New York Free School Society, 1805

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New York Free School Society, 1805


The Setting. New York City in 1805 had 141 teachers for a population of 75, 770. Most of these teachers maintained private schools, while others taught in the charity schools run by churches, the African Free School, or the school for girls established in 1802 by the Association of Women Friends for the Relief of the Poor. About one hundred children attended the Roman Catholic school, eighty-six the Trinity Church school, and seventy a school run by the Dutch Reformed Church. Though these schools were open to all children, each religious group believed it essential to inculcate all children with religious values as well as with a knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Mayor DeWitt Clinton, nephew of New York governor and Vice President George Clinton, and other community leaders worried that even with these private charity schools many children were missing out on an education. The children most in need of instruction were those whose parents did not have religion, and so would be unlikely to send their children to a church-run school.

Foundation. In February 1805, at Clintons urging, a group of New Yorkers met to found the New York Free School Society, committed to opening free schools for all children in New York City. Clinton himself did not attend the meeting, which decided to submit a memorial to the state legislature to incorporate their society and to lend it whatever aid the legislature deemed proper for the promotion of the benevolent object of education. The legislature did incorporate the society but did not give it any money. Instead, the legislature limited its income to $10, 000 per year, to be raised through subscriptions.

Members could join the Free School Society for eight dollars in annual dues; for twenty-five dollars a member would be entitled to send one child to the Free School; and for forty dollars a member could send two children. The Free School Society elected its trustees, with DeWitt Clinton as president, and began soliciting money both to establish a Free School and to open a Sunday school for children unable to attend school during the week. Though both the Free School and the Sunday school were to be nonsectarian, not affiliated with any particular religion, still the primary object of both was without observing the particular forms of any religious Society, to inculcate the sublime truths of religion and morality contained in the Holy Scriptures.

Raising Money. Though the trustees published their appeal in all of the citys newspapers, people were slow to contribute. DeWitt Clinton gave the first pledge, for $200, but no one else gave more than $50, and most contributions were for $25. In the first year the Free School Society raised $6, 501, and in May 1806, one year after it began its public campaign, it was able to open a school in New York City, with about forty pupils. In April 1806 Col. Henry Rutgers, a member of the State Board of Regents, donated a lot on Henry Street for the building of a school to meet the wants of the indigent in that populous part of the city. Rutgers, who later served as president of the Free Schools board of trustees, was a great benefactor of education: he contributed $5, 000 to help Queens College in New Brunswick, New Jersey, remain open; the college thanked him by adopting his name.


The Society for Establishing a Free School in the City of New York, a committee of the citys leading citizens, drafted this memorial to the state legislature on 25 February 1805:

Your memorialists have viewed with painful anxiety the multiplied evils which have accrued, and are daily accruing, to this city, from the neglected education of the children of the poor. They allude more particularly to that description of children who do not belong to, or are not provided for, by any religious society; and who, therefore, do not partake of the advantages arising from the different Charity Schools established by the various religious societies of this city. The condition of this class is deplorable indeed; reared up by parents who, from a variety of concurring circumstances, are become either indifferent to the best interests of their offspring, or, through intemperate lives, are rendered unable to defray the expense of their instruction, these miserable and almost friendless objects are ushered upon the stage of life, inheriting those vices which idleness and the bad example of their parents naturally produce. The consequences of this neglect of education are ignorance and vice, and all those manifold evils resulting from every species of immorality, by which public hospitals and alms-houses are filled with objects of disease and poverty, and society burthened by taxes for their support. In addition to these melancholy facts, it is to be feared that the laboring class in the community is becoming less industrious, less moral, and less careful to lay up the fruit of their earnings. What can this alarming declension have arisen from but the existence of an error which has ever been found to produce a similar effecta want of a virtuous education, especially at that early period of life when the impressions that are made generally stamp the future character?

The rich having ample means of educating their offspring, it must be apparent that the laboring poora class of citizens so evidently usefulhave a superior claim to the public support.

Trusting that the necessity of providing suitable means for the prevention of the evils they have enumerated will be apparent to your honorable Body, your memorialists respectfully request the patronage and assistance of the Legislature in establishing a free school or schools, in this city, for the benevolent purpose of affording education to those unfortunate children who have no other mode of obtaining it.

On 9 April 1805 the legislature incorporated the New York Free School Society, which opened its first school on 19 May 1806.

