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Public Education in the Old South: 1790-1860 Essay

One of the most characteristic elements of the Enlightenment was the pervading missionary zeal for reform. Whereas Reformation zeal had gone into religious fervor, the enthusiasm of the Enlightenment was directed at reform of all kinds of institutions and was organized into campaigns for the aid of the weak, the poor, the persecuted, and the unfortunate. Fed by the liberalism that came from England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the propaganda for popular enlightenment found its climax in France in the middle and late eighteenth century and became the ideological forerunner of the French Revolution.

Appealing not only to the growing intellectual and middle classes, the reformers also worked hard for the alleviation of the conditions of the masses of the people. A great increase in the agencies of public information took the form of new books, pamphlets, newspapers, journals, encyclopedias, debates, scientific academies, libraries, and museums. The fight for civil liberties, for religious and political freedom, and for popular education, the appeal to the natural rights of man as against privilege and tradition laid the basis for our western heritage of humanitarian democracy.

In this struggle public education as we know it had its birth. Education in South Superficially at least, higher education flourished in the antebellum South. There were some half-dozen state universities and numerous private colleges. In 1850, the South had 120 colleges and universities, as compared with 111 in the North. Taking into account the considerable number of southern youths who went to such northern institutions of higher learning as Yale and Princeton, the South could point with pride to the number of its collegetrained youth.

But southern colleges were smaller and more meagerly supported than those of the North, and the educational standards were of a lower order. The University of Virginia, founded in 1825, was a center of classical learning and was free of sectarian controls, but most of the colleges and universities were controlled by one or another of the religious denominations. The South had a considerable number of private academies for the sons of the well-to-do, and public high schools were increasing in number prior to 1860.

There were state-supported common schools in some states, though only North Carolina and Kentucky had good public school systems. But reluctance to face taxation and a general feeling that it was the duty of the individual to see to the education of his own children were barriers to the development of public education. There were rural areas where the poorer classes had practically no educational opportunity. A large part of the white population of the South was illiterate, and a considerable number of the planters never learned to read and write.

The system of Public Education was considered capable, and only capable, of regenerating this nation, and of establishing practical virtue and republican equality, it is one which provides for all children at all times; receiving them at the earliest age their parents choose to entrust them to the national care, feeding, clothing, and educating them, until the age of majority. Propositions of John Howland John Howland proposed to the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island on the last Monday in February, A.

D. 1799. In his Petition he proposed that all the children so adopted should receive the same food; should be dressed in the same simple clothing; should experience the same kind treatment; should be taught (until their professional education commences) the same branches; in a word, that nothing savoring of inequality, nothing reminding them of the pride of riches or the contempt of poverty, should be suffered to enter these republican safeguards of a young nation of equals.

Howland further proposed that the destitute widow’s child or the orphan boy should share the public care equally with the heir to a princely estate; so that all may become, not in word but in deed and in feeling, free and equal. Thus may the spirit of democracy, that spirit which Jefferson labored for half a century to plant in our soil, become universal among us; thus may luxury, may pride, may ignorance, be banished. Howland also proposed that the food should be of the simplest kind, both for the sake of economy and of temperance.

A Spartan simplicity of regimen is becoming a republic, and is best suited to preserve the health and strength unimpaired, even to old age. The propriety of excluding all distilled or fermented liquors of every description; perhaps, also, foreign luxuries, such as tea and coffee, might be beneficially dispensed with. These, including wine and spirits, cost the nation at present about fourteen millions of dollars annually. Are they worth so much?

Thus might the pest of our land, intemperance, be destroyed-not discouraged, not lessened, not partially cured–but destroyed: this modern Circe that degrades the human race below the beast of the field, that offers her poison cup at every corner of our streets and at every turn of our highways, that sacrifices her tens of thousands of victims yearly in these states, that loads our country with a tax more than sufficient to pay twice over for the virtuous training of all her children-might thus be deposed from the foul sway she exercises over freemen, too proud to yield to a foreign enemy, but not too proud to bow beneath the iron rod of a domestic curse.

