The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXIII. Education

§ 39. Free Schools

Popular educational discussion was largely if not wholly directed to the question of free public schools as opposed to the traditional private, church, or quasi-public schools supported by tuition fees or rates. It is difficult for Americans of the present generation to realize that little more than half a century ago free public schools were frequently attacked as having dangerous socialistic tendencies, as being atheistic, or as devices of the evil one. Even political radicals could resolve “that all compulsory school establishments are as oppressive as church establishments and no reasoning, no arguments, can be offered in support of the former which are not equally applicable to the latter.” The conservatives, represented by the most influential National Gazette (1830), argued: “It is our strong inclination and our obvious interest that literary education should be universal; but we should be guilty of imposture if we professed to believe in the possibility of that consummation.… The ‘peasant’ must labour during those hours of the day which his wealthy neighbour can give to the abstract culture of the mind.” The ecclesiastical representative arguing for the repeal of the free school act in New York (1850) claimed that “it will at least give us hope that if the people of the State shall be delivered from this odious act, the people of this city will soon follow in demanding freedom from schools that are a moral nuisance, and have no kind of claim upon the confidence of the public.” The views of the aristocratic class may be represented in a sentence or two from John C. Calhoun (1834):

  • The poor and uneducated are increasing; there is no power in a republican government to repress them; the number and disorderly tempers will make them the efficient enemies and the ruin of property.… Education will do nothing for them; they will not give it to their children; it will do them no good if you do … Slavery is indispensable to a republican government.
  • To counteract and destroy such views was not an easy or a brief task. The controversy was prolonged through years of public discussion and debate. The most important of the arguments for the free school which found permanent form were theEssays on Popular Education (1824) by James T. Carter of Massachusetts; the address of Thaddeus Stevens on Free schools vs. Charity or Pauper Schools before the legislature of Pennsylvania in 1835; the Tenth Annual Report of Horace Mann in 1846; and finally the address of James A. Garfield, then congressman, later President, on the establishment of a national bureau of education in 1867. Surprising as it now seems, the controversy terminated only after the Civil War. The free school system was not finally established in New York until 1867, in New Jersey until 1869; in actual practice it was not in operation in a number of the Middle Western states until after 1870, and in some of the Southern states a decade or so later.