Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860

Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860

by Carl Kaestle

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Pillars of the Republic is a pioneering study of common-school development in the years before the Civil War. Public acceptance of state school systems, Kaestle argues, was encouraged by the people's commitment to republican government, by their trust in Protestant values, and by the development of capitalism. The author also examines the opposition to the


Pillars of the Republic is a pioneering study of common-school development in the years before the Civil War. Public acceptance of state school systems, Kaestle argues, was encouraged by the people's commitment to republican government, by their trust in Protestant values, and by the development of capitalism. The author also examines the opposition to the Founding Fathers' educational ideas and shows what effects these had on our school system.

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Pillars of the Republic

Common Schools and American Society, 1780â"1860

By Carl F. Kaestle, Eric Foner

Hill and Wang

Copyright © 1983 Carl F. Kaestle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3171-7


Prologue: The Founding Fathers and Education

Rudimentary learning was widespread in Revolutionary America. Conditions in the British colonies had fostered education. Migration drawn largely from the middling social ranks of England and the continent resulted in a disproportionately literate population. Protestants in general, and particularly the Calvinist groups that predominated in the northern colonies, stressed Bible reading and early education as preparation for salvation. The colonies' commercial development and broad male franchise reinforced the importance of literacy for adults. Americans of the revolutionary era valued elementary education. Figures on schooling and literacy suggest that a majority of white men in the new nation could read and write. Indicators of women's literacy were rising, and the availability of schools was increasing at the time of the Revolution.

Elementary education among white Americans was accomplished through parental initiative and informal, local control of institutions. In a few cases, New England colonial legislatures tried to ensure that towns would provide schools or that parents would not neglect their children's education, but these laws were weakly enforced. Elsewhere the central colonial governments played little role in education. Towns or neighborhoods often decided to provide schools, funded in a variety of ways. Attendance was voluntary and usually involved some charges to parents. Other local communities left schooling to the initiative of families, who formed groups to organize subscription schools, or sent their children to study with entrepreneurial private-venture teachers or inexpensive "dame" schools in their neighborhoods. Most children attended school at some time, but much education also came through the family, the church, and the workplace. Some poor children were instructed in church-affiliated charity schools; others did without schooling, remaining illiterate or picking up the three R's from parents or friends. Nowhere was schooling entirely tax supported or compulsory. The demand for education did not come principally from above, although political leaders and ministers sometimes argued the importance of schooling. The proliferation of private-venture schools in the cities and neighborhood district schools in rural areas was a response to popular demand. Provincial America's informal, unsystematic, local mode of schooling resulted in a relatively high level of elementary education and proved capable of expansion.

Nonetheless, educational opportunity was uneven at the time of the Revolution, and training beyond the rudiments was not widespread. The South's literacy rate lagged behind the North's, while in all areas, women, blacks, Native Americans, and poor whites were to differing degrees excluded from the culture of the printed English word. In the large commercial seaports, poverty had increased in the years preceding the Revolution, as had factional politics and ideological splintering. In the turbulent revolutionary decades, urban dwellers witnessed crowd actions that sometimes went beyond the intentions of their leaders. These tendencies to fragmentation added to the anxieties of newly won independence and created an urgent quest for coherence, discipline, and public unity among the new nation's leaders.

The nation's Founding Fathers knew from classical political theory that the most stable governments combined elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. But Americans had expelled monarchy, and revolutionary leaders stood firm against the creation of a formal American aristocracy. How, then, were they to escape the degeneration into anarchy that they believed was the inevitable fate of pure democracies? They pinned their hopes on the creation of a republic, a representative form of government in which the general will would be refined and articulated by the best men. Here again, though, classical theory and much contemporary opinion warned them that republican government would not work in a country as large as America, especially with its well-defined sections and heterogeneous population. The perception of a precarious national government was intensified by disorders like the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania and Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts. Political theorists and policy makers were therefore concerned not only with protecting liberty, for which the Revolution had been fought, but also with maintaining order, without which all might be lost. Education could play an important role in reconciling freedom and order. A sound education would prepare men to vote intelligently and prepare women to train their sons properly. Moral training based on the Protestant Bible would produce virtuous, well-behaved citizens. Not just the three R's but "an acquaintance with ethics and with the general principles of law, commerce, money and government is necessary for the yeomanry of a republican state," said Noah Webster.