Is there any other method of tearing up this monstrous evil, the scandal of our republic, root and branch? About other details he said that the dress should be some plain, convenient, economical uniform. The silliest of all vanities (and one of the most expensive) is the vanity of dress. Children trained to the age of twenty-one without being exposed to it, could not, in after life, be taught such a folly. The food and clothing might be chiefly raised and manufactured by the pupils themselves, in the exercise of their several occupations. They would thus acquire a taste for articles produced in their own country, in preference to foreign superfluities. Under such a system, the poorest parents could afford to pay a moderate tax for each child.

They could better afford it than they can now to support their children in ignorance and misery, provided the tax were less than the lowest rate at which a child can now be maintained at home. For a day school, thousands of parents can afford to pay nothing. In his historical presentation he further proposed that under such a system, the pupils of the state schools would obtain the various offices of public trust, those of representatives, &c. in preference of any others. If so, public opinion would soon induce the most rich and the most prejudiced, to send their children thither; however little they might at first relish the idea of giving them equal advantages only with those of the poorest class. Greater real advantages they could not give them, if the public schools are conducted as they ought to be.

Public Education in Pennsylvania In the two decades before the Civil War public awareness was shaped by the zeal of devoted crusaders: Horace Mann and Henry Barnard in the East, Calvin H. Wiley in the South, and Caleb Mills in the west. Through their educational journals, reports as educators, or appeals to legislatures, they drew attention to needed reforms. The Lyceum movement, founded by Josiah Holbrook in 1831 made the advancement of education, especially the common schools, its principal business. To its lecture platforms came Edward Everett, Henry Ward Beecher, Wendell Phillips, and Abraham Lincoln. Teachers’ institutes, like that of Onondaga County.

A Delaware journalist and school teacher, Robert Coram felt that society, through the establishment of public schools, should teach everyone how to make a living. Each was to be taught the rudiments of the English language, writing, bookkeeping, mathematics, natural history, mechanics, and husbandry. He favored apprenticeship regulations binding youth out to the trades or professions. Literary discussions were a regular feature at his schoolhouse. The necessity of a reformation in the country schools, is too obvious to be insisted on; and the first step to such reformation, will be, by turning private schools into public ones. The schools should be public, for several reasons-1st.

Because, as has been before said, every citizen has an equal right to subsistence, and ought to have an equal opportunity of acquiring knowledge. Because public schools are easiest maintained, as the burthen falls upon all the citizens. The man who is too squeamish or lazy to get married, contributes to the support of public schools, as well as the man who is burthened with a large family. But private schools are supported only by heads of families, & by those only while they are interested; for as soon as the children are grown up, their support is withdrawn; which makes the employment so precarious, that men of ability and merit will not submit to the trifling salaries allowed in most country schools, and which, by their partial support, cannot afford a better.

Public schools then established in every county of the United States, at least as many as were necessary for the present population; and let those schools be supported by a general tax. Let the objects of those schools be to teach the rudiments of the English language, writing, bookkeeping, mathematics, natural history, mechanics and husbandry-and let every scholar be admitted gratis, and kept in a state of subordination, without respect to persons. Public Schools in Virginia The first step toward the establishment of a public school system in Virginia was made in 1810, when a bill was passed by the legislature providing for the creation of the Literary Fund.

The act ordered that “all escheats, confiscations, fines, penalties and forfeitures, and all rights accruing to the State as derelict, shall be set aside for the encouragement of learning. ” Tyler’s father was governor of the commonwealth at this time, and it was probably in response to his recommendation that this law had been enacted. An act was passed the next year by which the Literary Fund was set apart for the purpose of “providing schools for the poor in any county of the State. ” The fund had grown continually from the beginning, and on Tyler’s accession had reached an amount little less than $1,400,000. The annual income from this fund was about $70,000, more than two-thirds of which ($45,000) was used for the education of indigent children. In this way 9,779 children were given a little schooling as a public charity.

