“I consider it is possible to convert men into republican machines. This must be done, if we expect them to perform their parts properly, in the great machine of the government of the state.”
In this excerpt from “Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” Benjamin Rush discusses the type of education necessary to create a successful republic. Written fifteen years after the close of the American Revolution, the essay stresses the exigency of indoctrinating children with the virtues of republicanism. Breaking with his peers, Rush asserts that an education steeped in religion will instill young men with virtue. Moreover, he identifies history, law, and science as key areas of study to expand the knowledge of youth, improve the landscape of the country, and circumvent pretensions of aristocracy and the old order.
Rush identifies youth as the ideal starting point for spreading nationalism. He argues that childhood is the most formative period of an individual’s life and should therefore be carefully molded to serve the needs of the nation. Therefore, an education based on the New Testament, he explains, will help young adults eschew self-interest and promote the interests of the nation.
American intellectuals of the late eighteenth century postulated that the sociopolitical structures implemented in the nation’s first few decades would define its character and continue to shape the nation centuries down the road. In light of this reasoning, pedants underscored the importance of education in inculcating youth with nationalism and republican virtue. Rush and others advocated universal access to education for white males. In doing so, Rush hoped to eliminate ethnic disparities rampant in cities, like Philadelphia, and shape a uniform group of Americans. By molding the male youth into model citizens, the first generation of Americans believed that their political experiment could succeed.
Education reform coincided with other early efforts to build nationalism. Newspapers represented another outlet for spreading opinions and sharing information. By the 1790s and aided by the stagecoach, newspapers printed in New York could travel to South Carolina with much greater ease than ever before. Newspapers informed individuals of the latest shipments of goods, proffered political opinions, gave updates on war in Europe (during the 1790s, revolutionary France engaged in war with several European powers), recounted congressional proceedings, and posted advertisements, among other things. Historians have remarked upon the ability of newspapers to create imagined communities and build nationalism. The act of hundreds of citizens reading the same statements across various cities and states, some historians maintain, helps foster uniformity and unity.
Yet, reformers and politicians alike had concrete opinions about who could participate in the nation-building project. For many, American Indians and slaves did not figure into these plans. Animosity between American Indians and the United States continued into the late 1790s and throughout nineteenth century. Continued encroachments on their lands inspired nativist sentiments from Indian populations. In 1809, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh preached against white culture in his travels throughout parts of Indian Country. Slaves likewise did not profit from the government that promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. While Rush deplored slavery and called for its abolition, his essay on education does not include slaves in the homogenous unit he hoped to shape. Women’s education also took on an ambivalent shade in the early republic, though Rush did promote it in his work. As mothers, women had a great deal of control and influence over children. Consequently, Rush acquiesced that women should receive an education.
Benjamin Rush was born in Byberry, Pennsylvania, on January 4, 1746, the fourth of seven children to Susanna and John Rush. His father died within six years of his birth. The family moved to Philadelphia, where Rush’s mother found work to support her children. When he reached eight years of age, he left his mother to study under the care of his uncle, Dr. Samuel Finley, a pastor. By 1759, Rush had earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of New Jersey.
Rush’s interest in medicine led him to study under John Redman and later at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Afterward, he worked for a time in London at St. Thomas’s Hospital and traveled to Paris, France, to meet the medical and intellectual community there. By 1769, Rush had returned to Pennsylvania and opened a medical practice in Philadelphia. During the same year, Rush also became a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s faculty, leading classes on chemistry.
In January 1776, Rush married Julia Stockton; they would have thirteen children. Later in that year Rush became an active participant in the revolutionary effort, serving as a Pennsylvanian delegate to the Second Continental Congress and signing the Declaration of Independence that summer. In his role as surgeon general for the Continental Army, he criticized the conditions of the hospitals. His opinions quickly escalated into a dispute with the army’s commander in chief, George Washington. By January 1778, Rush resigned from his position and returned to private practice in Pennsylvania.
Shortly after his return to civilian life, Rush began lecturing at the University of the State of Pennsylvania. His experiences teaching, his efforts in founding Dickinson College and Franklin College, and his commentary on medicine, education, and republicanism underscore his passion for higher learning. Unlike many other social commentators of his age, Rush promoted the education of young girls and children of all social classes, which he felt was imperative to the republic’s cohesion and continuation.
