Thomas Jefferson on Public Education

Part One: APRIL 3, 2012

In November 1776, while a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Thomas Jefferson was selected to head a committee charged with the task of revising the laws of Virginia, subject to approval by the General Assembly. Although Americans were now at war with Britain, Jefferson believed it vital that Virginia’s legal code be changed in accordance with republican principles, and he devoted much of the next two years to this task.

Among Jefferson’s drafts for new legislation was the celebrated “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” but there was another piece of legislation that Jefferson viewed as even more important: “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” In Notes on the State of Virginia(written in 1781), Jefferson summarized his educational plan as follows:

This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor [i.e., superintendent], who is annually to choose the boy of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools [high schools, in effect] of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of [Virginia], for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.

The next stage of this filtering process, Jefferson goes on to explain, occurs when half the students supported at public expense in grammar schools are dismissed after six years, perhaps to become teachers themselves. The remaining students then receive scholarships to study for three years at the College of William and Mary. (For various reasons, Jefferson later became disillusioned with his alma mater and substituted the University of Virginia, which he founded in 1819, instead.)

Jefferson’s bill never passed the Virginia Assembly, and it was not until 1796 that the Assembly instituted a more modest scheme of public education. Jefferson never gave up, however. In his later years, after retiring from public life, he continued to advocate his plan, with some minor modifications.

Many historians have praised Jefferson for his efforts on behalf of public education, while portraying him as a forerunner of the common school movement that began to take off during the late 1830s, under the leadership of Horace Mann in Massachusetts. Some historians have also linked Jefferson to other American advocates of state schooling in the late eighteenth-century, such as Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Samuel Knox, Robert Coram, and Samuel Harrison Smith.

These are dubious associations, for reasons I cannot fully explain here. (I will discuss other American advocates of state education in later essays.) For now, suffice it to say that some commentators have distorted Jefferson’s ideas about education by representing them as an embryonic version of later plans for a universal system of education that is free and compulsory.

There is no doubt that Jefferson shared the prevailing view of Enlightenment intellectuals that a “general diffusion of knowledge” is essential to a free society. As he wrote in 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Similarly, in a letter to George Washington (1786), Jefferson said:

It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan.

In an oft-quoted letter to John Adams (1813), Jefferson expressed hope that public schools would become “the keystone in the arch of our government.” Such statements may appear to be nothing more than Enlightenment truisms, but it is important to understand how Jefferson’s views on public schooling differed from the standard Enlightenment call for a uniform system of state education that would produce “republican machines” (to use the disturbing phrase of Benjamin Rush).

Jefferson’s plan, as indicated in the passage quoted above from Notes on the State of Virginia, called for a highly decentralized system in which small wards (“districts of five or six miles square”) would establish and control their own schools. Jefferson feared centralized authority, so he did not want even a state government to “take this business [of elementary education] into its own hands.” In his “Plan for Elementary Schools” (1817), Jefferson warned that if a governor and state officials were to control the district schools, “they would be badly managed, depraved by abuses,” and would soon exhaust the available funds.

The key to local school districts, according to Jefferson, is that they give parents direct and ultimate control over how their children are educated. To suppose that schools will he better managed by “any authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward…is a belief against all experience.” A government can no more manage schools than it can manage “our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores.” Elementary education should be the concern of local communities under the supervision of parents; it should not be controlled by the federal or state governments.

Extreme decentralization was thus the centerpiece of Jefferson’s plan for public schools, and he warned of the potential consequences should this feature be ignored.

What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or the aristocrats of a Venetian Senate.

For Jefferson, the distribution of power among federal, state, county, and local agencies was indispensable to America’s “system of fundamental balances and checks for the government.” When a person is empowered to control his own destiny at the local level, “he feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election, one day in the year, but every day.” Such a person will defend his liberty; “he will let the heart be torn out of his body, sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.”

Jefferson’s intense opposition to centralization was illustrated in an ill-fated plan for public schools sponsored by Charles Mercer in the Virginia Assembly. In 1817, Mercer’s plan passed in Virginia’s lower house, but it was defeated in the senate. The decisive vote against Mercer was cast by Jefferson’s protégé, Joseph Cabell — a man who had labored in behalf of Jefferson’s educational proposals. Why did Cabell, acting in accordance with Jefferson’s desires, oppose the Mercer plan? Part of the reason lay in Mercer’s desire to grant considerable power to a state board of education. This was anathema to Jefferson who, as one historian put it, “expressed both fear and scorn when contemplating a centralized state authority in education.”