The governor indicated great dissatisfaction with this plan of public instruction. He maintained that only a small number of the youth were reached by it and that it was of little benefit to them because of the irregularity and uncertainty of the system. In some instances a school would be open for a few months, and in others a year. But it often happened that after the children had made a good start in the primary branches, the school would be discontinued and the pupils would be returned to their parents to forget what they had already learned. He might also have added that the aid given indigent children caused them to be looked down upon as paupers by their fellow pupils.

It is quite likely that in many instances the intellectual gain under such a system was offset by a spiritual loss resulting from the development of a sense of inferiority in the beneficiaries of these charity schools . Moreover, this method of instruction was more expensive than it should have been. By drawing a comparison between the educational system of New York and that of Virginia he showed that the people of the former commonwealth were getting a great deal more for their money than were those of the latter. Virginia needed a public school system (the message went on to state) not for poor children alone, as was then the case, but for all classes.

And it was particularly desirable that the children of the great middle class should be given the means of education . As a remedy for these unsatisfactory conditions he proposed that the counties be divided into school districts and in each a permanent school be established, under the management of trustees elected by the people. This school should be directed by a competent instructor. Attendance should be absolutely free or else the tuition charge should be low enough to afford all the children an opportunity for an education. This was a well-meant gesture in favor of a public school system, but it proved to be an empty one. There was one fatal defect in the plan it did not carry an adequate system for financing the scheme.

The governor recommended that expenditures from the Literary Fund be suspended until the accumulations had increased to the point at which the interest would be sufficient to finance the schools. Just what should be done during this period of waiting he did not suggest. Schooling for the poor during the interim would either have to be suspended or provided for out of county levies. A public school system worthy the name could not have been established in Virginia at that time without supplementing the income derived from the Literary Fund by a substantial revenue raised by taxation. Tyler did not have the boldness to recommend such a plan. At one time it looked as if the governor’s scheme of public education, with certain modifications, would be put into effect promptly.

Resolutions favorable to the idea were adopted and a bill embodying the principles laid down in them was reported to the House of Delegates. This bill, however, was laid on the table, and no further action on it was taken during this session of the legislature (or at least no mention of it can be found in the Journal). Apparently, nothing was later done to carry out the governor’s suggestions. A good deal of space in the governor’s message was devoted to internal improvements. He made specific recommendations as to improvements in the means of communication by the construction of roads, and locks and dams on the James River and other streams, with a view to connecting the east more closely with the west.

He pointed out that a considerable portion of the State lying west of the Alleghany Mountains, though rich in soil, was in certain regions almost in a state of nature. The citizens there could not reach the capital without going out of the State and using transportation facilities furnished by other States. It was not a matter of surprise, therefore, that the tide of emigration had passed around this area and gone farther west. Two roads should be opened up from the western borders of the State to the Valley region. There was also considerable ill feeling between the eastern and western sections of the commonwealth, and this sectionalism could be destroyed by the proper means of communication.

Another reason given for the State’s speeding up its improvements in land and water transportation was that in so doing it would take away the excuse of the Federal government for expending money on internal improvements in the States. In this way a great political menace would be averted. For, as he considered, “more danger is to be apprehended to the State authorities by the exertion of the assumed power over roads and canals by the general government than from almost any other source. It holds out the tender of the strongest bribe which can be offered to a people inhabiting a country yet in its infancy, and which invites the exertions of man to its improvement in almost every direction. ” Let the State meet these demands and accustom the people to look to the State instead of the United States government for these improvements.

Tyler’s administration must have been generally regarded as successful, as no one appeared against him when he came up for re-election December 10, 1827. He received all the votes cast but two, which were scattered. One of the last of Tyler’s recommendations (made on February 1, 1827) was in regard to the journals of the legislature. These records had been carelessly looked after, and the proceedings of three important sessions had been lost. Some of the journals were in manuscript and others were out of print. He suggested the reprinting of those that were out of print and of placing complete sets in the public offices and among the chief literary institutions.