Though a well-known doctor in his time, Rush supported the practice of bloodletting. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, bloodletting was commonplace. Physicians thought that by expunging the bad humors from the body through bloodletting, the patient could be cured. Rush relied on this method especially during the yellow fever epidemic that hit Philadelphia in 1793. While some praised his efforts as heroic, other physicians claimed that his methods were dangerous. Nevertheless, Rush continued to practice medicine, including bloodletting, until his death on April 19, 1813.
For much of the eighteenth century, a majority of the inhabitants of North America received little or no education. Few towns provided public schooling and children who did attend such schools usually did so for a short period of time as they were required as laborers in the household economy. Elite families hired private tutors for their children and sent them to universities when they reached their mid to late teens. Unless women came from elite families, they usually only received minimal education in basic arithmetic, reading, and writing. Most of their instruction revolved around household duties. The American Revolution signaled a shift in attitudes about public education. A republic that derived from the will of the people had to provide access to education so that teachers could inculcate children with proper republican morals and instruct them on relevant issues pertaining to the nation. Benjamin Rush’s “Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic” considers the importance of education to nation building and the preservation American ideals. Written in 1798, the essay explores topics such as the responsibilities of government toward its people, the purpose of education in a republic, the benefits of a religious education, and relevant topics of study. Collectively, it demonstrates the necessity of an informed populace for the success and durability of a republic.
Rush identifies public education as a natural right of citizens living in a republic. He writes that “education has acquired a new complexion by the independence of our country.” In other words, the battle for autonomy from Great Britain constituted the first challenge for Americans. The second test came in the form of articulating laws that mirrored republicanism. By adopting republicanism as the foundation of the United States Constitution, Rush argues that the nascent government owed “a new class of duties to every American,” namely education. In giving every American equal access to education, the gaps between the social classes would inevitably grow smaller. While Rush’s essay is a far reach from a utopian ideal, he does promote greater social and gender equality.
Despite Rush’s inclination toward social leveling, his essay argues for cultural homogeneity in place of ethnic disparity. Pennsylvania, home to a variety of peoples from Europe, Africa, and North America, lacked cultural unity. Rush underscores this diversity, explaining that “our citizens are composed of the natives of so many different kingdoms in Europe.” By 1790, a little over a third of Pennsylvania’s inhabitants descended from English heritage; another third traced their ancestry to German roots; Scotch-Irish and Scots made up the next largest category. Other peoples included American Indians, Africans, African Americans, and individuals of various other European ethnicities, like Dutch and Welsh. The French and Haitian revolutions increased the French population in Philadelphia during the 1790s. Because of the diverse cultural backgrounds, Rush and others feared that such ethnic communities would possess divided loyalties. To make sense of the variegated population and ensure allegiance, Rush suggests that “producing one general, and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogenous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” Only by building uniform curriculum throughout the state could Pennsylvania ensure compliance and security among its inhabitants.
Rush takes a pragmatic approach in constructing his argument promoting the education of American children. In addition to fostering a homogenous population, Rush explains that proper instruction is necessary for the advancement of nationalism. Training must occur, however, during childhood so that the individual character is carefully shaped. Girls, Rush argues, should also receive a similar education to that of boys, provided they also are instructed in traditional female responsibilities.
Rush recognizes the utility of public education in fostering nationalism. In order for a republic to function properly, each individual must exhibit a fierce dedication to the nation. Men, regardless of their background, could be made into “republican machines,” if educated properly. Rush asserts that each man has a role to perform in this system to ensure the proper operation of the state. He draws on Enlightenment ideas, such as tabula rasa (blank slate) and the existence of a social contract between the state and its people, to underscore the complementarity of education and republicanism. Because the human mind at birth begins as this blank slate, each person, regardless of gender or social background, has the capacity for mental growth. Using this concept as a foundation, Rush contends that people must be properly informed in order to fulfill their part in the republic, or act as a “republican machine.”
