A House Divided: North vs. South
A House Divided: North vs. South
Southern Exceptionalism. The overall trend in American education by 1850 was toward greater uniformity across state and regional boundaries and less disparity between rural and urban school systems: gradually, a standard system of education was beginning to emerge across the country that shared many essential features. But in one important respect, schooling in midcentury America was moving in the opposite direction, toward greater divergence. The developing confrontation between different social systems in the free-labor North and the slave South manifested itself in sharply diverging outlooks on schooling. The structure of southern society had produced a very different regional system of education than that advocated by northern educational reformers, making many leading southerners not only indifferent but actually hostile to the democratic vision of public education emanating from the Northeast. At precisely the same time that the reform current was gaining prominence in the North, mounting attacks on slavery were pushing the South to adopt a defensive posture regarding its own institutions, fencing the region off from even the most modest reform ideas. By 1850 two very different systems of education had developed in the United States whose geographical boundaries corresponded closely to the battle lines that would emerge during the Civil War.
An Aristocratic System . On one level the South’s educational achievements were impressive. By 1850 the South had more private academies than New England. Virginia on the eve of the Civil War had “more colleges,
more college graduates, and expended more money on higher education than Massachusetts,” and a higher proportion of white Virginians than Northerners attended college during the 1850s. The southern states had, in fact, taken the lead in establishing state institutions of higher learning and could boast, too, of being home to seven of the nation’s eight military academies, including the Virginia Military Academy in Richmond (1839), The Citadel at Charleston, and the Arsenal Academy at Columbia (both created by an act of the South Carolina legislature in 1842). Until the final decade before the Civil War, moreover, many young men from the leading families of the South were educated in the North’s most prestigious institutions: Gov. Henry A. Wise of Virginia had been educated at Washington College, Pennsylvania; the articulate South Carolinian John C. Calhoun was a Yale graduate; Confederate politician Robert Toombs studied at Union College; and Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee were both products of West Point.
“Wastelands.” The antebellum South’s impressive record in higher education contrasts sharply with the region’s failure to provide more than a small minority of its white population with access to even rudimentary public education. The southern states were, in the words of one historian, “virtual wastelands of common schooling,” where the aristocratic pretensions of the planter class erected a formidable barrier to educational reform. The aversion of propertied interests to any form of tax-supported schooling, which reformers had only gradually succeeded in overcoming in the North, was even more pronounced among southern planters. Schooling of any kind was, of course, unavailable to slaves before the war and off-limits to free blacks since the 1830s. Non-slaveholding whites did not fare much better: unwilling to subject themselves to the humiliation of attending pauper or charity schools, many of them opted to forgo formal education completely. Census figures for 1850 illustrate the effects: among southern whites twenty years of age or older, over 20 percent were illiterate, while the comparable figure for the Middle Atlantic states was 3 percent and for New England less than one-half of 1 percent. Attendance figures tell a similar story: at the outset of the Civil War, school-age southerners attended school on the average of only 10.6 days per year, while northerners spent anywhere from 50 to 63.5 days of the year in class.
A Matter of Principle. Agitation over the issue of slavery after 1850 accelerated the drift toward a distinct regional education system and raised southern opposition to educational reform to a matter of principle. Increasingly, leading southerners feared that the northern-based common-schools movement was fraught with peril to their sacred institutions, and throughout the 1850s the call for southern cultural independence gathered momentum. Southern conventions called for purging the region of northern textbooks, which they suspected to be tainted with abolitionism. “The primers have slurs and innuendoes aimed at slavery… the histories almost ignore the South… the classical works have marginal notes denouncing the institution (of slavery), and the moral philosophies teem with free-soil doctrines,” one piqued southern editor complained. During the Civil War itself, new textbooks appeared that reflected the Confederacy’s approval of slavery: math texts, for example, included “many problems involving ’servants’ or ’slaves,’ “such as one that asked: “If 5 white men can do as much work as 7 negroes, how many days of 10 hours each will be required for 25 negroes to do a piece of work which 30 white men can do in 10 days of 9 hours each?” Southern nationalists launched a powerful campaign aimed at discouraging leading southern families from sending their children to college in the North, and many state college systems were established explicitly for the purpose of repatriating southern collegians and shielding them from “Yankee” influence. The most important of these, the University of the South, was founded at Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1860 as an institution where the sons of southern planters could drink “pure and invigorating draughts from unpolluted fountains.” The prominent role of education in the new southern nationalism
was highlighted in remarks made by Virginia governor Wise to a trainload of medical students returning from Philadelphia after John Brown’s raid:
Let us employ our own teachers, [applause], especially that they may teach our own doctrines. Let us dress in the wool raised on our own pastures. Let us eat the flour from our own mills, and if we can’t get that, why let us go back to our old accustomed corn bread. [Loud applause.]
Traitors. Hand-in-hand with the drift toward separatism there developed a more strict policing of the sectional loyalties of educators in the South. In 1849 Dr. Howard Malcolm of Georgetown College in Kentucky was forced to resign after speaking out in favor of emancipation. During the 1856 presidential campaign, professor Benjamin Sherwood Hendrick was ejected from his position at the University of North Carolina after expressing his support for the candidacy of Republican candidate John C. Fremont. Hendrick’s colleague Henry Harrisse wrote a scathing denunciation of the affair, arguing that although defenders of slavery “may eliminate all the suspicious men from your institutions of learning” and “establish any number of new colleges which will relieve you of sending your sons to free institutions,” their efforts would be in vain. So long as “people study, and read, and think among you,” he wrote, “the absurdity of your system will be discovered and there will always be found some courageous intelligence to protest against your … tyranny.” Not surprisingly, Harrisse himself was forced to leave the university a short while later.
LET US LEARN
In this excerpt taken from “Life on the Sea Islands” in Atlantic Monthly (May 1864), African American teacher Charlotte Forten describes the former slaves’ desire for education:
The tiniest children are delighted to get a book in their hands. Many of them already know their letters. The parents are eager to have them learn. They sometimes said to me—
“Do, Miss, let de chil’en learn eberyting dey can. We nebber hab no chance to learn nuttin’, but we wants de chil’en to learn.”
They are willing to make many sacrifices that their children may attend school. One old woman, who had a large family of children and grandchildren, came regularly to school in the winter, and took her seat among the little ones. She was at least sixty years old. Another woman—who had one of the best faces I ever saw—came daily, and brought her baby in her arms. It happened to be one of the best babies in the world, a perfect little “model of deportment,” and allowed its mother to pursue her studies without interruption.
“A War of Education.” The precarious condition of intellectual freedom in southern society and the southern leaders’ hostility to reform currents only reaffirmed for northern educational reformers the superiority of the common schools and their importance as bulwarks of democracy. They unanimously condemned the lack of provision for public education in the South and viewed the developing confrontation through the prism of education: the free-labor North was superior to the slave South, in their eyes, precisely because it provided for universal education; conversely, nowhere was the South’s inferiority more apparent than in its neglect of education. Indeed, the underlying basis of the Civil War was, in reformer Francis Wayland’s view, a result of “the fact of a diffused and universal education in the North and a very limited education in the South.” Six months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, Wayland declared in a speech before the National Teachers’ Association that the Civil War “had been a war of education and patriotism against ignorance and barbarism.” And not the least important element in northern plans for reconstructing the South were their plans for extending the common-schools ideal throughout the conquered territory.
Clement Eaton, The Freedom-of-Thought Struggle in the Old South, revised edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).