Institutions of Knowledge

Gilbert Stuart, Clark Art InstitutePortrait of George Washington (March 20th, 1797).

As George Washington ended his term as the first president of the United States, he left with a few parting words. Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 delineated many of the recommendations Washington had for the future of his country. Amongst these suggestions was a public education system. Washington instructed American leaders to “promote… institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” Washington saw the importance of educating the American public as a means to grow the country economically, but also to create a well-informed populace to participate in America’s newly founded democracy. Washington never lived to see the formation of such an education system, as he died a few years after leaving office in 1799. Even so, Washington’s remarks on education were not lost on American policymakers. The nineteenth-century witnessed a drastic transformation in attitudes towards public education in the United States.

Public Education in the American Colonies

Education in the American colonies began as a religious endeavor. In the seventeenth century, New England’s Puritan settlers stressed that everyone learn how to read the Bible. Puritan leaders began enforcing this through the Massachusetts Bay School Law of 1642. This directive removed education responsibilities from the hands of the clergy and required that parents teach their children how to read and write. This method, however, did not work effectively and by the mid-seventeenth century, the Puritan community began implementing new laws such as the Old Deluder Act of 1647. This decree, “ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read.”  In other words, each town was forced to fund and operate a local school. In reality, though, many New England towns failed to establish such schools. Moreover, the schools that were founded tended to focus on producing an educated elite class and not on educating the entire public.  In colonial America public education was first and foremost a means to educate an elitist class of future political and business leaders. Education for commoners was largely left to families and churches.

Memorial Press

Unequal Public Education

This is not to say that education in all the colonies was equal. In ethnically and religiously homogeneous colonies, public education was far more widespread than it was in colonies with greater social diversity. Colonies like Massachusetts, whose citizens were largely British-born or descended Puritans, were more apt to have state-run public schools. Other colonies, such as New York or Pennsylvania, where there was an assortment of religious groups with Quakers, Lutherans, Catholics, ancestral diversity with large German populations, and greater physical distances between communities bred a greater focus on localized education. Local entities, such as churches and parent groups, seized control of education because in a territory with a wide variety of cultures and religions it was important that each sect of society was able to educate its own in a way it saw fit. Since most middle American colonies were similar to Pennsylvania and New York, the foundations of American public education were strongly rooted in locally run schools and not statewide education programs by the time America gained independence. 

After the Revolutionary War: Advocates for Public Education

The years following America’s independence from Britain in 1783 did little to change the American public education system. Education remained a responsibility of individual families and local communities, not a duty of state or federal governments. Congress issued the Land Ordinance of 1785, ordering each township established in the new western territories to have space set aside for a public school: “There shall be reserved [a] lot… of every township, for the maintenance of public schools.”  Congress also implemented the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, stating that; “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”  Education remained a primarily local obligation, however, as neither ordinance was put fully into effect. 

Peters, William E. (1918) Ohio Lands and Their Subdivisions, W.E. Peters, pp. 308 Locations in Ohio using Land Ordinance of 1785 Section Numbering

Thomas Jefferson

Despite Congress’ failure to institute meaningful education reform following the Revolutionary War, a few American leaders began voicing support for a more extensive and structured public education system. One of the loudest voices was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson argued that democracy required all the citizens of a populace to have sufficient education so that they could be well informed and vote accordingly. Jefferson did not, however, want to infringe on the rights of parents or local communities to educate their children. Instead, he proposed that everyone could be educated in the way they saw fit as long as they passed certain national examinations. 

Establishing Public Education

Jefferson’s greatest contribution to educational reform arrived with his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. Arguing that a better-educated populace would result in a freer and happier American public, the bill called for a widespread system of public education. Jefferson contended that “public happiness… should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” Jefferson spread the idea that a functional democracy required an educated citizenry. He asserted that the American government had the responsibility to foster the education of a meritocracy in which all citizens could compete. During the late eighteenth century, however, resistance to government-funded education was strong. In both 1778 and 1780, Jefferson failed to get the bill to pass through Congress. While Jefferson was abroad serving as foreign minister to France in the 1780s, James Madison attempted to carry the legislation through Congress but met the same fate as Jefferson. In 1796, an edited version of the bill finally passed through Congress as the Act to Establish Public Schools.  Jefferson’s plans for more centralized education fell through because Americans still favored private education ventures and local control of the education system. Very few Americans wanted there to be government oversight of elementary and high school level education. 

Charles Willson Peale (1818).Portrait of Benjamin Rush.