He undergirds his argument about the flexibility and potential of young minds by using an anecdote taken from ancient Greece. Antipater, a Macedonian general serving Philip II and later Alexander the Great, refused to hand over fifty Macedonian children to the Lacedemonians because their minds and loyalties had yet to coalesce around a Macedonian identity. Instead, he “offered him double the number of their adult citizens, whose habits and prejudices could not be shaken by residing in a foreign country.” Rush explains that, like the Macedonian adults, no educated American man would forfeit his loyalty to the United States of America. He marks the “first one and twenty years” of an individual’s life as the most formative period. In addition to instilling nationalism in the youth, public education would give children the chance to mix freely with others of different social standing. This, he suggests, would create a sense of community among all classes and “add greatly to the obligations of mutual benevolence.”
Women’s primary roles as mothers and wives, Rush explains, make their education a necessity for the continuance of the republic. He recognizes the authority of mothers over the upbringing of their children. Moreover, he understands that a mother’s ignorance of the nation’s values and laws could breed inconsistency and disunity in the nation. In the new nation, as in earlier periods, women were the primary caretakers of their children, responsible for ensuring that their children were raised to become proper citizens. Women’s education therefore required “instruct[ion] in the usual branches of female education.” Rush adds that women “should be taught the principles of liberty and government; and the obligations of patriotism should be inculcated upon them.” In their position as wives, women often regulated “the opinions and conduct of men.” Receiving women’s “approbation,” Rush remarks, constitutes the “principal reward of the hero’s danger, and the patriot’s toils.” In other words, he finds that men’s actions are regulated according to the tastes of the women they admire and love. As a result, a government grounded in republicanism requires women’s compliance and favor.
The “mode of education” Rush promotes is one steeped in the New Testament. While he recognizes the difficulties in reconciling this with the Constitution’s First Amendment—which prohibits the establishment of a state religion—he counters that religion cultivates virtue, an ingredient necessary for republicanism. Moreover, curious young minds, he explains, will naturally wander to the “invisible.” By teaching children about religion, preferably Christianity, they could make an informed decision in adulthood about which religion seems best to them. Most importantly, Rush argues, the New Testament undermined the legitimacy of the divine right of kings.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution prevents the government from instituting a national religion. For nearly two centuries, immigrants had settled in British North America (and later the United States), seeking a haven from religious persecution. The Huguenots, Palatines, and Puritans were three such groups who immigrated to America seeking freedom from state-enforced religion. Despite this heritage, Rush fervently promotes public education grounded in the New Testament. Religion, he writes, “should only be used in a state of mixture” together with “liberty and learning.” Together, these three components check the “abuses” of each and in turn promote “happiness and perfection.” Rush’s preference for a religious education may have emerged in response to the events that took place in France in 1793 and the first part of 1794.
The French Revolution—which started as a movement to reform the excesses of the aristocracy, eliminate feudal privilege, and place limitations upon the absolute monarch—quickly advanced into a radical stage. During the Reign of Terror, revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre headed efforts to create a civic religion in place of Catholicism. Proponents began the process of dechristianization, raiding churches and forcing members of the clergy to renounce their faith. Thousands of dissenters emigrated to various corners of Europe or ventured across the Atlantic to the United States and shared news of the scope of violence. Newspapers abounded with survival stories and articles that described the prolific use of the guillotine and the assaults directed toward the church. Because of the extremism of the French Revolution, Rush may have proposed a religious education to prevent similar events from occurring in America.
Rush predicates this argument on the theory that religion spreads virtue. Christianity, he contends, fosters amiable qualities in individuals, such as “humility, self-denial, and brotherly kindness.” Christian morals circumscribe selfish tendencies in the individual. While Rush places importance on individual progress, he does not want to sacrifice the good of the nation to the demands of the individual. He finds the New Testament a particularly appealing work, given its argument that “no man ‘liveth to himself.’” Religion could minimize social distinctions and prejudices. Strict adherence to the golden rule—”to do to others what he would wish, in like circumstances, they should do to him”— would likewise engender the creation of “republican machines.”
