Swett, John (1830-1913)

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John Swett (1830-1913)



A New England Childhood . Born in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, in 1830, John Swett was descended from New England farming families whose ancestors arrived in America as early as 1642. Like many children of his and the preceding generation, he combined intermittent lessons at district school with labor on the family farm. Able to attend Pittsfield Academy in the mid 1840s, at the age of seventeen he became a teacher, achieving immediate success and the nickname Old Swett because of his youth. Swett never attended college, but when he taught at Randolph, Massachusetts, he heard lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker; during a short sojourn at Russells Normal Institute on the Merri-mac River he met William Russell, an associate of Horace Mann and the first editor of the American Journal of Education from 1826 to 1829. As a child and youth Swett was not influenced by evangelical religion; although a Congregationalist, he admired tracts by William Ellery Channing and later would consider himself a Unitarian. Like many young Northeastern men, he was excited in 1849 by news from California. Convincing himself that migrating westward would benefit his health, he embarked on a voyage around the horn of South America in 1852, arriving in San Francisco early in February the following year. Setting off immediately up the Sacramento River to Marysville, Swett prospected in the northern gold mines with little profit, returning to San Francisco after only five months.

Rincon School . After searching for a position as a schoolteacher Swett became principal of Rincon Grammar School, located in a small rented house on a sandbank. Throughout the 1850s he introduced New England traditions and the latest educational innovations until the Rincon School was admired as the finest in the city. Considering physical education essential to the curriculum, he offered daily calisthenics and gymnastics and made ball games and hikes to Protero Hill and the ocean regular activities. An advocate of coeducation of the sexes, he also supported education for African American children. A Unitarian and friend of the popular minister Thomas Starr King, Swett was a firm believer in secular public schools. Although the state board of education passed a resolution in 1851 that each school day begin with prayer and Bible reading, Swett considered the practice unwise policy in a city such as San Francisco, which had large Catholic and Jewish populations. Opposing support of parochial schools with public funds, he came under criticism in 1854 when Catholic schools for boys in the city merged with public schools. Swett attended state teachers conventions and contributed to the liberal Congregational paper, the Pacific, and by 1860 he was recognized as a leading educator in the city as his students excelled in public examinations and a handsome new building was constructed for the Rincon School.

State Superintendent . In 1862 Swett was persuaded to run for the office of state superintendent of public instruction. Although roundly denounced for his Unitarian belief, he was elected along with the rest of the Republican ticket. Well aware of the need for funds for public schools, Swett soon drafted and lobbied for amendments to the school law, which were passed by the Republican legislature in 1862 and 1863. The amended school law provided for the levying and collecting of taxes based on a census of children in each school district, state control over the examination and certification of teachers, improved record keeping based on the example of the state of Illinois, and series of uniform textbooks. Aided by a graduate of the New York State Normal School, Swett also inaugurated a journal, the California Teacher. When Swett was reelected along with other Republicans in 1863, he proposed a new bill to secure a state school tax, to which the senate attached the amendment that school trustees could admit African American, Indian, and Chinese children to public schools. Although that provision was amended in 1870 to omit Chinese and specify separate schools for African American and Indian children, the new tax greatly increased public school revenue. Acting as secretary of both the assembly and senate education committees, Swett drafted the Revised School Law of 1866, summarizing existing statutes and providing for a state board of education and the introduction of school libraries. By 1867 a state-supervised and state-supported system of free schools existed throughout California, open for three months in smaller districts, five months in larger ones, and ten months in urban areas. Throughout his public career Swett sought to improve the status and professional education of teachers. He fought for higher salaries and for state support of teachers institutes and the normal school founded in San Francisco in the 1850s, which would be moved to San Jose in 1871. Although renominated for his position on the Republican ticket in 1867, Swett was swept from office by a Democratic landslide. Returning to San Francisco as principal of the Denman Grammar School, he also taught evening classes for adults. In 1869 he was appointed deputy superintendent of the citys schools until a Democratic victory once again caused his resignation and return to Denman. In 1876 he became principal of the Girls High School and Normal Class of San Francisco, retiring briefly in 1889 to his Martinez farm until he was elected city superintendent of public schools in San Francisco in 1891. At his death in 1913, John Swett was eulogized as the father of free public education in California, one of the many individuals instrumental in the widespread transmission of eastern ideals and practices to the new states of the American West.


John Swett, Public Education in California (New York: American Books, 1911).