On the Education of Youth in America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“In our American republics, where [government] is in the hands of the people, knowlege should be universally diffused by means of public schools.”

Summary Overview

Noah Webster’s essay explores the relationship between a republican government and education. He argues that increased efforts toward achieving social equality must occur in order to create a national identity and to ensure the success of the American republic. For him, a national system of universal education solves the problem by giving relatively poor citizens the ability to improve their socioeconomic status. Moreover, instruction in reason and public virtue versus self-interest would further the aims of the nation. Written to appeal to politicians and social reformers, the essay engages with Enlightenment ideals set forth by men such as Montesquieu. Webster draws a comparison between absolutist states and republics to underscore the necessity of education.

In addition to pleas for universal education for white men, Webster sets forth a curriculum designed to inculcate children with virtue and reason in preparation for their civic lives. More important, his designs seek to create an American identity in lieu of the ethnic diversity instigated by immigration.

Defining Moment

The 1780s, wrote John Quincy Adams, constituted a “Critical Period” in the formation of the United States. The American Revolution had dramatically altered both the political and the economic landscapes. The Articles of Confederation, a constitution adopted by the Second Continental Congress in 1777 and ratified in 1781, replaced Great Britain’s constitutional monarchy with a legislative branch. The new government, which gave each state equal decision-making weight regardless of population, lacked the ability to control trade, levy taxes, and form a military. Moreover, in order to implement changes to the constitution, the legislative body had to vote unanimously in favor of alterations. These measures, originally intended to protect the Articles of Confederation, rendered it immobile. Often, representatives considered the needs of the state over the well-being of the nation.

State legislatures functioned in a similar capacity. Historians note that while the constitution gave men from less affluent backgrounds the opportunity to participate in politics with those from more affluent backgrounds, the increased suffrage population lacked the republican morals necessary to promote the good of the nation. Men serving on legislative bodies gave higher priority to the interests of their constituents than to those of the nation. Farmers attempted to keep taxes on farms low to keep their debt at a minimum. Likewise, state legislatures weakened the national economy by printing their own money. Disparate loyalties undermined attempts to forge a national identity.

Shays’s Rebellion of 1786 underscored the frailty of the new democracy. In reaction to their inability to pay back debts, farmers in western Massachusetts formed a militia and marched on state institutions. The absence of a state or national army highlighted one of many problems with the Articles of Confederation. In May 1787, representatives from twelve states journeyed to Philadelphia to discuss amending the Articles. They hoped to curb uncontrolled democracy, protect the nation from mobocracy, and prevent anarchy. The group, which consisted of approximately fifty-five men, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, devised a new configuration for the government. It consisted of an executive branch, a bicameral legislative body, and a judicial branch. Along with the Bill of Rights, the Constitution of the United States set out the parameters of the government and the rights of the civilian population.

While the Constitution addressed the problems of the government, many intellectuals believed that a social transformation was also required in order for the republic to survive. A strong central government helped curb some of the individualistic tendencies of state legislators. More important, however, the population had to coalesce around a national, not state, identity. Webster’s plea for universal education sought to address the need for national identity by shaping the minds of the American youth.

Author Biography

Born on October 16, 1758, to Mercy and Noah Webster Sr. in West Hartford, Connecticut, Noah Webster Jr. grew up on a ninety-acre farm. His parents had five children, including three boys and two girls. Though his father lacked a formal education, he possessed intellectual curiosity and promoted reading to his children. Likewise, his mother took an active role in instructing her children in subjects such as mathematics, reading, and music. The Webster children also received instruction in religious principles. At six, Webster began attending the local school for children. As in other families who depended on a household and farm economy, the children made up an integral part of the workforce and Webster divided his time between his chores on the farm and his schoolwork. In his early teens, he was tutored by Nathan Perkins, a young pastor.

At age sixteen, Webster attended Yale. There, he learned Greek, Latin, ethics, geography, and metaphysics. As a student in the midst of the American Revolution, he began to consider the importance of building a national culture. He became part of the Yale militia and crossed paths with George Washington. After graduating from Yale, he began a career as a teacher, taking a post in Hartford, Connecticut, while simultaneously studying law. He moved frequently, however, spending time in New York and Pennsylvania. Webster enjoyed greater success as a writer, publisher, and teacher than as a lawyer. He published the New York Packet, a magazine that included both intellectual articles and satirical pieces. Also, he began to write books on education, spelling, and grammar and to argue for educational reform.

