A reader recently inquired to the origins of the left handshake as a greeting for Scouts. After researching the question the short answer is that, while no one can really determine who first started the tradition, the left handshake is a tradition older than Scouting.
Baden-Powell (the founder of Scouting) may have adopted the left handshake from author, illustrator and co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America Earnest Thompson- Seton’s early pre-Boy Scouts of America writings. B-P and Seton had a long, simmering argument about the origins of Scouting that lasted for years with charges and counter-charges of plagiarism. This early history is related in David Scott and Brendan Murphy’s book The Scouting Party.
The Left handshake has two basic traditions:
1. The left hand is closest to the heart and so indicates the warmth and depth of friendship between all Scouts.
2. In order to shake with the left hand a warrior must lay aside his shield, so it is an expression of trust and respect for bravery. This is said to have originated with B-P during his years as an army officer in Africa when this was told to him by an Ashanti chief.
The current edition of the Scout Handbook says:
Extend your left hand to another Scout and firmly grasp his left hand. Made with
the hand nearest your heart, the Scout handshake signifies friendship.
I keep with the explanation offered in the handbook; the origins are kind of sketchy and there’s no ‘right’ one.
In his book, The Left Handshake, Hilary St. George Saunders recounts the history of the Boy Scout Movement during the Second World War. 1939-1945. The book is available in PDF format.