U.S. Department of Education Is Created Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The creation of the U.S. Department of Education was the first federal involvement in public education but it did little more than collect and disseminate information.

Summary of Event

On March 2, 1867, President Andrew Johnson signed an act that created a federal department of education to collect and diffuse statistics and facts on the progress and condition of education in the several states and territories that would help establish and maintain efficient school systems and “promote the cause of education throughout the country.” The act provided for the appointment of a federal commissioner of education charged with reporting annually to Congress the results of investigations and recommendations to carry out the statute’s purposes. Education, U.S. Department of [kw]U.S. Department of Education Is Created (Mar. 2, 1867) [kw]Department of Education Is Created, U.S. (Mar. 2, 1867) [kw]Education Is Created, U.S. Department of (Mar. 2, 1867) [kw]Created, U.S. Department of Education Is (Mar. 2, 1867) Education, U.S. Department of Barnard, Henry [g]United States;Mar. 2, 1867: U.S. Department of Education Is Created[4040] [c]Education;Mar. 2, 1867: U.S. Department of Education Is Created[4040] Garfield, James A. [p]Garfield, James A.;and education[Education] Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and education[Education] White, E. E.

The story behind the creation of the U.S. Department of Education is, in many ways, the story of Henry Barnard, a native of Connecticut, who, when only twenty-six years old, dedicated himself to the cause of promoting and improving public school education in America. Reasonably well off, Barnard attended both public and private schools in his home state. He graduated from Yale University in 1830, was admitted to the Connecticut bar, and made a grand tour of Europe in 1835. Barnard’s extensive travels and his own educational experience convinced him that New England’s public schools, although among America’s best, were seriously deficient. He concluded that in no respect could the highly decentralized, ungraded, and miserably taught public institutions in the United States compare favorably with the state-controlled, generously supported, and professionally staffed educational systems he had observed in Europe.

Henry Barnard.

(Library of Congress)

After Barnard was elected to the Connecticut Connecticut;education state legislature in 1837, he sponsored two educational reform bills. Both failed, but in 1838 his proposal to create a state Board of Commissioners of Common Schools passed unanimously. The board elected Barnard himself secretary and defined his duties: to collect by inspection and correspondence all possible information on conditions of the common schools; to propose plans relative to the organization and administration of the schools for consideration by the board and the state legislature; to meet with parents, teachers, and administrators in each county; to edit a common school journal; and to promote among the public, in any way possible, interest and information regarding the subject of education.

While seeking comparative data for his report, Barnard solicited information from several agencies of the federal government regarding education in other states. To his amazement, he discovered that no federal office gathered educational statistics of any kind. This discovery prompted him to visit Washington, D.C., where he prevailed upon the Van Buren administration to include a few educational items, particularly regarding literacy, in future census questionnaires. Barnard, his friend Horace Mann of Massachusetts, and others interested in common school education used the information so obtained to dramatize the dismal state of American education. They hoped ultimately to persuade influential persons, in and out of government, that gathering data on a national scale could contribute substantially to the improvement of public education at the local level.

The task was not an easy one. Those who favored formal recognition by the national government of common school education and some degree of national responsibility for its promotion disagreed as to the form that recognition should take. Should the federal government establish, support, and administer a comprehensive educational system, as many European nations did, or should it confine itself strictly to collecting and diffusing statistics concerning state and local systems? Even more difficult to overcome than such differences among friends were the objections raised by opponents, who interpreted any plan for federal participation in the educational sphere as an attempt to invade states’ rights. Somewhere between these extremes lay the vast majority of Americans. They were either skeptical, apathetic, or unaware that the country had an educational problem.

Barnard appears to have first proposed the establishment of a special federal agency to collect and disseminate educational information during a speaking tour he made in 1842. In 1845 and again in 1847 he tried without success to interest the trustees of the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution which was then being organized, in his project. Later, at the National Convention of the Friends of Common Schools meeting in Philadelphia in 1849, Barnard helped draft a resolution urging congressional action. Over the next fifteen years he continued to promote his bureau in lectures, at conventions, and in the pages of his famous American Journal of Education.

