Skip to main content

1800-1860: Education: Overview

1800-1860: Education: Overview

Post-Revolutionary Plans. As citizens of the United States and immigrants migrated westward in the first half of the nineteenth century, they brought to new communities and states educational experiments and plans that had first taken shape in Europe and the Eastern states. While some individuals feared what they believed was an untamed land, many Americans who were influenced by ideas of the Enlightenment were convinced that the West would be civilized through the diffusion of knowledge. Others dared to hope for the regeneration of human nature in what they viewed as the blank slate of the West. In the early American republic the transmission of culture and work procedures still took place largely in home or workplace settings, outside of formal schools and colleges. The primary institution for educating children was the family. In the decades after the American Revolution, however, cultural leaders argued that schooling was essential in order to train citizens. According to the widely shared republican ideology, the stability of the nation would depend upon the virtue of its citizens, who would be capable of exercising sovereignty through their capacity for moral restraint. Those who were influenced by such thinkers of the Enlightenment asJohn Locke believed that human nature was malleable and formed by influences in the environment. For them, education would provide the means to form ordinary children into future citizens. In addition, in a large republic, diffusion of knowledge could shape apluralistic population into a homogeneous body politic. Individuals from various parts of the British Isles and western Europe had flocked to America in the eighteenth century, settling in regions where they spoke in local dialects and identified with local folkways. Education could instill the common aspirations and behavior that would shape these colonial regional cultures into a uniform national polity. In the eighteenth century, religious establishments and denominations had assumed responsibility for moral and intellectual training. After state provisions and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution separated church and state, some individuals began to propose more-secular educational plans.

Jefferson and Rush. As early as 1779 Thomas Jefferson prepared his Systematic Plan of General Education for the House of Delegates in Virginia. Linked to his proposals to repeal the feudal practices of entail and primogeniture and to establish religious freedom, his plan aimed to eliminate aristocratic privilege and to create a republican society in which natural merit could be recognized and rewarded. According to the plan, in hundreds of wards in every county, statesupported elementary schools would teach reading, writing, and common arithmetic. In districts throughout the state, additional schools would offer the classics, grammar, geography, and higher arithmetic. The College of William and Mary would provide a scientific curriculum; elementary schools would teach the rudiments of education to ordinary citizens; district schools would develop reasoning skills and instill virtue in the more talented; and the university would form a select few into local leaders and national and international statesmen. In 1784 Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania also was concerned with planning an education suitable for a republican society. Fearful that reason alone would not create binding social ties, Rush proposed a union of affection, in which an emotional patriotism would be reinforced in children through early associations in school. To instill the moral restraint essential for republican virtue, Rush believed that education should be grounded in Christianity, and he argued that the Bible should be the primary textbook. Boys who learned Christian principles and habitual obedience in early childhood would become adult citizens capable of submitting personal inclination to the rule of law and private interest to the public good. In 1787 Rush advocated a similar education for girls, who would learn o t submit personal inclination to the demands of domestic life in preparation for their role as republican wives and mothers.

Early Educational Opportunities. Although legislatures in Virginia and Pennsylvania discussed these comprehensive plans for tax-supported schools in the 1790s, they enacted only limited provisions for charity education. The Massachusetts legislature in 1789 required towns of fifty or more families to provide district schools for at least six months of the year and towns of two hundred or more families to provide a grammar school. The state did not offer financial aid, however, and both initiative for and control over a school remained with local parents. The New York legislature in 1795 appropriated funds to local areas to support schools for five years, but they did not renew the legislation in 1800. Boston was the only city that supported a system of public schools. According to their provisions, an annually elected school committee supervised grammar schools for boys and girls ages seven to fourteen and a Latin school for boys over the age often. Children under the age of seven learned to read in dames schools, private schools conducted in various homes by female teachers who were licensed by the city. Yet similar school systems were not enacted in other areas, largely because the United States was still a rural society where full-time schooling did not fit the needs of many families. Farmers and craftsmen relied on family more than hired labor and expected their large numbers of children to work. Education occurred in family or workplace settings, and schooling was only sporadic, fitted into hours of the day or seasons of the year that the rhythms of an agricultural society allowed. Revolutionary rhetoric inspired interest in education, but actual practice followed the rural intermittent model. Yet even under these conditions, enrollments increased in locally controlled district or subscription schools, and private academies throughout the nation proliferated, especially those that concentrated on the education of girls.