He met Washington again in the early 1780s and shared with him his political essay that sought to inspire nationalism and garner support for a strong federal government. Corresponding with Washington into the 1790s, Webster praised the president’s politics, prudence in foreign relations, and efforts to create a national identity. In the early years of the nineteenth century Webster published his first dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language. The work helped standardize the English language by putting forth uniform ways to spell words.

In October 1789, Webster married Rebecca Greenleaf. Together, the couple had eight children. Patriot, fervent nationalist, abolitionist, intellectual, and author, Webster died on May 28, 1843, in New Haven, Connecticut.

Document Analysis

Webster’s “On the Education of Youth in America” illustrates the mounting concern of American intellectuals over the issue of universal education. His work arrived on one of the last waves of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. A transatlantic intellectual movement that placed reason and scientific inquiry above religious explanation, the Enlightenment challenged traditional notions of social inferiority, divine right of kings, and the power of the aristocracy. Thinkers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau undermined the hegemony of monarchies, asserting that the government derived its authority from the people. As such, the people retained the natural authority to change the form of government if those in power abused their position. These ideals promoted individual (male) participation in the government vis-à-vis parliamentary activity and/or suffrage. Radical thinkers promoted the virtues of republicanism, which did away with monarchies entirely.

The American Revolution represented the first successful early-modern attempt to purge monarchical authority from its borders. Written in 1788, Webster’s essay recognized the significance of the American Revolution as a marker of change. To him, the United States stood as a model for subsequent revolutions throughout the world. He identified obvious differences between European absolutist styles of ruling and American republicanism. While the American style of government proffered more social flexibility, Webster asserted that several areas required attention, including male suffrage and, particularly, education. After identifying weaknesses in American education, he gave several suggestions to achieve the most pure form of republicanism. Collectively, these themes demonstrate late eighteenth-century efforts to build a uniform national identity.

A Look at Absolutism and Republicanism

One fundamental difference between absolutism and republicanism concerns the source of authority. Absolutist states place all authority in the hands of one ruler, who claims that his or her power derives from God. Conversely, republican governments derive power from the will of the people. Various intellectual thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries debated the merits of both forms of government. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher writing in the mid-seventeenth century, maintained that the general populace lacked morality and thus required the supervision of a strict ruler. His train of thought focused primarily on the weaknesses of the human character. He argued that by nature, men place their own interests over the interest of the community. As a result of this human’s weakness, communities suffered. A state required an absolutist ruler to ensure that individual interests were kept in order. Other enlightened thinkers deviated from Hobbes’s arguments and suggested that humans had the capacity for rational thought. Female author Catherine Macaulay, writing in 1791, asserted that education helped nourish rational thinking and circumscribed individualism. Whereas in absolutist states, education remained a privilege for the wealthy, in republics, it was open to all social classes.

Observing the arguments presented by Montesquieu, Webster found that an absolutist state required an inept populace in order to maintain hegemony. Moreover, absolutist rulers keep their subjects yoked by fear. In his political tract L’esprit des loix (1748; The Spirit of the Laws, 1750), Montesquieu defined “laws of education” as “relative to the principles of the government.” As such, absolutist governments keep lower classes in a perpetual state of ignorance. The most notable absolutist state coalesced during Louis XIV’s reign in France from 1643 to 1715. His sobriquet, the Sun King, implied that all matters revolved around him, signaling his absolute control over all matters of state. Less than a century after Louis XIV’s death, however, the absolutist throne he built crumbled dramatically as the French Revolution gained momentum. The Achilles’s heel in an absolutist state, Webster writes, is “information,” which deals the state a “fatal” blow. Education, unlike fear, infuses the individual with the tools necessary to formulate questions about the natural and invisible worlds and opens opportunities for introspection. Once individuals understand their natural roles in society, one based on a symbiotic relationship with the state, absolutism begins to crumble.

Whereas education has the ability to destroy absolutist governments, it became a necessity for a government based on republicanism. Enlightenment writers postulated that the natural form of government derives from the support of the populace. In other words, the desires of the people craft the parameters of the government and the laws governing the nation. The population can check the powers of the rulers at any given time. The caveat to republicanism, Webster explains, is that it requires a populace educated in the art of reason. The diffusion of knowledge through “schools and newspapers” could help cultivate a population’s reason. Newspapers in the early American republic proliferated in urban spaces. American communities shared access to newspapers, often circulating issues between neighbors, friends, and family. Newspaper issues abounded with stories on politics, news about Europe, arriving and departing vessels, runaway slave advertisements, and advertisements about various sundry items for sale. So important were newspapers to the burgeoning republic that the US Congress even considered implementing a law to eliminate the postage fees for newspaper delivery. While printed materials help sculpt adults into better republicans, schools instruct children about their civic obligations from an early age. Aptly, both newspapers and public schooling, Webster explains, function as the “sine qua non of . . . the American republics.”