Republicanism united concepts of virtue, balanced government, and liberty. By "virtue," republican essayists meant discipline, sacrifice, simplicity, and intelligence, and they called upon ministers, teachers, and parents to aid in the creation and maintenance of a virtuous citizenry. Virtue and intelligence did not necessarily depend upon deliberate instruction, however. Republican thought emphasized the natural virtue and intelligence of a landed yeomanry. The symbols of American rural virtue were prominent in political discussions of the revolutionary era. Two problems undermined that faith in natural virtue. America had increasing numbers of citizens who were not landed yeomen; the natural virtue of such citizens could not be assumed. Also, factional politics became magnified as independence thrust upon the colonies the necessity of political union. To foster the intelligence required of republican citizens, some of America's most eloquent political leaders looked to education — not just through the informal colonial modes of instruction but through schools organized and financed by the states.

Along with anxieties about the future of the republic these men shared a sense of opportunity, of responsibility to mankind, a sense that a real revolution had been made, that they could build a new society based on enlightened ideas about the perfectibility of men and institutions. Here was a chance for a real departure from corrupt Europe. This was the ideal of the American Revolution, and education had a critical role in it. The ideal demanded new efforts and new forms of organization. "We have only finished the first act of the great drama," wrote Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and statesman. "It remains yet to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government we have adopted." Noah Webster argued that for the new state governments to aid colleges and academies while they did nothing about free common schooling was a glaring contradiction in a country where "every citizen who is worth a few shillings" can vote. "The constitutions are republican and the laws of education are monarchical," he complained.

In the preamble of his 1779 bill for free schools in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson laid out the basic logic of state-sponsored schools for republican citizenship. Citizens must choose leaders wisely, defeat ambition and corruption in politics, and protect liberty by keeping a vigilant eye on government. All citizens should have a chance not only to vote but to be elected. The government needs wise and honest laws, Jefferson argued, and thus it needs educated and virtuous lawmakers. In a republic, these men must be chosen "without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition." Because there are many people who cannot afford a good education, Jefferson argued, all should share the cost, in order to foster the best possible representative government.

A thoroughly American curriculum would help unify the language and culture of the new nation and wean America away from a corrupt Europe. "For America in her infancy to adopt the maxims of the Old World," said Webster in his famous spelling book, "would be to stamp the wrinkles of old age upon the bloom of youth, and to plant the seed of decay in a vigorous constitution." Instead, he advised, "begin with the infant in his cradle ... let the first word he lisps be 'Washington.'" "The national character is not yet formed," wrote Webster in 1790. Common schools are needed to instill in American children "an inviolable attachment to their own country." Benjamin Rush joined Webster in emphasizing the theme of national integration, urging the creation of a national university "where the youth of all the states may be melted (as it were) together into one mass of citizens."

In an essay on common-school education written in 1786, Rush's anxieties got the best of him, leaving a memorable and somewhat chilling reminder of the harsh side of revolutionary educational thought:

In the education of youth, let the authority of our masters be as absolute as possible. ... 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.

Then, in a famous line, Rush declared, "I consider it as possible to convert men into republican machines. This must be done if we expect them to perform their parts properly in the great machine of the state." Although Rush's flamboyant language is unusual, many shared his desire to achieve political conformity and disciplined behavior through education.

Other educational theorists, however, wrote about the positive, liberating values of republicanism. In a prize-winning essay on education written in 1797, Samuel Harrison Smith, a Washington newspaper editor, listed five reasons for the broad diffusion of knowledge in the United States.

1. An enlightened nation is always most tenacious of its rights.

2. It is not in the interest of such a society to perpetuate error.

3. In a republic the sources of happiness are open to all without injuring any.

4. If happiness be made at all to depend on the improvement of the mind and the collision of mind with mind, the happiness of an individual will greatly depend upon the general diffusion of knowledge. ...

5. Under a republic ... man feels as strong a bias to improvement as under a despotism he feels an impulse to ignorance and depression.

Writers like Smith stressed the exercise of liberty and unfettered intelligence more than the need for social order. All republican educational theorists, however, emphasized the heavy responsibilities of citizenship and the importance of moral training for the survival of republican institutions. "The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities," said Webster. While they reconciled freedom and order in different ways, these writers were similarly preoccupied with those two philosophical poles. They produced many proposals for state-supported common schooling, which they believed would contribute to disciplined, republican liberty.

But did these republican educational theorists have any impact on the actual schooling of children in the new republic? Some commentators lamented the conditions of American schools in the 1780s and 1790s and joined in the chorus for reform. Governor George Clinton warned the New York legislature in 1782 that the war had created a "chasm in education," and he urged the members to encourage schooling for citizenship and restraint. Robert Coram of Delaware thought that schools outside the large towns were "completely despicable, wretched, and contemptible" and that the teachers were "shamefully deficient." This conviction that there was a "chasm" in education prompted some prominent men in the early national period to argue for state laws requiring free local schools, or even to argue for systematic state aid to common schools, both ideas without precedent in America. Even the oft-cited Massachusetts school laws of the seventeenth century had insisted only that towns maintain schools, not that they had to be free. No one had imagined anything as comprehensive as the plans of the Revolutionary generation.