District and Subscription Schools . Following the American Revolution, New England farmers flooded into western New York, and yeomen from the Upper South and Carolina backcountry filtered into Kentucky and Tennessee. Under the Articles of Confederation of 1781, when states had relinquished their claims to western lands, congressional provisions initially drafted by Thomas Jefferson had provided for education in territories carved from this national domain. The Land Ordinance of 1785 required a survey of public lands to establish rectangular townships six miles square, consisting of thirty-six sections of 640 acres, one of which would be reserved for maintenance of public schools. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 created the plan for carving out three to five states north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi Rivers; it also outlawed slavery in the area, promised not to take lands from Indians without their consent, and earmarked support for education. Yet settlement did not follow these orderly plans. In many areas school lands went unsold and school funds went unused; where resources were available, differences in land quality and value led to rancorous disputes. Some states organized districts on the Massachusetts model, in which parents initiated and controlled a district school. In other areas parents took up a subscription, pledging support to erect a building and to hire and board a teacher.

Schools in New Communities . These district, or subscription, schools consisted of one-room log or clapboard buildings where children as young as two or three mingled with older pupils, each child memorizing and reciting his or her lessons under the direction of a more-or-less qualified teacher. Reflecting the post-Revolutionary concern with diffusion of knowledge, such schools dotted Western areas as soon as lands were settled. For example, Daniel Drakes family arrived in Mayslick, Kentucky, in 1788, when it was still Indian country. (Shawnees and their allies in the area would not be defeated until the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.) Yet as early as 1790, when he was five, Drake attended a log cabin school with paper windows, a wooden chimney, and a puncheon floor, taught by an immigrant from Scotland named McQuitty. Later Drake poured over Dilworths speller or the New Testament under the direction of Jacob Beaden, a teacher from Marylands eastern shore who knew only reading, writing, and some arithmetic. Beaden had students of all ages recite the lesson aloud, gathering energy as they spoke. In later life Drake found that he could concentrate in almost any situation and thought it an advantage that he had learned to study in the midst of noise. He also learned to pay deference to adults; when someone came along the road, the children would take off their hats and try to bow or curtsey at the same time. Drake attended school only occasionally, though, for his father depended on his labor. When he was nine and the family moved to a larger farm, he left his lessons temporarily to help clear land. Six years later an injury to his father ended this schooling, and Drake worked the farm alone. Like many children in the early-nineteenth-century West, such would have been his fate had not his illiterate father been determined to have at least one educated child, sending Drake at the age of sixteen to Cincinnati to study medicine. After the War of 1812, as the United States acquired Indian lands through treaty or conquest, white families poured westward; shortly after their arrival in each new territory, local parents organized a district, or subscription, school. Planters and yeomen, who swarmed into Alabama and Mississippi from 1815 to 1819, arrived with not only their slaves but also schoolteachers seeking opportunity. Two years after Illinois became a state in 1818, settlers in Sangamon County founded a subscription school. By 1825 families in Blooming Grove, in central Illinois, subscribed their support to a log cabin school, which was soon followed by an academy.

Origins of Public Schools . From 1820 to 1840 commercial and industrial development transformed the economy of the Northeast, affecting not only urban areas but also rural families who began to rely on distant markets made available by improved transportation. As mechanized mills proliferated, textile production left the household. Merchants inserted themselves into patterns of exchange, engaging women and children in new kinds of outwork. Storekeepers tightened credit and preferred cash transactions, replacing older patterns of neighborly barter and local exchange. Mothers, perhaps influenced by evangelical religion, adopted domestic ideology and tried to curtail fertility. Fathers paid wages to hired workers, relying less on the labor of their children. As rural capitalism developed, children had more time to spend in school. In this economic context Horace Mann, who was the newly appointed secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, worried about the urban poverty and crime accelerated by the financial panic of 1837. Fearing that the habits of adults were already established, he focused on forming moral character in malleable young children. Lecturing throughout the state and lobbying the legislature, Mann advocated a system of state-supervised and supported public schools. He urged that each school offer the same curriculum and conduct classes over a continuous ten-month term. He also argued for carefully designed school buildings and state-supported normal schools to train professional teachers. In 1838, when the Unitarian Mann was approached by managers of the American Sunday School Union and asked to adopt their line of evangelical childrens literature, he refused, insisting instead on nonsectarian, yet Protestant, public schools, which would instill the values of republicanism and capitalism.

