in the great common cause of world development.” 

Though volunteers might find that life in the Peace Corps is difficult, he said, “it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps … will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.” 

The Peace Corps’ first director, Sargent Shriver, said the organization had been built upon the ideals of Camp William James. Over the last 60 years, the Peace Corps has sent volunteers to 140 countries to help local communities address health, hunger, environmental and educational challenges. 

President Clinton didn’t mention the camp when he created a domestic service program, AmeriCorps. He said he modeled it after the Peace Corps. Therefore, like that Peace Corps, AmeriCorps can also trace its ancestry back to a short-lived, idealistic project undertaken in the foothills of Vermont.

Correction: This article has been corrected to state that the Herald and News of Randolph reported on the visit of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mark Bushnell

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