10 Chapter 10: American Revolutionary Era

This chapter introduces students to educational ideas that were prevalent (and not so prevalent) during late eighteenth-century America. Once the War of Independence ended with Great Britain, a struggle ensued over its proper interpretation. More radical individuals, like Robert Coram who was a veteran of the Revolution and teacher in Delaware, interpreted the Revolution much more democratically than did most of the key Founders. His treatise on education is perhaps the only historical evidence from the time period that reveals such radical ideas. Many key Founders believed public education to be a prerequisite in a republic, and among those who did support government-funded schooling advocated very conservative curricula in order to help build support and unity for the new nation. Thomas Jefferson, while not as radical as Coram, was the most radical of the key Founders. On three separate occasions, he proposed a system of public schooling in the state of Virginia, only to see each proposal rejected by his fellow legislators. Jefferson’s proposals for a state system of education are well known, and they served as examples for common school advocates during the early- to mid-nineteenth century. Readers will find an array of education proposals among the key and lesser-known Founders below from which to review. While there are similarities among all the proposals, each offers a unique look into the particular Founder’s expectations for schooling in the new republic.


Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Understand and distinguish the similarities and differences in the educational plans and ideas promoted following the American Revolution.
  • Articulate the why interest in public (as opposed to a continuation of private) education came about in the northern and middle states.
  • Describe the general outline of Thomas Jefferson’s General Diffusion of Knowledge.
  • Describe how Jefferson’s educational plans related to his broader understanding of republican government.
  • Articulate why many educational proposals were predicated on inculcating Christian morality and others excluded any mention of religious education.
  • Explain why Jefferson’s education proposals for Virginia, which came up for a vote on three separate occasions, failed.
  • Explain how the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, and the Renaissance contributed to revolutionary ideas in America.
  • Articulate the attempts to develop a new and unique American identity among the education proposals.
  • Explain the paradoxes between American liberty, education, and slavery.


Part 2, Chapter 10 Preface to Readings

“The moral principle of revolutions,” according to Thomas Paine, “is to instruct, not to destroy” (1945, p. 587). Paine was distinguishing revolutions from wars. The latter, typical of colonization and conquest, are immoral endeavors whereas revolutions tend to emerge from a heightened sense of oppression or unjust circumstances motivating emancipation from given conditions. Notwithstanding various paradoxes in such philosophical and linguistic generalizations, war’s immoral motive is material gain, power, and rule, while revolution’s motive is liberty. Even the conservative Englishman Edmund Burke, who abhorred the French Revolution for its conspirators’ rejection of French traditions, supported the America Revolution as a justified attempt to regain traditional republican rights (1987, Burke).

Notwithstanding the fact that only about one-third of American colonists supported independence from Britain before the Revolution, “the moral principle of revolution” remained a matter of interpretation and debate in post-revolutionary America. Defining America’s new identity was inevitably a contested development that would eventually include educating Americans, both formally and informally. No one knew with any certainly how the new republican experiment would play out, which contributed to the differences between, say, Federalists and Anti-Federalists. American identity continues to be contested today.

Throughout colonial America, colonists were generally proud to be subjects of the British Monarchy as Britain was considered by them to be one of the freest nations. Britain’s history represented the traditional and long-standing republican canon of divided and representative government. Representing the Monarch, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, British subjects and colonists considered their mother country as representing a comparatively advanced commonwealth with a long history of protecting liberty, adhering to the rule of law, and rotation in public office in the House of Commons. Differences of course existed, such as those between Tories and Whigs, but only in degree, but colonists in America were fond of their mother country, as this 1770 front-piece to Watts’s Complete Spelling Book illustrates above. Therefore, despite increased hostilities during the 1770s, it was shocking to King George III when he learned that the colonists declared independence (See the Declaration of Independence). Including exaggerated language, the Declaration listed a set of grievances against the King, which were followed by a point-by-point rebuttal as illustrated in An answer to the Declaration of the American Congress (Login to Sabin Americana required).

Beginning Anew

The act of founding brought to the forefront a number of underlying conflicts that were hidden by the temporary and fragmented unity sustained by the Revolutionary War. We can identify a set of three objectives or republican perspectives that propelled the revolutionary zeal by elucidating these groups’ post-revolutionary plans for education and schooling, all of which were intended to serve as part of the founding process. While the groups discussed below clearly expressed similarities in their thinking and while the focus on three groups may limit the full scope of categorization, for the sake of this of this preface, I focus on three main groups. Based on their educational ideas and theories of schooling, the three groups are Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and the lesser known, Democratic-Republican Societies. All three groups used the political arena (and their respective school proposals) to sculpt the new republic into their ideal political oeuvre.