Public Schools in the Midwest . In the Northeast public schools received citizen support largely in areas where commercial development was well under way; their advocates tended to be Whigs who favored a positive role for the state rather than Democrats who usually opted for local control. Farmers in areas less affected by rural capitalism resisted the systems of state-supported education and fought to maintain local control over their district schools. As families moved to the Midwest, farmers there also opposed a general state tax for education and loss of their local control. Where subsistence farming and customs of barter and local exchange prevailed, families depended on their childrens labor and preferred voluntary intermittent schooling that could mesh with agricultural work. Laws authorizing the creation of school districts and permitting settlers to support schools by taxing themselves were passed by Ohio in 1821, Indiana in 1824, Illinois in 1825, and Missouri in 1839. The Michigan law of 1837, written by the new state superintendent of public instruction, John D. Pierce, became a model for other states. Yet not until the 1850s, when railroads penetrated the Midwest, did speculators buy up land, tenant farming and hired labor become widespread, and state systems of free public schools characterized by strong district control take root. As rural capitalism transformed the Midwest, legislators established free public education in Indiana in 1852, Ohio in 1854, and Illinois in 1855. The Wisconsin Constitution of 1848 provided for free public education as did those of Iowa in 1846 and Minnesota in 1858. Yet in the Midwest, compromise prevailed between state supervision and local parental control. While states required the length of school terms and passed general rules licensing teachers, local district school boards elected by annual meetings managed the public schools.

Old Southwest . Alabama, Kentucky, and Louisiana in the old Southwest appointed state school superintendents in the 1850s. Yet slavery kept capitalistic relation ships from penetrating the Southern rural household, preventing the development of an economic context in which parents and legislators advocated state-supported full-time schools. In Southwestern states slaves were denied schooling. Well-to-do planters hired a tutor to educate their children at home or sent youngsters to board at private academies. Yeoman families, which maintained the older patterns of barter and local exchange, high fertility, and patriarchal control of childrens labor, continued to initiate and support subscription schools, where the intermittent lessons could mesh with agricultural work.

Mexican Cession. In the Spanish areas of the Southwest, Catholic priests had sought to form Indians into gente de razon, or people of reason, who would internalize self-restraint in order to contribute to the good of the community. Concentrating the natives into pueblos and missions, the friars had taught the Indians to engage in agriculture, use European tools, speak Spanish, and practice Catholicism. Focusing on children, whom they found more malleable than adults, the friars taught youngsters to sing and play musical instruments, to memorize and recite Catholic doctrine, and occasionally to read and write. In 1793 King Carlos IV ordered that schools be established in order to teach Indians to speak, read, and write Spanish, an early venture in public education. About the same time artisans arrived from Mexico to instruct neophyte boys in skilled trades and girls in cloth making and fine needlework. Although they fluctuated greatly in attendance and quality, some schools also were established for the children of settlers, who clustered in towns and settlements surrounding the presidios. After the missions were secularized during the period of Mexican rule from 1822 to 1848, Hispanic ranching families in New Mexico and California were eager to differentiate themselves as gente de razon from the Indian labor force. Although various governors promoted education, schooling was intermittent, and well-to-do families taught their children at home or hired private tutors. By 1844 seven or eight tax-supported schools for boys and for girls were established in California. As traders and immigrants from the United States filtered into the area, some individuals provided schooling for immigrant children. In 1848, after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo confirmed the conquest of the Southwest in the Mexican War and after gold was discovered in California, citizens of the eastern United States rushed into the area and advocated their concepts of state-supported public education. By 1849 the city of San Francisco supported a free public school, and the first California constitution included provisions similar to those in the 1837 Michigan law. In 1851 the legislature provided school districts and permitted citizens to tax themselves to support schools. Through the leadership of California State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Swett, a statewide system of free public schools was put into place in the 1860s.

Higher Education in the West . Influenced by revivals of the Second Great Awakening, which engulfed the eastern United States from 1800 through 1860, Protestant denominations competed in founding colleges in the West. Proposed to spread denominational doctrines and to train ministers, these small, often struggling, institutions proliferated. Simultaneously, Catholics founded many parochial institutions. Other educational reformers greatly admired the state-supported secular plan that Thomas Jefferson introduced in the University of Virginia in 1819. Funded by the state and directed by a board of visitors confirmed by the legislature, Jeffersons university was completely separated from religious influence and offered instruction in the ancient and modern languages, mathematics, natural history, moral philosophy, medicine, and law. In the 1820s this plan was greatly admired by individuals in Tennessee and Kentucky who hoped to build similar institutions. These and other plans were thwarted, however, when sectarian interests sought control over education and farmers resisted paying taxes for institutions they feared would create an elite upper class. Secular interests prevailed, however, in Michigan, where the state university, founded in 1837, closely followed the Jeffersonian ideal and became the model for other western states.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"1800-1860: Education: Overview." American Eras. . 12 Jan. 2019 <>.

"1800-1860: Education: Overview." American Eras. . (January 12, 2019).

"1800-1860: Education: Overview." American Eras. . Retrieved January 12, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.