Dr. Benjamin Rush

Another avid proponent of public education was Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Continental Congress. Rush agreed with Jefferson on the importance of education in order to maintain a functional democracy. In his 1786 piece Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, Rush argued that “Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”  Like many of the great education minds of the late eighteenth century, Rush advocated a strict and rigid system of schooling that would forcibly mold America’s youth into honest and productive citizens:

“In the education of youth, let the authority of our masters be as absolute as possible. The government of schools like the government of private families should be arbitrary, that it may not be severe. By this mode of education, we prepare our youth for the subordination of laws and thereby qualify them for becoming good citizens of the republic. I am satisfied that the most useful citizens have been formed from those youth who have never known or felt their own wills till they were one and twenty years of age.” 

Educating Women

To the dismay of Jefferson and Rush, it was not until the nineteenth century that a substantial public education system was established. The Revolutionary War, though, did turn greater attention towards the education of women. Previously, the education of women was limited to elementary reading and writing along with the development of homemaking skills. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the first private female academies—such as the Litchfield Female Academy  —started opening their doors. These institutions supported the new American vision that mothers were responsible to mold the moral and intellectual character of their children and would thus need to be educated well enough to do so. 

The Nineteenth Century and the Common School Movement

 The nineteenth century is often referred to as the “Common School Period” because American education transitioned from an entirely private endeavor to public availability.  Even though it lacked an official public education system, the United States had the world’s highest literacy rate in the early nineteenth century. Informal means of education—such as apprenticeships, charity schools, and church schools—helped fill in the gaps created by the absence of public schools. Private academies only admitted those who could afford to attend them and even some “free” schools offered by local communities charged tuition. Moreover, many schools required prospective students to know how to read and write. This kept children whose parents did not educate them at home out of the schooling system. 

Difficulties in Education

Students able to attend early nineteenth-century schools faced many challenges of their own. Children under the age of five were often times mixed in with adults in their twenties. Additionally, classrooms were frequently overcrowded, housing as many as eighty students at a time. Because of the overcrowding, already scarce textbooks and learning materials had to be spread even more thinly amongst students. As a result, class time amounted to a tedious recitation of facts and instructors struggled to devote individual attention to students.

Inconsistent Education and Immigration

Southworth & Hawes, George Eastman House CollectionCalvin Ellis Stowe, circa 1850.

After the War of 1812, the American public began to take greater notice of their country’s inconsistent/unreliable education system. The 1820s and 1830s were a time of great urban population growth and many urban centers doubled their population. Much of the population growth was the cause of increased immigration into the United States. Higher rates of immigration amplified cries for public schools. Famed educator Calvin Stowe advised that “Unless we educate our immigrants they will be our ruin. It is no longer a question of benevolence, of duty, or of enlightened self-interest…we are prompted to it by the instinct of self-preservation.” Not only those troubled by immigration and rapid population growth but also by those working in urban centers, heard calls for a public system of education. Many laborers called for public schools as a way of integrating the children of wealthy Americans with the children of the middle and working classes. Urban workers went as far as to suggest that schools be created that would allow children to study part of the day and work part of the day. In this way, working-class children could still contribute to the family income, but also receive an education which would allow them to reach a higher station in life.

Even though the early to mid-nineteenth century saw many parties advocate for public schools, the notion of government-funded schooling still garnered a harsh reaction:

1) Taxpayers worried that public education would result in higher taxes or that it would wrongly take money out of the pockets of the working-class to fund education for the rich.
2) Churches contended that public schools would fail to teach religion sufficiently, especially as prejudice towards immigrants and Catholics grew in major urban areas.
3) Private school teachers feared that they would face lower pay or even lose their jobs. 

It was not until the 1840’s that a structured system of public education emerged in the United States. Reformers built common schools on a state-by-state basis. Education pioneers promoted educational reform as a means to enhance the economic opportunities for all Americans and to create a shared bond amongst the citizens of a very diverse population. Common school supporters sought to found completely free elementary schools available to all American children. 

Southworth & HawesHorace Mann Daguerreotype

Horace Mann and Realized Education Reform

One of America’s strongest advocates for public schools was a Massachusetts native by the name of Horace Mann.As a state senator, Mann lobbied feverously for the creation of a state board of education and upon its establishment left his seat in the Massachusetts Senate to become the secretary of the board. Throughout his tenure as the education board secretary, Mann fought to secure tax funding for public schools and to keep religious education separate from public instruction. Mann also established teacher-training colleges and lengthening the school year. Mann’s greatest achievement, however, was his role in kick-starting the common school movement. In the early 1840s, Mann spent considerable time traveling throughout Europe studying the school systems there. He became particularly fond of the Prussian model of “common schools”. Mann sympathized with the Prussian view that all people should receive the same level of education. From this experience, Mann worked to create a network of well-trained teachers to bring a “common” elementary education to all of Massachusetts’ children. The notion of having a standardized system of education caught on across New England. In 1849, Connecticut adopted a common school system similar to the one in place in Massachusetts. In 1852, Massachusetts went as far as to pass a compulsory attendance law. Similar laws would not be commonplace throughout the United States until the twentieth century.