Perhaps nothing best represents the Federalist view of the new nation as The Federalist Papers, eighty-five essays supporting the ratification of the Constitution, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in 1787-88 under the pseudonym Publius, one of four Roman aristocrats who led the overthrow of the Roman monarch in 509 BC. Having ousted King Tarquin, not unlike Washington’s success in defeating King George III, Publius Valerius became a Roman consul, the highest elected office of the Republic (Richard, 1995, 41).

Federalists perceived the revolution less radically than others among their contemporaries did. For instance, given that the Federalists re-established much that had been torn asunder –a reaffirmation of ordered liberty and the restoration of a stratified society that relied on elite governance and plebian deference as exemplified by the ratification of the federal Constitution –their actions and words illustrate post-revolutionary aspirations, not for classical republicanism, but in nation-building that prioritized classical economics (Richard, 1995, 161). Alexander Hamilton, one of the primary architects of the country’s economic system, represented the common pejorative view of democracy when he asserted during the New York ratifying convention that, “The ancient democracies…never possessed one feature of good government.” Rather, “their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity” (Richard, 1995, 116). Hamilton, Washington, and Adams, among others, steered the new ship of state and their navigational compass was highlighted by the new Constitution, which consolidated power in a new federal government. As one may expect, these three were focused on building a new nation and a new national identity.

Anti-Federalists (subsequently identified as Democratic-Republicans), on the other hand, illustrated through their writings and behaviors a more caustic or acerbic view of federal power preferring instead state and local forms of republicanism. Edmund Morgan argues, for example, that the Anti-Federalists criticized the centralization of power at the national level, viewing it as a restoration of the “virtual representation” that Britain was criticized for during the pre-revolutionary period (Morgan, 1988, 280). For citizens of the states, the federal government and its aristocratic enthusiasts seemed as distant and remote as a colonial monarchy. “In a sense,” Morgan concludes, “representation had always been a fiction designed to secure popular consent to a government aristocracy.” Faced with the fact that most people could not vote after ratification of the Constitution, it is difficult to argue against Morgan’s point, and it is likewise understandable why he would declare, “The aristocracy that Hamilton was creating was on a national level, an aristocracy beholden to the national government,” as opposed to its inverse (Morgan, 1988, 286). This aristocratic conception was illustrated, not only in Federalists’ views on establishing a national constitutional structure, but also in their views of public or mass schooling. Either the Federalists opposed tax-supported schooling, viewing it as unnecessary in a society where elites rule or they supported schooling for nationalistic purposes. The Federalists clearly sought freedom from the mother country, but they did not seek to expand political freedoms for the bulk of former subjects. The Federalists’ agenda illustrated a directed focus on economic freedom, not political freedom. Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush’s education proposals offer examples of how schooling could preserve order, morality, and a nationalistic character very different from a classical view of republicanism. Sparta, not Athens, served as their model.

Noah Webster: Developing A Distinctively Linguistic Morality

Noah Webster was one of the great advocates for mass schooling, and the purposes for which he supported schooling included teaching children not just “the usual branches of learning,” but also “submission to superiors and to laws [and] moral or social duties.” Smoothing out the “rough manners” of frontier folk was very important to Webster. “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities,” which is why he concluded that, “the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.” Furthermore, Webster placed great responsibility among “women in forming the dispositions of youth” in order to “control…the manners of a nation” and that which “is useful” to an orderly republic. The power of education to mold children is best exemplified by Webster’s opposition to “foreign education,” which he believed would “corrupt” the “manners” of Americans, increase their attachments to other countries, and inadvertently expose students to the corrupting influences of “the luxurious manners and amusements of England and France.” On the final page of his Education of Youth, Webster tells Americans that they “have an empire to raise and support by [their] exertions and…national character” (Webster, 1965, 67, 69-77). Webster’s treatise on education and his spellers were intended to develop a literate and nationalistic character. The purposes of education were not to develop politically active democrats, of course, but rather, were to develop useful, virtuous, and law-abiding citizens with strong attachments to Federalist America. Inner-restraints needed to be developed that were powerful enough to subordinate the interests of the individual and to merge them with the interests of the nation (or to conceive of the two as indistinguishable) in order to generate unity. Carl Kaestle concludes that, “this nationalizing function…persisted into the antebellum period” (Kaestle, 1983, 99), as illustrated in the next chapter.