So far as the social and ceremonial functions of the office were concerned, Tyler performed them admirably. He was especially well fitted by education, training, and culture to play the rble of social leader. George Wythe Munford, who, by virtue of his position as clerk of the House of Delegates, was in close touch with official life in Richmond, considered Governor Tyler exceptionally happy in the performance of his duties at the executive mansion. Rise of Public Education Legislative provision for a state-wide system of public education made its appearance in Pennsylvania, in 1834. This act, largely permissive in nature, did not come about without a long and arduous struggle against considerable opposition.

Indeed, its future was in doubt until the Assembly passed the law of 1836, which afforded a permanent basis for a system of universal education in Pennsylvania. It was not until 1849, however, that legislation was enacted requiring each of the State’s school districts to establish public schools. Upon the foundation of common schools, the public high school arose. For the greater part of the nineteenth century it was the academy rather than the public high school from which the colleges recruited the bulk of their students. In fact, the proponents of the academy after 1850 argued that preparation for college was the legitimate function of the academy alone.

As the high schools increased in number, and the academies suffered a corresponding decline, the colleges sought a closer rapprochement with the public school system. According to an editorial in the Pennsylvania School Journal, one of the objects in establishing the College Association of Pennsylvania, in 1887, was in substance, to promote the common interests of the Colleges by securing harmonious action and cooperation in all matters pertaining to the general welfare of these institutions, and also to labor for closer identification with the public school system of the State. This latter question was brought to the front, at the second session of the meeting by a rather aggressive paper read by President Magill, of Swarthmore.

Before the meeting finally adjourned, ample evidence had been given of a sincere desire to co-operate with the public school agencies of the State in effecting a proper and, if possible, an organic bond of union between the Common Schools and Colleges. Indifference and Opposition to Public Schools Before the Civil War, the development of public schools languished throughout the South. Here, the experiences of Virginia and Tennessee are probably representative. While Thomas Jefferson had unsuccessfully sought the establishment in Virginia of a tax-supported system of universal common-school education as early as 1779, both state and local support for schools was meager during the ante-bellum years.

Public schools were considered primarily as schools for paupers, for the support of which men of property were not disposed to tax themselves. Nonetheless, the smaller farms, less sharp social distinctions, and dearth of good private schools in the western counties of Virginia (including modern west Virginia) made public education a vital sectional issue, culminating in the provision for increased financial support for Virginia’s common schools in the constitution of 1851. Even so, during the 1850’s public education in Virginia continued to suffer from mismanagement of the state’s school funds and their diversion to other uses. The state of Tennessee entered the Union too early for its schools to benefit significantly from public land policy.

By 1806, when provision was at last made by interstate compact for reserving onesixteenth of all future land grants in Tennessee for the use of schools, little unclaimed land of much agricultural value remained. Subsequent sales of the residual public lands to provide a fund significantly labelled “for the education of the poor” yielded very little revenue. By acts of 1830 and 1838 the legislature sought to supplement the state school fund from non-tax sources, but the fund showed little growth. It was not until 1854 that Governor Andrew Johnson of East Tennessee pushed through the act in which Tennessee imposed her first state taxes and authorized the first county taxes for the support of education. This legislation represented a narrow victory of the yeomanry of East Tennessee over the wealthier planters of the rest of the state.

The resulting public schools were still not able to hold their own with the private and denominational schools favored by persons of means. During the Reconstruction years immediately following the Civil War, both Virginia and Tennessee enacted some much-needed educational reforms which partially survived the later return of the ex-Confederates to political power. In 1869, a carpet-bag constitutional convention in Virginia adopted a new state constitution which provided for the establishment of free schools throughout the state. Under this constitution, the Virginia assembly created in 1870 the first plan of general public education in the state’s history and provided for state property taxation and authorized local taxation for school purposes.