Establishing School Grades

Mann’s travels in Prussia also introduced him to the notion of placing students in grades based on age and ability. Mann first instituted this idea—known as age grading—in 1848. Prior to 1848, elementary classrooms consisted of students ranging from as young as six to as old as fourteen years old. When Mann introduced age-grading, large age disparities in the classrooms all but vanished. The system was a success as it allowed students to learn with children their own age and it gave them the opportunity to “graduate” to the next grade, which gave them something to work towards and a sense of accomplishment when they finished each grade.

Mann’s reforms were generally met with widespread approval from the American people. Insisting that public education would turn America’s children into responsible and civically minded citizens, Mann won the support of modernizers and members of the Whig party.  Each year Mann issued a report on public schooling to help drum up even more support for his cause.

In Mann’s Tenth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education (1846) he touts the glory of having a universal system of free education. Mann starts his report declaring that;

the Pilgrim Fathers amid all their privations and dangers conceived the magnificent idea, not only of a universal but of a free education for the whole people… Two divine ideas filled their great hearts—their duty to God and society. For the one they built the church, for the other they opened the school.

–Horace Mann

Mann continues to outline how Massachusetts had become a much more “parental” state and was becoming increasingly involved in the lives of its citizens. Mann reasoned that the next rational step for Massachusetts was free public education. 

Common Schools

In Mann’s Twelfth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1848, he delineates the great benefits of a common school system. Sharing much of the educational philosophy of Jefferson, Mann advocated public schooling as a way to create an educated public that could actively and successfully participate in its democracy. More so than Jefferson, though, Mann was a fierce proponent of not just public schools, but common schools. Public schools were government-funded but were often divided along socio-economic lines. Mann’s idea of a common school was one that was open to all classes of Americans and would serve to break down class distinctions. As Mann argued in this report, a system of common education was the best way to ensure social and national unity.

  1. The Avalon Project, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” Yale Law School: Lillian Goldman Law Library, Accessed 2012 March
  2. “Massachusetts Bay School Law (1642),” Constitution Society, 2012, Accessed July 2012
  3. “The Old Deluder Act (1647),” Constitution Society, 2012, Accessed July 2012
  4. S. Mintz, Education in the American Colonies, 2012, Accessed July 2012
  5. Jurgen Herbst, “Nineteenth-Century Schools between Community and State: The Cases of Prussia and the United States,” History of Education Quarterly (History of Education Society) 42, no. 3, Autumn 2002: 319.
  6. Charles Thomson, “Land Ordinance of 1785,” Indiana Historical Bureau, Accessed July 2012
  7. The Avalon Project, “Northwest Ordinance; July 13, 1787,” Yale Law School: Lillian Goldman Law Library, Accessed July 2012
  8. Bettye Sutton, Sue Goodwin, Becky Bradley, Shielda Welling and Peggy Whitley, “19th Century: 1800-1809,” American Cultural History, Lone Star College-Kingwood Library, 2008 June, Accessed July 2012
  9. Jurgen Herbst, “Nineteenth-Century Schools between Community and State: The Cases of Prussia and the United States”: 323-324
  10. Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello: Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Accessed July 2012
  11. S. Mintz, “Education in the Early Republic,” Digital History, 2012, Accessed July 2012
  12. Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”
  13. Herbst, 325
  14. Dr. Benjamin Rush, “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965
  15. Rush, “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic”
  16. Litchfield Historical Society:
  17. Mintz, “Education in the Early Republic”
  18. Chesapeake College, 19th Century Education,, accessed July 2012
  19. Mintz, Schooling in Early 19th Century America
  20. ibid
  21. Mintz, Mounting Public Concern
  22. ibid
  23. ibid
  24. Chesapeake College, 19th Century Education
  25. S. Mintz, Horace Mann, 2012, Accessed July 2012
  26. Paul E. Peterson, Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010
  27. Thomas C. Hunt, James C. Harper, Thomas J. Lasley and C. Daniel Raisch, Encyclopedia of Educational Reform and Dissent, ed. Thomas C. Hunt, James C. Harper, Thomas J. Lasley and C. Daniel Raisch, Vol. II. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2010: 33
  28. Mark Groen, “The Whig Party and the Rise of Common Schools, 1837-1854,” American Educational History Journal 35, no. 1/2. Spring/Summer 2008: 251-260
  29. Horace Mann, “Tenth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1846,” Teaching American History, Accessed July 2012
  30. Horace Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1848,” Teaching American History, Accessed July 2012

27 responses to “Education to the Masses

  1. I was not aware of how the school systems began, This was very informative information for me. The dedicated from the different individual to reform the education system shows the dedication that was involved concerning education.

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