Reform Schools and Charity Schools

views updated

Reform Schools and Charity Schools


Moral Reformation. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans organized a variety of institutions for the moral reformation of society. Upper-class, old-stock New Englanders, in response to population growth, immigration, and other social changes, became convinced that institutions such as schools could perfect the individual and create a righteous and moral society. It was an age of reform that sought to redeem not only institutions of education but also all of society. This manner of thinking made it possible for public school reformers to view education as the key component in the moral and political reformation of America. The expansion of charity schools as well as the development of reform schools to save delinquent youth reflected the belief that institutional structures had redemptive powers.

Charity Schools. Prior to the widespread adoption of free public schools open to all children, many other forms of educational institutions, public and private, competed for the moral refinement of Americas youth. Charity schools had originated during the colonial period, promoted by leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, as a way of preserving the English language and Anglicizing newcomers from alien cultures. Directed by churches, voluntary benevolent societies, or town councils, charity schools had as their main purpose the development of each students moral character through the memorization and recitation of biblical and other didactic readings. In towns such as Schenectady and Newburyport as well as cities such as New York and Boston, charity schools supplemented the many other private or semipublic educational institutions that tried to impart Christian morals and values. Charity schools thus represented the first major attempt in the United States to use schools as a means of socializing children into an emerging industrial society. Moreover, along with the reform school movement charity schools reflected Americans growing tendency to call on educational institutions to solve problems of poverty and crime.


Sunday schools, adopted from the English model of religious education, began during the colonial period and were similar in style to the charity schools that also aimed at educating the children of the working classes. Sunday schools emphasized basic intellectual skills and moral training. They were typically nondenominational and welcomed youths of all religious persuasions. For the most part the schools were established, run, and financed by lay people, organized into local gender- and race-segregated societies. Supporters of religious education worked to bring together the various Sunday school societies in regional and national organizations. Eleazar Lord and Divie Bethune, for example, created the New York Sunday School Union Society in 1816, and in 1824 a national organization was formed: the American Sunday School Union. The movement spread not only through the urban areas of the North but also throughout the more rural South. An average Sunday school met in the morning and afternoon for activities that included prayer, hymn singing, and alphabet lessons as well as reading and memorizing passages from the Bible. In fact some schools rewarded children who committed to memory verses from the Bible with a form of currency, which could then be redeemed for Bibles or other suitable prizes.

Source: Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 17801860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983).

Reform Schools. Juvenile reformatories or reform schools also developed as a way to fight poverty and lawlessness, the twin evils of society, and bring delinquent children back into the fold of a moral society. Generally reform schools sought to create moral character for boys and girls who had gone astray by replacing a weak family structure with a rigid institutional setting and by physically severing their connections to criminal associations and environments. City leaders founded the first reformatories, called houses of refuge, in New York City in 1824, in Boston in 1826, and in Philadelphia in 1828. It was not until 1848, however, that the first state reform school opened at Westborough, Massachusetts. In New York City the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents reported in 1822 that children became wayward because no moral standard of conduct has been placed before their eyes. Their families were to blame: No faithful parent has watched over them and restrained their vicious propensities. Officials designed the variety of reform schools that sprang up during the first half of the nineteenth century to provide a morally superior environment, patterned after that of the family. Accordingly teachers at these institutions were women who acted as mother figures. Within these institutionalized families instructors demanded regimentation, order, and strict discipline. Unfortunately the success of the first reform institutions was mixed at best. Evidence exists to show that reform schools were often more successful at breeding adult criminals than responsible citizen-workers. Nonetheless, Americans clung to the belief that education remained the main path to a better, safer, and moral society.


On 2 November 1822 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend Thomas Cooper on the sectarianism and intolerance that pervaded the ranks of higher education. The atmosphere of our country is unquestionably charged with a threatening cloud of fanaticism, lighter in some parts, denser in others, but too heavy in all. Jefferson hoped that despite the charged climate of the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious evangelism that swept the country from the 1790s through the 1820s, the spread of new knowledge in science, biology, and technology might lessen the hypersectarianism that limited academic freedom: The diffusion of instruction, to which there is now growing attention, will be the remote remedy to this fever of fanaticism. Jefferson proposed a plan that encouraged the various religious sects to establish, each for themselves, a professorship of their own tenets. In the end he believed that by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.

Source: Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Monticello, 2 November 1822, Jefferson MSS, Vol. 223, Library of Congress, reprinted in American Higher Education: A Documentary History, volume 1, edited by Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 195196.


Carl F. Kaestle and Maris A. Vinovskis, Education and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (London: Cambridge University Press, 1980);

Stanley K. Schultz, The Culture Factory: Boston Public Schools, 17891860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973);

Joel Spring, The American School, 16421985 (New York: Longman, 1986).

About this article

Reform Schools and Charity Schools

Updated About content Print Article