Flush with the enthusiasm and the anxieties of new nationhood, Thomas Jefferson proposed for Virginia a three-tiered system of local education — free elementary schools, twenty regional academies with free tuition for selected boys, and support at William and Mary College for the best ten needy academy graduates. Jefferson also envisioned regional-level supervision and general oversight of a statewide curriculum by the faculty of the college. These features were unheard of before Jefferson's proposal of 1779. In Pennsylvania, Benjamin Rush introduced a similar plan in 1786, calling for a state-supported university in Philadelphia, four colleges around the state, and free schools in every town. By this plan, he said, "the whole state will be tied together by one system of education." Revered by historians as harbingers of later state systems, these proposals failed to win legislative approval and had little or no effect on schooling at the local level. The persistent Jefferson introduced his 1779 plan again in the 1790s and in 1817, but each time it failed. As his supporter Joseph Cabell told him, "neither the people nor the representatives would agree" to property taxes for a general system of common schools. In the 1780s Jefferson had attributed the defeat of his Virginia school bill to the people's economic anxieties and the state government's scant resources. But by 1817 he charged that the proposal was foiled by "ignorance, malice, egoism, fanaticism, religious, political and local perversities." Virginians did not adopt a statewide free school system until 1870. In the meantime, they settled for a policy of charity schools for the poor. Rush's plan met a similar fate in Pennsylvania, where opposition to free common schooling was still fierce in the 1830s.

William Wirt, an English visitor, said that Jefferson's bill had failed in the 1780s because "the comprehensive views and generous patriotism which produced the bill, have not prevailed throughout the country." But there was more principle to the opposition than Wirt's statement implied. The very devotion to liberty that schooling was designed to protect also made local citizens skeptical of new forms of taxation by the state, and of new institutional regulation by the central government. Furthermore, it was not clear to members of hard-pressed state legislatures that the republic would collapse without new systems of common schooling, or that the existing mode of local and parental initiative was insufficient. Resistance to new taxes, devotion to local control and individual choice, and a faith in existing educational arrangements — these were the factors that foiled early plans for state systems of free common schooling. While the great ideas of the American Revolution had some impact on the popular mind and found much practical expression in new state and national political arrangements, many local institutions were largely unchanged. This was the case with schooling. The Revolution was not a social cataclysm, and Rush's vision of a state school system to make "republican machines" in Pennsylvania remained only a vision during his lifetime.

Farther to the North, however, republican enthusiasm for education bore some legislative fruit. Massachusetts in 1789, then New York and Connecticut in 1795, tried three quite different approaches to state encouragement of elementary schooling. The Massachusetts law, similar to its colonial precedents, required towns of fifty or more families to provide an elementary school for at least six months a year and required towns of two hundred or more families to provide a grammar school where classical languages would be taught. It is difficult, however, to gauge the educational impact of the 1789 law. Because most towns already provided partially free elementary schools, because the grammar-school provisions were widely unheeded and unenforced, because the law provided no state financial aid, and because the permissive clause authorizing the organization of school districts merely recognized an already common practice, the law probably had a very modest effect on popular schooling in Massachusetts.

New York's legislation, in contrast, provided substantial state aid to local schools. Since 1784 New York had had a general education board, called the Regents, who granted charters and financial assistance to incorporated colleges and academies. In 1795 Governor Clinton complained that this aid was "confined to the children of the opulent" and urged state aid to common schools. The legislature responded with a five-year law appropriating $50,000 a year to be divided among local common-school committees that agreed to match at least half of their state allotment with local funds. The state money came from land sales and interest on surplus capital. These funds proved insufficient by 1799 and necessitated a direct property tax. In 1800 the state's senate, unwilling to tax property for education, refused to renew the law.


Excerpted from Pillars of the Republic by Carl F. Kaestle, Eric Foner. Copyright © 1983 Carl F. Kaestle. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Carl F. Kaestle is University Professor of Education, History, and Public Policy at Brown University. He is the author of numerous books on the history of education, including, Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading Since 1880.

Carl F. Kaestle is University Professor of Education, History, and Public Policy at Brown University. He is the author of numerous books on the history of education, including, Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading Since 1880.

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