Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Who We Were, Where We've Been

article number 153
article date 08-09-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Public Schools in the Early 1800’s. Where Will the Money Come From?
by Edward Channing

From the book, History of the United States, Volume V, The Period of Transition, 1815 – 1848.

The first third of the nineteenth century is usually regarded as the most barren in the educational history of English America; yet that was the precise time when the reading habit was the most widespread among our people, when the writing of verse and prose was most common, and when our greatest writers were doing their best work or securing their mental stimulus.

It is true that there were few public secondary schools outside of the largest towns; but their places were taken for a portion of the population by the academies. These were day schools or boarding schools or mixed day and boarding schools that were supported in part by public endowments. They were largely supplemented by private gifts and fees. Oftentimes, too, pupils worked for their board and sometimes for their board and tuition.

Besides the academies, there were private schools supported entirely by payments of the pupils. In the Southern States, academies and private boarding schools were not at all infrequent and many of the richer families employed private tutors to teach their sons and the sons of their friends. Oftentimes, everywhere in the country, a cultivated maiden aunt exercised a distinct influence over the children of a family. Moreover, the colleges of those days were hardly more than secondary schools, boys habitually entering them at from thirteen to fifteen years of age.

If the object of education is to produce scholars, the educational system of that time was singularly successful. But its influence was not widespread. The mass of the people had very slight educational opportunities and most of them, indeed, had no educational opportunities beyond the ungraded schools. These were small institutions, having one teacher and from a dozen to thirty pupils, and they were open only from three to five months in the year. To them came children and young men and women from five to seventeen years of age. They brought with them whatever text-books their homes afforded and proceeded to study whatever they could under these circumstances.


Given a born teacher, one can hardly conceive of a more fruitful field for the display of pedagogical talents. Undoubtedly in many a town and district there was such a teacher and the young people who came under his or her influence must have been mentally stimulated and educated in the truest sense of the word, — far beyond what they can gain in the excellent graded schools and with the admirable text-books of our own time.

In the closing years of the eighteenth century some colleges had been founded and schools established. Important legislative measures had been enacted that were to bear fruit eventually; but the unrest of those years gave an excuse to the handlers of public money to divert whatever funds they could get hold of to other uses.

In 1789, the Massachusetts State legislature seriously impaired the old colonial school system by providing that the towns, which had formerly been obliged to establish secondary schools whenever the number of families within the town limits reached the one hundred mark, should in the future be obliged to provide those facilities only when the number of families had increased to two hundred.

In New York, Pennsylvania, and other States many laws were passed between 1790 and 1820 dealing with general education; but very little public money was provided for education in any of these States.


In the Southern States, or in some of them, “Literary Funds” were established. These generally were based upon lotteries or on some peculiar financial source. For example, in Delaware, in 1796, the legislature provided that the money that came into the State treasury in the next ten years from marriage and tavern licenses should be devoted to the establishment of local schools where children should be taught English and arithmetic free of cost, but none of this money should be used for academies or colleges. This generosity to education continued for only a year when the legislature provided that the money arising from these sources should be devoted first of all to paying the salaries of the judges and then what was left over should be given to the cause of free education.

In some of the States, especially in the newer ones, money arising from the public lands was devoted to the education of the people, either by the voluntary action of the State, as in the case of Connecticut, or by reason of the conditions of the grant as in the States organized on the public domain.

In Virginia the money derived from the sale of the Church lands and from some other sources was to be paid into the “Literary Fund.” This was to be used for the education of the poor and for such other purposes as the legislatures might direct.

In Kentucky a similar fund was established from the profits of the Bank of the Commonwealth. Elaborate provisions were made in the laws in some of these States for education, but many of them did not amount to very much.

In 1796, the Virginia Assembly provided that all free children, male and female, should receive tuition free for three years and after that as much longer “at their private expense” as “their parents, guardians, or friends, shall think proper.” The electors in each county were to choose three of their best men to be termed “aldermen” to divide the county into sections, provide school houses, and pay the teachers; but not a single county had carried the plan into effect by 1801.


Of the States west of the Appalachians, Alabama is in some ways the most interesting. Her land grant was well managed and provided an appreciable revenue for education. The income was to be used for the support of the University and academies, and township schools were to be established, so that each school district should contain between thirty and forty pupils. It is a most interesting paper educational project; but the speedy conversion of Alabama into a cotton-producing State and the consequent dispersal of the white population made impossible the carrying out of any such plan. The academies, however, grew and flourished and the University, for some years, was remarkably successful, ranking number thirty-nine in the list of collegiate institutions in 1850, out of a total of one hundred and twenty-one.

Of the States organized on the territory northwest of the Ohio River, Ohio and Indiana made the most progress toward a free school system of any of the newer States in the first half of the century. Professor Calvin E. Stowe of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, who married Harriet Beecher, seems to have given the direct stimulus to the establishment of common schools in Ohio. His attention had been attracted to the German system of education.

