Free Public School Movement

After tentative moves toward public education during the late eighteenth century, American states started acting on the principle of government responsibility for educating all their citizens during the 1820’s, and the notion that education is a responsibility of democratic governments began to spread.

Summary of Event

The free public school movement of the late 1820’s and the 1830’s had its roots in the late eighteenth century, when a number of U.S. states drafted constitutions State constitutions;and education[Education] containing clauses urging public aid to education. Nevertheless, the idea that education was a government responsibility, rather than a responsibility of families, churches, and philanthropy, took hold only gradually. Teaching was generally done by low-paid and untrained young men who regarded teaching as a temporary occupation. It was not until the early nineteenth century that states began enacting laws leading to the establishment of public, or common, schools. Even then, however, government schools were generally created primarily for pauper children. Moreover, although most states eventually established permanent school funds to supplement local support of schools, few states resorted to direct taxation as a means of financing education. Free public school movement, U.S.
Education;public school movement
[kw]Free Public School Movement (1820’s-1830’s)
[kw]Public School Movement, Free (1820’s-1830’s)
[kw]School Movement, Free Public (1820’s-1830’s)
[kw]Movement, Free Public School (1820’s-1830’s)
Free public school movement, U.S.
Education;public school movement
[g]United States;1820’s-1830’s: Free Public School Movement[1050]
[c]Education;1820’s-1830’s: Free Public School Movement[1050]
[c]Government and politics;1820’s-1830’s: Free Public School Movement[1050]
Barnard, Henry
Carter, James G.
Clinton, DeWitt
Everett, Edward
Mann, Horace
Stevens, Thaddeus
[p]Stevens, Thaddeus;and free-school movement[Free school movement]
Wiley, Calvin

The free school movement should be understood within the context of Jacksonian democracy and the reform movement of which it was a part. Free public schools were one of many organized efforts for self-improvement which also included such other notable developments as the lyceum movement for adult education, lending library societies and associations, literary societies, and debating societies. During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, religious and philanthropic institutions were more active than state governments in promoting free public schooling. The Sunday school movement Sunday school movement contributed significantly to the growth of interest in public education. Even more important were the efforts of philanthropists working through benevolent societies. The Free School Society of the City of New York New York City;schools , later reorganized as the Public School Society of New York, was typical of such efforts, as was the Philadelphia Society for the Establishment and Support of Charity Schools. Nevertheless, like existing state-supported institutions, these schools were mainly for the benefit of children of the poor.

Not until the late 1820’s and the 1830’s were demands heard for the establishment of a system of free public schooling open to all. In some larger cities, workingmen’s parties called upon their state legislatures to establish public schools. Thus the workingmen of Boston Boston;schools declared in 1830 that “the establishment of a liberal system of education, attainable by all, should be among the first efforts of every lawgiver who desires the continuance of our national independence.” At the same time, a number of educational reformers, influenced by the social reform movement Social reform movement;and education[Education] which swept over the United States during the 1830’s and 1840’s, began to promote the cause of free public schooling.

James G. Carter Carter, James G. of Massachusetts Massachusetts;education wrote newspaper articles and pamphlets suggesting improvements in the educational system of his state. As a member of the Massachusetts House and chairman of the Committee on Education, Carter drafted the bill creating the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. Horace Mann Mann, Horace , who was named secretary of the board, left a promising legal and political career to dedicate himself to what he called “the supremest welfare of mankind upon the earth.” During his twelve years on the board, Mann sustained a concerted campaign on behalf of public education. Largely as a result of efforts by Carter and Mann, Massachusetts led the way in establishing a system of public schooling.

Mann’s celebrated “annual reports” were perhaps the single most important factor in bringing the concept of universal free education to the national political agenda. In Mann’s 1848 annual report, he argued that “nothing but Universal Education can counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor.” Mann saw education as “the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery. . . . It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility toward the rich; it prevents being poor.” Although Mann’s Mann, Horace hopes for the impact of education may seem hyperbolic, his leadership on the board of education and his annual reports resulted in significant and tangible results, including a lengthened school year, increased teacher salaries, the establishment of the first state-supported normal school to train teachers, and an organized state association for public school teachers.

In Connecticut Connecticut;education and Rhode Island Rhode Island;education , Henry Barnard Barnard, Henry promoted the public school cause. In the South and West, where obstacles to free public schools were greater than in New England, other educational reformers worked to establish systems of public education and to improve facilities and teacher training. Calvin Wiley Wiley, Calvin made North Carolina North Carolina;education the center of educational reform in the South. Caleb Mills Mills, Caleb called for the establishment of a public school system in a series of six annual “addresses” to the Indiana legislature. In neighboring Ohio, Ohio;education Calvin Stowe Stowe, Calvin , a founder of the Western Literary Institute and College of Professional Teachers, contributed to the development of free public schools through his accounts of the Prussian educational system.