Throughout most of his life Jefferson favored providing three years of free education to all (free) children, rich and poor alike. By 1820, however, Jefferson had changed his mind. Only pauper children should receive free schooling; those parents able to pay tuition should be required to do so. Jefferson believed that the fees of parents who could afford to pay would cover much of the cost of educating pauper children. The remaining expenses would be minimal: “To a county, this addition would be of about one-fifth of the taxes we now pay to the State, or about one-fifth of one per cent.”

Jefferson’s early proposal used the word “shall” when discussing the construction of schools in each district. But later, in 1816, Jefferson proposed that local voters should decide the matter themselves. It “should be put to their vote whether they will have a school established.” If they vote the proposal down, “let them remain without one.”

Jefferson’s attitude toward compulsory attendance laws — a cornerstone of modern public education — is worth noting. Some historians have maintained that Jefferson, in his early proposals, implicitly favored compulsory attendance for three years of elementary education. But Jefferson never said this, and it cannot legitimately be inferred from his words. In 1817, Jefferson made his one and only pronouncement on compulsory attendance laws: He opposed them, while noting the delicate and complex issues involved.

A question of some doubt might be raised…as to the rights and duties of society towards its members, infant and adult. Is it a right or a duty in society to take care of their infant Members in opposition to the will of the parent? How far does this right and duty extend? — to guard the life of the infant, his property, his instruction, his morals?

Jefferson answered his own questions thusly: “It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of the father.”

Instead of compulsory attendance laws, Jefferson recommended another incentive: The right to vote should not be granted to people who cannot demonstrate basic literacy skills. “If we do not force instruction, let us at least strengthen the motives to receive it when offered.”

True to his Enlightenment beliefs, Jefferson argued that an ignorant citizenry is bound to succumb to tyranny. In 1814, he praised a new Spanish constitution because it withheld voting rights from “every citizen who could not read or write.” This provision would give Spain “an enlightened people, and an energetic public opinion which will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government.” A few years later, Jefferson called for the disenfranchisement of Americans who cannot “read readily in some tongue, native or acquired.”

Part Two: MAY 1, 2012

In 1778, as I explained in the first part of this series, Thomas Jefferson submitted to the Virginia Assembly “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” Why did Jefferson defend three years of free elementary education, to be financed “at the common expence of all”? In the preamble to his bill, Jefferson wrote:

Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes….

Two things are especially noteworthy about his passage.

First, unlike most other republican advocates of state schooling, who emphasized the need to teach children the virtue of obedience to the American government, Jefferson stressed the need for vigilant citizens who would constantly be on guard against the ambition of rulers. America, like all other countries throughout history, would always be in danger of degenerating into tyranny, and only an educated citizenry would be able to recognize the telltale signs and thereby stop dangerous politicians in their tracks, before tyranny could become firmly established.

Second, Jefferson focused on knowledge of history as essential to the above task. Indeed, he believed that children should be taught to read primarily through the medium of history books. History is the most important field of knowledge for a free people. Although a liberal education in various fields is desirable, a general knowledge of history is indispensable. Jefferson, in a letter to his nephew Peter Carr (August 19, 1785), suggested that Peter devote most of his study time to history, while dividing the remaining time, “which should be shorter,” between philosophy and poetry.

In Jefferson’s day, history was frequently called “the lamp of experience.” History is philosophy teaching by examples. The experience needed for an adequate understanding of freedom – its conditions and causes and the reasons for its decline — cannot possibly be acquired during the brief span of a single life. History provides the requisite knowledge by enabling us to draw upon the accumulated experiences of many generations. As Edward Gibbon wrote in TheDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

A being of the nature of man, endowed with the same faculties, but with a longer measure of existence, would cast down a smile of pity and contempt on the crimes and follies of human ambition…. It is thus that the experience of history exalts and enlarges the horizon of our intellectual view.

If we wish to appreciate how seriously Jefferson took history, we need only read his repeated and vitriolic attacks on David Hume’s six-volumeHistory of Englandfrom the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688, published between 1754 and 1762. Today we think of David Hume as a philosopher, but to many of his contemporaries he was better known as a historian, owing to the great commercial success of his History of England.

Hume published his massive work out of sequence, beginning with what would later become volume five – a history of England during the reigns of first two Stuarts, James I and Charles I, culminating in an account of the English Civil Wars (also known as the Puritan Revolution) and the execution of Charles I in 1649.