Problems with American Republicanism and a Call for Education

Although Webster extolled the virtues of republican government, he nevertheless identified several components of the American model that required attention, particularly the elitist leanings of a portion of the population. A mere fraction of the white male population could vote by the late 1780s. Moreover, only a subset of the youth population had access to education, prompting Webster to call for immediate reform. Diffusing knowledge, he explains, benefits the nation in two ways. First, a system of universal education inculcates people of all classes in republican virtue, thus rendering them qualified to draft and judge laws. Second, widespread education engenders nationalism.

Despite enlightened rhetoric that promoted the equality of all people, only a fraction of the white male population enjoyed enfranchisement. Less than 20 percent of white men could vote in 1790. In order to vote, an individual had to be white and had to own a predetermined amount of property. These qualifications limited the voting population to a select elite group. Poor segments of the population had no say in the newly formed government, even though they comprised a majority of the free male population.

Political participation excluded enslaved and freed blacks as well as American Indians. Women also lacked a voice in government. Indeed, upon marriage, a woman’s individual identity disappeared under the cover of her husband’s name and identity. Historians have tracked, however, a trend of single or widowed female property holders who gifted portions of their land to male family members in order to make that individual eligible to vote. Nevertheless, in this particular excerpt, Webster confines his argument to the position of marginalized white males. Republican governments, he warns, require the “distribution of lands . . . [to] give every citizen [the] power of acquiring what his industry merits.” Concentrating wealth in the hands of an elite few, he implies, could undermine American republicanism and lead to mimicry of the European aristocracy.

In addition to appalling enfranchisement standards, Webster decries the limited access of education. He laments that legislators keep a monopoly on education, making “no provision . . . for instructing the poorer rank of people.” States fund schools, but fail to make sure that all white males have equal opportunities to attend, he says. As a result of this deficiency, he charges the “laws of education” and the authors of such laws with promoting “monarchical” elements. Ironically, the proliferation of printed materials should have compounded school attendance. Newspapers and printed works like pamphlets dramatically improved the literacy rate among the low and middle classes on both sides of the Atlantic. The reasonable costs of printed materials likewise aided widespread literacy. Nonetheless, Webster notes, too many young minds lacked the necessary training to be useful to the nation.

Continued elitist leanings also circumvent efforts at building universal education, Webster reports. Elitist sentiment favors the preservation of a deferential society along with disparate social classes. The property qualifications for enfranchisement serve as a reflection of elitist influence upon the laws guiding the republic. Webster warns that a republic based on deference, however, would lack cohesion and undermine a national identity. People of all social classes, he maintains, deserve equal access to proper instruction. Thus, the “more . . . knowlege is diffused among the substantial yeomanry, the more perfect will be the laws.” He warns against pretensions toward aristocracy, explaining that the yeomanry embody “too much knowledge and spirit to resign their share in government.”

In order to prepare the yeomanry for participation in government, Webster suggests the formation of public schools. People who “make the laws” he wisely comments, “should be well informed.” Therefore, men of all socioeconomic backgrounds should attend school for “at least four months in a year” in order to become versed in republicanism. His criticism of the legislative bodies overtly questions the aptitude of some representatives, particularly when he writes “there are some acts of the American legislatures which astonish men of information.” Condemning some of the representatives’ self-interest, he argues that an individual inculcated with virtue would never support laws that worked against the good of the collective. In order for “mankind . . . to know to what a degree of perfection society and government may be carried,” the collective and legislative bodies had to push forward educational reform.