Source: A. Emerson Palmer, The New York Public School: Being a History of Free Education in the City of New York (New York: Macmil-

State and City Aid. Benefactors such as Clinton and Rutgers were rare. With limited resources and the aim of educating hundreds of pupils, the trustees of the Free School Society decided to adopt the educational system of Joseph Lancaster, an English educational reformer. In January 1807 the trustees once again approached the legislature for help in educating the citys poor; this time the legislature agreed to grant the society $4, 000 to build their school and another $1, 000 each year. This money would come from a tax on strong liquors and licensing fees charged to inns and taverns. The City of New York agreed to give the society a building next to the almshouse, along with $500 to repair it, in return for the societys agreeing to educate fifty children from the almshouse. By early 1808, 240 pupils were attending the school, which quickly outgrew its temporary space. In 1809 the Free School Society began building a new brick schoolhouse, 120 by 40 feet, able to hold five hundred children in a single room. The lot for the school, valued at $10, 000, had been donated by the city in return for the education of almshouse children. Construction cost $13, 000, though much of the material was donated, and the two carpenters and master mason who supervised the labor also donated their fees. DeWitt Clinton, president of the board of trustees, spoke at the dedication ceremony for New York Free School No. 1 on 11 December 1809, reviewing the history of the Free School movement, praising the Lancastrian system, and looking ahead to the future of education in the new republic. As one contemporary historian noted, A building, dedicated to the gratuitous instruction of five hundred children, under the care of a single individual, was a spectacle, which had never before been exhibited on the American continent.

More Schools . Building its first school and planning for others put the society into debt. With its first school in operation, fund-raising proceeded more smoothly. In 1810 the society raised $13, 000, and its second school, built on land donated by Colonel Rutgers, opened in November 1811. The legislature too was willing to contribute more from the liquor tax, and Trinity Church donated land on Hudson and Christopher Streets for an additional school. By 1814 the two Free Schools in operation had an enrollment of nearly eight hundred children. In addition, the Female Association used two rooms in the schools to instruct three hundred girls in both academic subjects and needlework. The first school had been coeducational, but School No. 2 was, at first, for boys only. Gradually, the education of girls had been taken over by the Female Association.

Religious Instruction . Though one impetus for the Free School Society had been to set up a nonsectarian school for the poor, the trustees believed religious instruction necessary for the future welfare of both its students and the society in which they would live. Every Tuesday afternoon the schools would be conducted by women from various religious denominations who would instruct the students in the catechisms of the students own church. According to school records, 271 students were Presbyterians; 186 were Episcopalians; 172 were Methodists; 119 were Baptists; 41 were Dutch Reformed; and 9 were Roman Catholic. The students were also to gather at their school on Sunday morning to be escorted to their own church by the class monitors.

Success. By 1819 the Free School Society was running four free schools in New York City, all under the Lancastrian system. In 1815 the Free Schools received $3, 708.14 from the state as its part of the State Common School Fund, established by the sale of the states public lands. This Common School Fund, the society noted with thanks, was one of the most important laws recorded in the annals of our Legislature, as it was a practical plan calculated to confer lasting benefits on the community. The beginning of the Free School movement in New York City, relying on private philanthropy and public support and bringing a community together to educate the poor, was one of the most important developments in the early republic.


In a letter to Alexander Hamilton on 1 September 1796, President George Washington explained his thoughts on the need for a national university:

I mean Education generally as one of the surest means of enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our Citizens, but particularly the establishment of a University; where the youth from all parts of the United States might receive the polish of Erudition in the Arts, Sciences, and Belle Letters; and where those who were disposed to run a political course, might not only be instructed in the theory and principles, but (this Seminary being at the Seat of the General Government) where the Legislature would be in Session half the year, and the interests and politics of the Nation of course would be discussed, they would lay the surest foundation for the practical part also.

But that which would render it of the highest importance, in my opinion, is, that the Juvenile period of life, when friendships are formed, and habits established that will stick by one; the youth, or young men from different parts of the United States would be assembled together, and would by degrees discover that there was not cause for those jealousies and prejudices which one part of the Union had imbibed against another part: of course sentiments of more liberality in the general policy of the Country would result from it. What, but the mixing of people from different parts of the United States during the War rubbed off these impressions? A century in the ordinary intercourse, would not have accomplished what the Seven years association in Arms did: but that ceasing, prejudices are beginning to revive again, and never will be eradicated so effectually by any other means as the intimate intercourse of characters in early life, who, in all probability, will be at the head of the councils of this country in a more advanced stage of it.

Source: Sol Cohen, ed., Education in the United States: A Documentary History (New York: Random House, 1974).


A. Emerson Palmer, The New York Public School (New York: Macmillan, 1905).

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New York Free School Society, 1805

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New York Free School Society, 1805