During the next decade, despite formidable political and financial obstacles, Virginia’s public schools made considerable progress but no more than held their own from 1882 until the constitution of 1902 awakened a renewed interest in improving the state’s public-school systems. Meanwhile, educational policy in Tennessee had taken a similar course. In 1867 the radical legislature of Tennessee (which was dominated by East Tennesseans of Union loyalties) enacted the most progressive educational measure in state history, providing a sound financial basis of property and poll taxes for public-school support. With the return of the ex-Confederate Democrats to power in 1869 this act was repealed, and a new act abolishing all supervisory school offices and abandoning all property taxes for schools made all responsibilities for common schools both local and voluntary.

The new constitution of 1870 repaired part of this damage and, with the tide for tax-supported, free schools running too strongly to be curbed, the Democratic legislature of 1873 substantially re-enacted the school law of 1867, which still remains the parent act for the state’s modern public-school system. The cause of public education after the Civil War was not without prominent supporters. That Virginia aristocrat and great American, Robert E. Lee, declared that “the thorough education of all classes of people is the most efficacious means for promoting the prosperity of the South. ” Walter Hines Page wrote in 1896 that “a public-school system generously supported by public sentiment, and generally maintained by both state and local taxation, is the only effective means to develop the forgotten man and the forgotten woman. ” Nor was the Negro excluded by some, such as Clarence H. Poe, who declared in 1910 that “we must . . .

frame a scheme of education and training that will keep [the Negro] from dragging down the whole level of life, that will make him more efficient, a prosperity-maker. . . . we must either have the Negro trained, or we must not have him at all. Untrained he is a burden on us all. . . . Our economic law knows no colour line. ” Yet a great Southern educator, Edwin Mims, had to note sadly in 1926 that “the Southern States still have a great mass of uneducated people, sensitive, passionate, prejudiced, and another mass of the half-educated who have very little intellectual curiosity or independence of judgment. ” If some of the South’s intellectual leaders agreed with such indictments of the products of regional education, in doing so they turned their fury on the public schools.

Woodward, for example, has shown how the Redeemers-who took over the leadership in state and local government with the restoration of self-rule to the South-took “retrenchment” as their watchword and frankly constituted themselves as the champions of the property owner. In the process, public education, which bore the stigma of carpet-bag sponsorship and raised the unpleasant image of the ubiquitous “horse-faced Yankee schoolma’ams” of the bitter Reconstruction years, was first to suffer. Governor Holliday of Virginia considered public schools “a luxury . . . to be paid for like any other luxury, by the people who wish their benefits. ” Successful Launch of Public School System in South In the Deep South the illiteracy of the people and the neglect of education were perhaps more distressing than in the Upper South.

A Committee on Education of the Louisiana legislature reported, March 22, 1831, that there were approximately nine thousand white children in the state between the ages of ten and fifteen years but that “not one third of that number received any instruction whatever. ” Georgia was the one of the earliest states to found a state university and had academies for the well-to-do, but it woefully neglected the education of the masses. Not until 1877 did the state finally establish free public schools. Liberal laws permitting counties to tax property for school purposes, which had been enacted in the late 1830’s, were repealed in 1840. Governor George W. Crawford declared in 1845 that not half of the counties applied for their proportion of the state funds for free schooling.

8 As late as 1859 Gabriel DuVal, Superintendent of Education of the State of Alabama, reported to the governor that nearly one half of the children of the state were not attending any school and were growing up in ignorance . The census of 1850 seemed to indicate that the Southern States were even retrograding in literacy. The returns from Virginia, for example, showed the presence of seventy-seven thousand and five adult white illiterates as compared with fifty-eight thousand, seven hundred and eighty-seven in the previous census. This increase could probably be explained in part by the more careful and accurate enumeration of the census takers of 1850. According to their report the Southern States had an illiteracy ratio among the native white population over twenty years of age of 20. 30 per cent, the Middle States 3 per cent, and New England . 42 per cent.

Superintendent De Bow pointed out that so excellent was the New England school system that only one person over twenty years of age in four hundred of the native white population could not read and write, as compared with one in twelve for the slaveholding states, and one in forty for the free states as a whole. Many reasons have been advanced to explain this widespread illiteracy of the South. The aristocratic attitude, inherited from England, that it was not necessary to educate the masses, changed slowly in sections of the older South like Virginia and South Carolina. Certainly the isolation characteristic of Southern life with its scattered homes and indescribably bad roads did much to hinder the diffusion of education.