The efforts of educational reformers in promoting free schooling were aided by a number of politicians, including Governors DeWitt Clinton Clinton, DeWitt of New York, New York State;education Edward Everett Everett, Edward and Marcus Morton Morton, Marcus of Massachusetts, and George Wolf Wolf, George of Pennsylvania. The New York Whig leader William H. Seward Seward, William H.
[p]Seward, William H.;and public schools[Public schools] justified state support of common schools on much the same grounds as other internal improvements. In Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania;education Thaddeus Stevens Stevens, Thaddeus
[p]Stevens, Thaddeus;and free-school movement[Free school movement] invoked humanitarian and democratic notions in support of a state law supporting public education. A young Whig legislator, Stevens provided the leadership to pass the 1834 state school law in Pennsylvania that allowed for universal free schools. Opposing forces had argued strongly that free education should be provided only for the very poor. Robert Rantoul Rantoul, Robert, Jr. , Jr., the first Democratic member of the Massachusetts Board of Education, was another spokesman for free schooling. Publicists and editors, such as George Bancroft Bancroft, George , William Cullen Bryant Bryant, William Cullen
[p]Bryant, William Cullen;and public education[Public education] , and William Leggett Leggett, William , also lent their voices to the campaign for “universal education.”

By 1850, the movement for free public schooling had largely achieved its basic objectives. The principle of public support for common schools was generally accepted throughout the union. For example, by midcentury, every state had established some type of permanent school fund. Moreover, every state except Arkansas had experimented with taxation as a means of school support. Taxation was not universally accepted and school tax laws were repealed in some states, but a precedent had been established that would serve as a basis for a unified system of compulsory taxation. Accompanying the principle of public support was the principle of public control of education. By 1850, according to historian Lawrence Cremin, “the people . . . largely controlled the schools which they had instituted with public funds.” Thus the middle of the nineteenth century marked the end of the initial phase of the campaign for free public schooling, during which the essential groundwork was laid, and the beginning of a second phase of expansion and development was made.


Despite the tangible advances that occurred during these decades, American free public schools remained in a stage of infancy: There were virtually no compulsory attendance laws, school terms remained relatively short and susceptible to manipulation by the local farming seasons and other factors, the quality and extent of the school curriculum varied widely, teaching methods remained based on rote memorization, and discipline often depended heavily on corporal punishment. Free public education had become the norm only in Massachusetts and a few areas of the North. An 1827 Massachusetts Massachusetts;education law stipulated that every town of five hundred families or more had to create a public high school. That law led to the creation of more than one hundred Massachusetts public high schools by 1860; however, only two hundred public high schools existed in all of the rest of the country at that time.

Through the rest of the nineteenth century and indeed into the twentieth century, the issue of free public schools continued to have opponents as well as supporters. Although the supporters might articulate that employers needed literate workers, and social theorists strongly supported the idea that a society founded upon the notion of universal suffrage Suffrage;and education[Education] needed universal public education in order to ensure well-informed voters, there remained critics—including many taxpayers who did not want to educate other people’s children—who considered education strictly a private concern. Although the Sunday school movement had helped to publicize the idea of free education, many religious groups wanted to maintain their own schools without public funds and also without public advice and consent in their own specialized curricula.

Further Reading

  • Butts, R. Freeman, and Lawrence A. Cremin. A History of Education in American Culture. New York: Henry Holt, 1953. Comprehensive survey of American education that includes a dialectical discussion concerning how the free school movement developed from various crosscurrents in educational thought.
  • Downs, Robert B. Horace Mann: Champion of Public Schools. Boston: Twayne, 1974. Biography that emphasizes Mann’s influence on the concept of public education in the United States.
  • Gibbon, Peter H. “A Hero of Education.” Education Week 21, no. 38 (May 29, 2002): 33. Brief profile of Horace Mann that covers his views on education and his efforts to improve public schools.
  • Good, Harry G., and James D. Teller. A History of American Education. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1973. Chapter 5, “From Private Schools to State Systems,” includes a lengthy discussion of the Free School Society of New York City, which later became the Public School Society.
  • Gutek, Gerald L. Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education: A Biographical Introduction. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2004. Useful general historical overview of education in the United States that includes biographies of Horace Mann and other pioneers in public education.
  • McClellan, B. Edward, and William J. Reese, eds. The Social History of American Education. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Collection of seventeen essays, arranged chronologically. Michael Katz’s article, “The Origins of Public Education: A Reassessment,” provides an intellectual context for the free school movement.
  • Spring, Joel. The American School, 1642-1990. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1990. Spring’s informed, though politically slanted, argument shows how the common school movement developed from the premise that education is a panacea for a society with failing families and an oppressive factory culture.

Development of Working-Class Libraries

Founding of McGill University

Social Reform Movement

Hartford Female Seminary Is Founded

Arnold Reforms Rugby School

Webster Publishes the First American Dictionary of English

U.S. Department of Education Is Created

American Library Association Is Founded

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George Bancroft; Henry Barnard; DeWitt Clinton; Horace Mann; Thaddeus Stevens. Free public school movement, U.S.
Education;public school movement