Finding a Solution for American Education

Should the nation adopt universal education, Webster makes sure to proffer suggestions on an appropriate curriculum for children’s instruction. Before doing so, however, he diagnoses two major defects in public schools. First, he finds fault with the types of texts students turn to for instruction. He notes that studies covering antiquity hold little appeal to pupils of the late eighteenth century. Young students, he argues, have trouble relating to historic figures such Demosthenes. Rather, he proposes the use of texts that introduce “every child . . . [to] his own country.” Rather than regurgitate the words of Cicero, boys should “rehearse the history of . . . [their] own country; . . . [they] should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen who have wrought a revolution in her favor.” A curriculum infused with American history would instill children with knowledge of their recent heritage. More important, it would incite pride and loyalty to one’s nation. Webster identifies books covering the laws and structure of the government as being of equal importance to the history of the United States. By learning the parameters of the US government, young boys would see their own important role in the republic as voters and potential legislators. Such a unique relationship, he notes, would aid in “fix[ing] them upon the interests of their own country, and . . . forming attachments to it.”

In addition to learning history and law, Webster proposes a curriculum that covers subjects such as philosophy, science, religion, and commerce. Like other proponents of education reform who came after him, he notes the importance of cultivating individuals’ capacities for reason and virtue. Philosophical treaties on politics would help children understand the merits behind competing forms of government. Science would engender curiosity toward the natural world. A working knowledge of religious texts would likewise indoctrinate children with moral guidelines that they could then transfer to their public lives. Apart from religion, knowledge in commerce and economics would introduce children from less affluent families to a more diverse array of economic opportunities. Webster’s ultimate goal in proposing an academic schedule, however, is to incite national cohesion. By bringing together boys of all socioeconomic backgrounds and instructing them on the same subjects and definitions of morality, Webster hopes to create an American community.

Although the American Revolution signaled a break from European models of government, the republic that emerged still clung tightly to the social inequalities so strongly coveted by European aristocrats. Webster marks the absence of universal (white male) suffrage and education as failures of the American republican experiment, and he seeks to eliminate the social disparities that threatened to undermine national order. By juxtaposing absolutist models with the American republic, Webster skillfully compares and contrasts the two forms. Education, he maintains, could absolve Americans of the vestiges of elitism. However, educators have to formulate a learning system that promotes American ideals in place of ancient texts. By inculcating children with American history, stories of revolutionary heroes, and a uniform set of morals, Webster hopes to create a new generation of American republicans.

Essential Themes

Webster’s push for education gained momentum in the nineteenth century. One major proponent of education during the 1830s and 1840s was Horace Mann. Elected to the Massachusetts state legislature, he initiated reform that created a state board of education. The same motivations that drove Webster to education reform in 1788 continued to inspire intellectuals such as Mann. In his role as secretary of the board beginning in 1837, Mann traveled throughout the nation promoting the virtues of statewide public education. Like Webster and Jefferson, he believed that for a republic to function properly, its citizens had to be well-educated. A uniform system of education that promoted republican virtues, Mann explained, could check the nation’s crime rate. Mann also considered the impact of education on engendering morality in children. Earlier reformers, such as Benjamin Rush, warned of the dangers of individualism and self-interest to the public good. Finding that self-interest continued unheeded, Mann hoped that education could push forward a uniform vision of morality.

Another component of Mann’s education reform involved public boards of education and an updated curriculum. By giving the public the power to decide who served on the board of education, he hoped to circumvent corruption and give adults a vested interest in maintaining a worthy system of education. Similar to Webster, Mann desired a schedule that included instruction in Christian doctrine. Moreover, at a minimum, children were to learn grammar, writing, reading, and math, in addition to history and geography.

Mann was also a supporter of girls’ education. In New England in the 1830s, girls increasingly went to grade school with boys. Mann underscored the importance of educating girls to fulfill their roles as mothers. Like Rush in 1798, Mann focused on women’s capacity inside the home and their influence over male children. Because of their proximity and authority over boys, women had to embody the same virtues and morals as male citizens.

Like Mann, Catherine Beecher promoted the republican motherhood ideal, which charged women with ensuring that their children became virtuous citizens. In 1823, she opened the Hartford Female Seminary and later the Western Female Institute. Through her efforts, Beecher changed the landscape of the classrooms by underscoring the importance of having women serve as teachers. While not a suffragist, Beecher opened employment opportunities for women and, like Webster and Mann, helped shape American education.

  • Butler, Jon. Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.
  • Cremin, Lawrence A. American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876. New York: Harper, 1980. Print.
  • Kendall, Joshua C. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon. The American Revolution: A History. New York: Random, 2002. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Beeman, Richard R. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. New York: Random, 2009. Print.
  • Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788. New York: Simon, 2010. Print.
  • Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. Print.
  • Webster, Noah. The Original Blue Back Speller. San Antonio: Vision, 2002. Print.

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