Fully as important as these factors was the reluctance of the people to tax themselves. Governor Swain in his message to the legislature of North Carolina in 1835 said that the legislature was in the habit of imposing taxes on the people amounting to less than one hundred thousand dollars annually. Of this sum, half was spent in rewarding the legislators for their services, while the remainder was employed in paying the administrative officers of the state government. The individualism of the Southern people was also a hindrance to the establishment of a comprehensive system of public education. It was regarded as the duty of the individual and not of the state to see that his children were educated.

When Governor Gilmer of Georgia wrote letters to the most distinguished men of his state for their opinions on public education, he stated his own position in the words: “The policy of making appropriations by the Government to effect objects which are within the means of individuals has always appeared to me to be extremely questionable. ” Joseph Henry Lumpkin, later to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, replied that he opposed scattering the state educational funds of twenty thousand dollars for common schools, but that they should be used in developing the university. The most promising youths from each county should be sent to the university; and “soon every foreigner will be dislodged from our academies. “

The mental attitude of the various classes of Southern society toward education was admirably analyzed by Joseph Caldwell, President of the University of North Carolina, in a series of Letters on Popular Education published in 1832. He pointed out that so invincible was the aversion of North Carolinians to taxation, even to provide for the education of poor children, that any proposal to establish a public school system supported solely by taxation would be doomed to failure. He also described the position of many of the illiterate or semi-illiterate as proud of their ignorance of “book learning. ” From another angle, he portrayed the attitude of the rural communities toward “book learning” by showing their contemptuous disparagement of the profession of teaching school.

With bitter satire he described the unfit type of men who had been recruited by the profession in North Carolina: “Is a man constitutionally and habitually indolent, a burden upon all from whom he can extract a support? Then there is a way of shaking him off, let us make him a schoolmaster. To teach a school is in the opinion of many little else than sitting still and doing nothing. Has any man wasted all his property, or ended in debt by indiscretion and misconduct? The business of school keeping stands wide-open for his reception and here he sinks to the bottom, for want of capacity to support himself. ” Apathy toward education on the part of the lower classes was undoubtedly due to physical illness and to a false sense of pride.

Travelers in the ante-bellum South often referred to the sallow, unhealthy appearance of the “poor whites” and to their addiction to eating clay. These “clayeaters,” “sand-hillers,” and “crackers” were in many cases the victims of hookworm, which sapped their energy and deprived them of ambition. In the lowland regions and in river valleys malaria and the ague wrought great havoc in the health of the poorer classes, who remained in their habitations throughout the year. Furthermore, many destitute farmers were deterred from sending their children to such public schools as were provided because of their repugnance to make the required declaration of poverty.

The mountain whites who looked upon all outsiders as “furriners,” preferred to remain in ignorance and to cling to their more primitive ways of life The educational needs of the upper classes were fairly well met by the private academies and old field schools. A group of neighbors would form a board of trustees for the proposed school and apply to the legislature for an act of incorporation. They would then build a log or frame schoolhouse and hire a teacher, frequently a Northerner who had recently graduated from college. Some of these academies attained a wide and well-deserved reputation for training eminent men From a selfish point of view, the upper classes, who could send their sons to exclusive Northern schools, or at least to private academies and old field schools in the South, had little incentive to support a movement to educate the common people by voting taxes for that end.

From 1840 to 1860, however, the Southern States were slowly awakening to the need of free public schools. One of the most eloquent and influential voices for popular education during these years was that of Henry A. Wise, Congressman from the Accomac district of Virginia. In 1844, shortly after his retirement from Congress to become Minister to Brazil, he delivered an earnest speech to his constituents advising them to tax themselves to educate every child at public cost. He showed that more than one fourth of the adult whites in Accomac district (consisting of twelve counties) could not read and write, and that the number o


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