An education versed in Christian principles would likewise give the ability to gauge the value of other religions. Here, Rush briefly hints at his own religious toleration. He writes of his “veneration for every religion,” explaining that he would “rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed [Mohammad] inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.” A child’s curiosity and “impatience” for things unknown, he explains, would eventually lead young boys and girls to question the origins of the universe. He reasons that just as students learn about mathematics, they should also learn about religion.
In addition to its ability to encourage virtue in youth, Rush asserts that Christianity undermines the ideology of the divine right of kings. Used most successfully by King Louis XIV of France, the divine right of kings asserts that monarchs derive their power directly from the hand of God. With this claim, kings asserted that their words and laws received the blessing of a supreme being—that they themselves were therefore infallible and could act with impunity. According to Rush, Christian doctrine refutes the social hierarchies necessary for an absolutist state and instead promotes “the original and natural equality of all mankind.”
In his essay, Rush carefully advances five areas of study for children: history, commerce, chemistry, law, and foreign policy. His curriculum focuses heavily on an “American” and republican experience. Thus, rather than informing students on the history of Great Britain, children would learn the history of the “ancient republics,” the American colonies, and the United States. Each subject tackled would in some respect underscore republican ideals, the “progress of liberty and tyranny” in Europe, and provide a “careful selection of facts” to craft a unique American story. For instance, commerce served as the “best security against the influence of hereditary monopolies of land” since it relied on knowledge and ingenuity rather than the acquisition of wealth through inheritance. Chemistry promised advances in “agriculture and manufactures,” thus increasing the efficiency and productivity of American work. Advances in manufacturing were particularly important since American manufacturers could not compete with their British counterparts. By addressing this deficit, American entrepreneurs could rely less on exporting raw materials and produce finished goods domestically. Just as necessary, Rush stresses the need for boys and girls to comprehend American laws. He recommends that students attend courts to “hear the laws of the state explained.” Taken together with a religious foundation for their studies, American children would go on to propagate the tenets of republicanism to future generations.
Rush’s essay illustrates the efforts by leading intellectuals to promote and safeguard the ideals of the young nation. Not surprisingly, Rush—along with others such as Noah Webster—identified education as a key marker of securing republicanism. These education reformers agreed that in order for a citizen to fulfill his obligation to the nation, he had to be familiar with and wholeheartedly believe in the tenets of republicanism. However, unlike some pedants who promoted a secular approach, Rush argued that religious instruction should accompany more traditional topics of learning. In some respects, he was also a pioneer for the education of women, although he couched his arguments in the rhetoric of patriotic motherhood that was common in his day.
Benjamin Rush’s essay adds to the compendium of eighteenth-century scholarly appeals for the spread of education. Like others, his emphasis on public virtue undergirds his argument for universal education. In order for the nation to function properly, it required the acquiescence of all its parts. Many leaders hoped that education could bring unity to the disparate ethnic communities of the United States in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Despite these benevolent intentions, individuals like Rush did not necessarily support social equality for all inhabitants of the United States.
While Rush supported women’s education, he did so because of their influence over their husbands and sons. In another work written in 1787, Thoughts upon Female Education, Rush emphasizes a curriculum that would assist women in their traditional roles. At the same time, women increasingly agitated for female education. British historian Catharine Macaulay wrote in 1791 that girls possessed the same intellectual capacity as boys and prompted her government to institute coeducation. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1794, a mere four years before Rush penned this essay, author Mary Wollstonecraft likewise called for education reform and women’s access to politics. Although he certainly addressed a topic of growing interest, Rush’s argument for women’s education was not meant primarily to benefit women but the men in their lives and the nation in which they lived.
African Americans, enslaved and free, also did not figure prominently in efforts to provide universal education at this time. State laws forbade enslaved blacks from obtaining an education. Freedmen like Prince Hall helped build African American benevolent societies in the North to give black youth an opportunity for an education. Churches likewise propagated education for African American children.
American Indians constituted a third category of individuals initially excluded from the national project of educating youth. Largely marginalized from American society after the Revolution, American Indians fought to maintain political autonomy and control over their lands and ways of life. When the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was founded in the late nineteenth century, its founders sought to apply the principles of civic and religious education that Rush had promoted to indoctrinate and assimilate American Indian children into the dominant American culture.
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