The History of Boys State
What is Boys State (Nationally)
As a distinguished program of the American Legion, Boys State was conceived with the idea that our youth should gain a deeper understanding of how government operates in practice. It emphasizes that each individual plays an essential role and carries a corresponding responsibility for the character and success of their government. Consequently, Boys State stands as a program of immense educational significance, addressing the critical need for educating our youth in the practical aspects of citizenship.
American Legion Boys State can be aptly characterized as a leadership initiative. Here, accomplished male high school juniors participate in an immersive government course tailored to foster a comprehensive understanding of governmental structures. This program serves to underscore the pivotal truth that government is a reflection of the collective efforts of its citizens.
Through Boys State, we are molding future leaders, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to actively engage in and positively influence the course of our government.
How and Why Boys State Started
Boys State emerged in response to a pressing concern during the 1930s. At that time, Fascist-inspired Young Pioneer Camps were influencing high school boys, advocating that democracy had become obsolete and should be replaced by Fascism. Fueled by this challenge to democratic values, two Legionnaires, Hayes Kennedy and Harold Card, both educators and members of The American Legion in Illinois, conceived the Boys State program.
Their vision was to create a counter-movement among American youth, one that would foster a deeper comprehension of our government system and instill a profound commitment to its preservation. Harold Card’s experience in organizing and supervising a Boy Scout camp influenced the format of Boys State. With limited staff, he allowed the boys to take on self-governance, holding elections for roles like mayor and city council members. Appointments were made for crucial positions such as police, fire, health, and sanitation officials. What became evident was that the boys became genuinely engrossed in fulfilling their ‘city’ responsibilities, often to the point of overlooking their Scout duties. They were learning through active participation.
The inaugural Boys State took place at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois, in June 1935. Today, many decades later, the program continues to provide young men with the opportunity to learn by doing. Over the years, well over one million young men have participated in Boys State. Although the threat of Fascism has subsided, our democratic way of life faces other challenges from government systems at odds with our democratic ideals and from apathy among our own citizens.
The American Legion remains steadfast in its sponsorship and execution of Boys State. We believe that young citizens who are well-versed in the functioning of our government system will be better equipped to uphold its principles and safeguard it for generations to come.