Benjamin Rush: “Republican Machines”

Benjamin Rush also developed a plan for common or public schooling for the purposes of inculcating “patriotism,” but Rush believed that virtue must be based on a religious foundation, specifically Christianity. “A Christian,” Rush asserts, “cannot fail of being a republican.” It is interesting that Rush conflates republican liberty with the practice of compelling Christian beliefs in schools. In fact, Rush declares the Christian beliefs of “humility, self-denial…brotherly kindness,” as the individual’s commitment to the public good, and the Golden Rule. While recognizing the paradox of imposing Christian beliefs on children, Rush justifies his position by equating this practice with the fact that schools also impose “systems of geography [and] philosophy,” and “other sciences” on children (Rush, 1965, 3-11). Rush’s staunch republicanism could not stand on its own merits. His view required that it be premised on his Christian beliefs, which served as the underlying foundation of his political beliefs. Unlike many of the other key Founders’ views on religion, Rush believed that Christianity and Christian principles would save the new country’s brand of aristocratic republicanism. Education was not to be an education in republicanism; rather; Rush expected schools to teach Christian morals as these were necessary for order and security in the new republic. It was not ancient and democratic Athens that Rush was attempting to emulate. Rather, it was the austere Sparta that he admired most in his Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic.

On the very first page of his treatise Rush explains that “The principle of patriotism stands in need of the reinforcement of prejudice, and…the policy of the Lacedamonians is well worthy of our imitation” (Rush, 1965, 9). This is a call for communitarian principles and a basic argument supporting order, unity, and peace over republicanism’s equally valid attentiveness in protecting individual rights. Rush’s emphasis on Christian conformity is often overlooked in discussions about his “republican machines.” I suspect this is because Rush cloaks his religiosity in republican garb, weaving them together as if they were interchangeable, all the while putting forth a proposal for mass religious education. In a footnote to his treatise, Rush asks the following question: “And when a man who is of a doubtful character offers his vote, would it not be more consistent with sound policy and wise government to oblige him to read a few verses in the Bible to prove his qualifications than simply to compel him to kiss the outside of it” (Rush, 1965, 13). Rush’s nationalism is further noticeable in the following quote: “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it” (Rush, 1965, 14). Rush continues, “[Youth] must be taught to amass wealth, but it must be only to increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state.” In addition, “religious, moral, and political instruction” must be reinforced by “physical discipline.” Unlike what one would expect from a republican form of government, Rush declared that “our masters” be given “absolute” and “arbitrary…authority” in “govern[ing]” their classrooms in order to “prepare [children]” to submit to “laws” (Rush, 1965, 14-16). In additional Spartan fashion, Rush is the only Founder that advocated a public school curriculum that includes “regular instruction…upon the ART OF WAR” (Rush, 1965, 19), however liberal his curricular suggestions were generally.


As the name suggests, the Anti-Federalists were opposed to a strong central government. The Anti-Federalists saw themselves as the true heirs of the civic republican canon, which held that the success of a republican government depended on small geographical areas, spaces small enough for individuals to know one another and to deliberate collectively on matters of public concern. They criticized the new federal government and the Constitution that outlined its powers, as potentially monarchical and too dangerous. In fact, Anti-Federalists feared concentrated power in any form, political, economic, religious, etc.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson serves as the best representative of this group. While he admired the ancient Greeks and Romans as much as any of the key Founders, in thinking about how republicanism could be established in his state of Virginia, Jefferson looked not to Athens or Sparta, but to “Tacitus’s Germania, the key source for the Whig historians because of its description of the Saxon model of representative government” (Ellis, 1998, 37). In addition, an aristocrat whose genteel lifestyle was bolstered by his violent oppression of slaves, Jefferson put forth proposals to educate all white citizens in the state of Virginia. Jefferson proposed a system of tiered schooling, the foundation of which included three years of tax-supported schooling for all white children with limited options for a few poor children to advance at public expense to higher levels of education in grammar schools and the College of William and Mary.

Unlike Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush, Jefferson had no interest including religion in the curriculum at the elementary and grammar school levels, and he accepted religious studies at the University of Virginia, not for proselytizing students, but for the purposes of debating and deliberating on various religious beliefs in an academic setting. Beyond basic literacy, Jefferson proposed offering republican history in order to teach students about the balance of defending one’s liberties and serving the public interest. His plans were viewed as too radical by his aristocratic peers, and they correspondingly rejected all three of his state education proposals. The following diagram (Figure 1) illustrates the general framework for Jefferson’s education proposals.