Illness kept Barnard away from the convention that finally secured the attention of Congress. In February, 1866, at a Washington meeting of the National Association of State and City School Superintendents, Ohio’s school commissioner, E. E. White, read a paper advocating the establishment of a national bureau for educational affairs. Joined by the National Teachers’ Association, the superintendents voted to present White’s proposal to Congress. There it found a sponsor in General James A. Garfield, a Republican representative from White, E. E. White’s home state of Ohio.

On February 14, 1866, Garfield introduced a bill to establish a federal department of education. The House approved an amended measure on June 19 after a brief speech in which Garfield Garfield, James A. [p]Garfield, James A.;and education[Education] cited current illiteracy figures among the American population and reminded his colleagues that the country’s political system depended upon an intelligent and informed electorate. Senate approval came early the next year, and on March 2, 1867, President Andrew Johnson signed the bill into law, naming Henry Barnard the first commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education.


To the embittered Andrew Johnson Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and education[Education] , who was already hard pressed by a hostile Congress and soon to be the subject of impeachment proceedings, creation of the Department of Education—which later became the U.S. Office of Education in the Health, Education and Welfare Department—probably seemed relatively insignificant. For Commissioner Barnard, however, it represented the end of a thirty-year-long battle to achieve national recognition for what he considered the country’s most important task: the establishment of “schools good enough for the best and cheap enough for the poorest.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Annual Report of the United States Commissioner of Education for 1902. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1903. This volume contains two articles dealing with Barnard and his service as commissioner of education. The first, by W. T. Harris, who served as commissioner between 1889 and 1906, is “The Establishment of the Office of the Commissioner of Education of the United States and Henry Barnard’s Relation to It.” The second article, by A. D. Mayo, is “Henry Barnard as First U.S. Commissioner of Education.” Both are basic to a detailed study of the circumstances contributing to creation of the agency and the personalities involved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blair, Anna Lou. Henry Barnard: School Administrator. Minneapolis: Educational Publishers, 1938. Balanced biography of Barnard’s career. Blair attempts to place Barnard’s life in context with the American public school movement of the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gutek, Gerald L. Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education: A Biographical Introduction. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2004. This historical overview of education throughout the world includes a biography of Horace Mann that explores his philosophy and impact upon education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kursh, Harry. The United States Office of Education: A Century of Service. 1965. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977. History of the Department of Education and its successors that contains a chapter devoted to Barnard and the creation of the agency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Gordon Canfield. The Struggle for Federal Aid, First Phase: A History of the Attempts to Obtain Federal Aid for the Common Schools, 1870-1890. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1949. Gordon Canfield Lee’s slim volume is worth consulting because it places the creation of the Office of Commissioner of Education in perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lykes, Richard Wayne. Higher Education and the United States Office of Education, 1867-1953. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Postsecondary Education, United States Office of Education, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975. Official history of the agency through the mid-twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pulliam, John D., and James J. Van Patten. History of Education in America. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill, 2003. Textbook covering the entire history of American education that has enjoyed enduring success because of the clarity with which it is written.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Darrell H. The Bureau of Education: Its History, Activities, and Organization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1923. Only a few pages deal with the establishment of the Department of Education, but considerable attention is paid to its evolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Theodore C. The Life and Letters of James Abram Garfield. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1925. The second volume contains a brief but good discussion of Garfield’s efforts to push the department of education bill through Congress and afterward to protect it from its opponents, who opposed it as unconstitutional and unnecessary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steiner, Bernard C. Life of Henry Barnard: The First United States Commissioner of Education, 1867-1870. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919. Scholarly biography of Barnard that is very readable, but somewhat uncritical of its subject. Gives brief treatment to Barnard’s career as commissioner.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warren, Donald R. To Enforce Education: A History of the Founding Years of the United States Office of Education. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1974. Study of the issues surrounding the founding of the Department of Education.

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Categories: History