This is the principal volume that incurred Jefferson’s wrath. Although he liked the book when he first read it during his student days, Jefferson came to loathe it as he read more widely. Although Hume claimed to have written an impartial history, in an effort to correct the partisan accounts of earlier historians, Jefferson regarded the volume as little more than Tory propaganda.

Hume, in Jefferson’s eyes, was the great apologist for the absolutism of the Stuarts. Hume “spared nothing…to wash them white, and to palliate their misgovernment. For this purpose he suppressed truths, advanced falsehoods, forged authorities, and falsified records.” Hume’s style was so bewitching that “all England became Tories by the magic of his art. His pen revolutionized the public sentiment of that country more completely than the standing armies could ever have done….” In a letter to the publisher William Duane (August 12, 1810), Jefferson recalled how he had read Hume’s History as a student, and how much time, research, and reflection it took “to eradicate the poison it had instilled into my mind.”

Space does not permit an explanation of this complicated historical controversy. Suffice it to say that much more than history was involved. Hume was clear about the political implications of his scathing account of the Puritan Revolution. The doctrine of popular sovereignty, according to which the consent of the governed is the only legitimate foundation of political authority, may appear noble, but it “is belied by all history and experience.” Except in extreme cases, Hume argued, people are better off enduring the established government, however much it may abuse power, rather than taking up arms against it.

Of course, the revolutionary Thomas Jefferson would have none of this.

In A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), a young Jefferson wrote: “History has informed us that bodies of men as well as individuals are susceptible to tyranny.” This important lesson cannot be fully appreciated without a knowledge of history. It is through history that we learn the constant and recurring features of human nature and society. And is it through history that we learn to distrusteveryone who wields power.

Jefferson was remarkably frank on this point, having included himself among those who should not be trusted with power. As he wrote to Edward Carrington (Jan. 16, 1787), European rulers, “under pretence of governing…have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep.” Jefferson feared the same thing might happen in America.

If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions….

A person ignorant of history will not understand the tremendous damage caused by the insatiable lust for power and the natural tendency of power to expand beyond its legitimate boundaries. Nor will this person appreciate how the encroachment of power can occur gradually, over time, in a manner that may appear innocent, if not viewed from a broad historical perspective. Instead, ignorant citizens, taking rulers at their word, will be duped time and again. Rulers will be viewed as great men who are exempt from the vices attending power, and thus will their crimes be excused.

Jefferson would have agreed wholeheartedly with these remarks by the Scot Thomas Gordon, in Cato’s Letters:

The common people generally think that great men have great minds and scorn base actions; which judgment is so false, that the basest and worst of all actions have been done by great men. Perhaps they have not picked private pockets, but they have done worse; they have often disturbed, deceived, and pillaged the world. And he who is capable of the highest mischief, is capable of the meanest. He who plunders a country of a million of money, would in suitable circumstances steal a silver spoon; and a conqueror who steals and pillages a kingdom, would, in a humbler fortune, rob an orchard.

During his second presidential term, Jefferson called for federal aid to establish universities. A strict constructionist, Jefferson maintained that such aid should first be authorized by a constitutional amendment. And he made it clear that federal aid should go only to universities, not to other branches of learning.

Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal; but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.

Jefferson called for public universities partly because he disapproved of sending American youths to Europe for their higher education, where they would be exposed to moral corruption. In England, for example, a student would learn “drinking, horse-racing and boxing.” A student in Europe “acquires a fondness for European luxury and dissipation and a contempt for the simplicity of his own country. [H]e contracts a partiality for aristocracy or monarchy.” Moreover, this student would be easy prey for feminine wiles “destructive of his own health,” and he would learn to disregard his marriage vows. Jefferson felt strongly about this subject.

It appears to me then that an American coming to Europe for education loses in his knowledge, in his morals, in his health, in his habits, and in his happiness. [T]he consequences of foreign education are alarming to me as an American.

Although higher education was important to Jefferson, he insisted that liberty is more important. France and England were preeminent in science, but “the one is a den of robbers, and the other of pirates.” If science “produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine, and destitution of national morality, I would rather wish our country to be ignorant, honest, and estimable….”

More from George H. Smith:

2 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson on Public Education

  1. Pingback: The Moral Right to Resist Authority | Josey's Libertarian Page

  2. Pingback: The Success of America’s Public School System | Josey's Libertarian Page

Comments are closed.