In 1831, Victor Cousin had been sent by the French Minister of Public Instruction to report upon the educational machinery of Germany. His report was printed at Paris in 1833 and in English at New York in 1835. It aroused great interest in America as well as in France. Cousin declared that in 1831 there was not a single human being in Prussia who did not receive an education “sufficient for the moral and intellectual wants of the laborious classes.” Moreover, secondary education was well attended to there, normal schools for teaching the teachers were abundant, and over all institutions, was the university, — the whole establishment from bottom to top, or from top to bottom, being under the control of the central governing authority.

In 1836 Professor Stowe delivered an address on the “Prussian System of Public Education and its Applicability to the United States.” He then sailed for Europe to buy books for Lane Seminary and to investigate the school systems there for the State. On his return he delivered a report to the Legislature that was most favorable to the German system. It was adopted as the basis of the educational fabric of Ohio.

The legislature at once established a fund for the purpose of free education and decreed that profits to be derived from the canal system and bonuses that might be received from the State Bank should be paid into it. It was under these circumstances that the free common school system of Ohio was established in 1837. Indiana managed her public lands with a thrift that was not usual. By laws passed in 1824 and 1831, a complete system of education was provided, including a university or two, primary schools, academies, and free common schools.

Funds came in slowly, however, and succeeding legislatures were lax in passing laws for which there was no urgent demand on the part of the voter. It happened, therefore, that there was really no system of free schools above those of the district grade before 1850 and, owing to the strength of the religious sects in the State, the public university did not get the support that it deserved.


In fact these paper educational systems, based on federal land grants and on adventitious financial sources as tavern licenses, do not seem to have had much life in the early days. It was not until the people began to pay for them as tax payers — direct or indirect — that they began to take an effective interest in them.

The best example of the deadening effect of education without cost to the voters is seen in the case of Connecticut, where the funds derived from the sale of lands in the Western Reserve obviated the necessity of public grants by the State and local units. As far as this money went, the school system was well provided for, but as the population grew and systems increased in cost, Connecticut lagged behind her two great neighbors.

The schools, such as they were, were “free” in the sense only that no white person was excluded from them by reason of poverty or position in the social scale. Ordinarily, the local school unit was authorized to levy a moderate tax upon the inhabitants of the school area for educational purposes. This was usually inadequate for the payment of the teacher’s wages, small though they were.

The balance was made up by the teacher’s “boarding round” — staying in each family so many days, according to the number of children that came from that house to the school. Fuel was provided by the families according to the number of pupils in each household. Whatever money had to be raised by the district to pay the teacher’s wages and to repair the school house was divided among the families, also, according to the children of school age. This was called the rate bill, and in many States the assessors were authorized to excuse from the payment of the school rate those persons who were unable to pay it. Their children could go to school, but they were referred to officially as “pauper pupils” or “charity pupils.”

Rate tax calculations in a 1825 New York school system. Student’s families had to pay 2/3 cent per school day.

A good example of the working of the charity school system is to be found in Pennsylvania. The constitution of that State of 1790 directed the legislative body to provide education for the poor gratis, as soon as convenient. Naturally, nothing was done for some years. In 1812, however, provision was made for the free education of poor children, but it was done in such a way as to put a stigma upon the child, as the recipient’s name was entered upon a special list as a poor person. The working people looked askance at the system: they wanted their children to be educated, but were not able to pay for it, or thought they were not, and felt that the tax-paying part of the community ought to provide for the education of the children of the “workies” in common with their own.

In answer, the Pennsylvania legislature established a permissive system of common schools at public expense so far as the different portions of the State wished to have them. Not very much was accomplished under this law, partly because of the racial distinctions that prevailed in the different parts of the State.

In 1801, the legislature of New York authorized the raising of one hundred thousand dollars by four successive lotteries for the promotion of literature. A part of this money was to be given to institutions of a higher grade, but a part was to be paid over to those who were actually educating the children in the common schools of the State and there, as in Philadelphia, the work was being done by private societies. And there, as in Philadelphia, the working people thought that their children should be educated by the public without any expense to the parents.

The tax payers and the well-to-do generally were against any scheme of the kind such as Horace Mann and his fellow laborers wished to see established. They paid for the education of their own children and failed to see why they should also pay for the education of the children of their neighbors. As the century advanced, an industrial class came into being. As the number of immigrants increased an entirely new outlook was presented. It was then easy to argue that with the extension of the franchise and the establishment of a laboring class, education would be a species of insurance against attacks on property, pauperism, and crimes of violence. Jefferson, with his keen insight, asserted that the establishment of a free public educational system at the cost of the tax payers would be a direct benefit to the rich man. It would people his neighborhood with “honest, useful, and enlightened citizens, understanding their own rights, and firm in their perpetuation.” Moreover, within three generations, the rich man’s descendants would themselves be poor and would benefit by the free public school system that had been established by their grandfathers’ money.

< Back to Top of Page