Figure 5 Jefferson’s Plan for Public Education in Virginia

The Democratic-Republicans concurred on many of these issues, only differing in degree. They generally offered educational proposals that focused on instilling a basic understanding of balancing liberties with the public interest. Notwithstanding his support for slavery and very limited educational opportunities for women, Jefferson’s education proposals were radical for the time. No other key Founder advocated giving high-achieving scholars from poor families a free education. Jefferson’s educational proposals and his hopes for enabling local forms of democracy were predicated on his whiggish understanding of English history and the mythical ancient constitution believed to have existed prior to the Norman Conquest. Like the Federalists, Jefferson’s plan for schooling included instilling public virtue and preventing the new republic from steering off course, but unlike the Federalists, he equally supported the teaching of individual rights and republican histories that revered heroes who were jealous of their rights and protected the public good by defeating tyrants. One of the primary purpose of Jefferson’s educational plans was to enhance opportunities for white male youth whose genius was otherwise undiscovered or unnoticed. Intelligence was not limited to the aristocracy, and Jefferson believed that by providing opportunities for the intelligent among the poor would also serve as advantageous for the republic. The plan would provide mutual benefits for the individual and for the nation. This is an example of how Jefferson viewed the Revolution, not as representing a stamp of approval on the status quo, but as representing the possibilities for change, setting him apart from Federalists. It is also noteworthy to remember that Jefferson supported constitutional renewal and generational sovereignty for the same reasons.

Democratic-Republican Societies

The more radical democratic interpretation existed among a third group of political activists who formed several clubs broadly described as the Democratic-Republican Societies during the 1790s, whose members viewed the revolution as a confirmation of classical republican (more democratic) governance (Dotts, 2012). All three groups saw in the revolution what they wished to make of it, illustrating how one event may be viewed or interpreted differently. Not only did their perspectives on the Revolution vary, their educational ideas also paralleled their relative political ambitions.

This third and less familiar group functioned to Jefferson’s ideological left although they supported his battle against the Federalists during the 1790s and for the duration of his 1800 presidential campaign. They consisted of a group of radicals known as the Democratic-Republican Societies, political clubs that included a number of erudite leaders and a substantial rank-and-file membership of artisans, cordwainers, teachers, ship builders, innkeepers, and working class individuals. These clubs, which emerged throughout the eastern seaboard states in response to Washington and Adams’s ‘Tory-like’ administrations, interpreted the Revolution as a democratization of republican thought, more radical than Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican faction. They were highly influenced by the radical English Dissenters, and they expended much of their time and energy on being active in politics, corresponding with each other through a network of newspapers sympathetic to their cause. They generally advocated universal schooling, not simply to secure allegiance and order, but for the purposes of developing democratic citizen virtue and venues for deliberative learning and opportunities for dissent. All three groups were well versed in the Commonwealth tradition, but after the Revolution and fearful of the fact that some groups misinterpreted its purposes, the Federalist recoiled from the revolutionary rhetoric and attempted to restore the republic to its pre-revolutionary socially stratified status.

This attempt at restoration alarmed Jeffersonians and the Democratic-Republican Societies who viewed Federalist policies as Toryism redux. The Federalists viewed the societies with impunity, referring to them as Jacobins, “because their actions did not represent a deferential, orderly, and institutionally managed way of expressing popular opinion.” Moreover, “Elites understood popular legislative assemblies in the states as a means of tempering popular opinion and of providing a comfortable distance between the governors and the governed,” according to Dotts (2012). As far as the Federalists were concerned, “citizens were not expected to take an active role in politics, which is why formal education, where it…exist[ed]…did not prepare common citizens for these roles.” Furthermore, “To be chastised by the lower class was an insult to custom, and Federalists…continued to believe that elites governed, not necessarily by choice, but because they possessed the traditional prerequisites to rule” (Dotts, 2012). Based on the works of the radical Dissenters across the Atlantic, the Democratic-Republican Societies viewed education as a means to preparing active citizens, for civic roles previously unrealized. “Dissent was considered healthy in ensuring that a representative government remains true to the principles of democratic republicanism,” they believed (Dotts, 2012). The societies’ interpretation of the Revolution aligned more closely with Arendt’s revolutionary spirit.

With regard to the actual educational proposals supported by the Democratic-Republican Societies, it is not surprising that they supported universal, government-funded schooling. They viewed the individual’s relationship with the federal government as a positive one in an era when many individuals supported a negative view of liberty. In other words, rather than viewing liberty as the right to be left alone and free from government interference, the Societies considered governments able to provide positive benefits to individuals so that they could realize a more fulfilling citizenship. They understood how previous governments’ intrigues perpetuated inequality, so it was not a stretch to consider government potentially capable of producing positive institutions that could benefit all members of society, including education. The American Revolution taught them that governments can be deceptive, manipulative, and dangerous, but that it was equally true that government could be contested and that they were malleable. The Democratic Society of Canaan, New York, for example, “emphasized the ability to alter and amend the polis aided by ‘a free investigation of the constitution…and of the conduct of public servants.’” Likewise, Tunis Wortman (a member of the Democratic Republican Societies) declared, “If government is truly instituted for the happiness of society, then ‘the inevitable result of the freedom of enquiry,’ will be ‘political reformation’” (Dotts, 2012).

Robert Coram: The Making of a Citizen-Democrat

Robert Coram was a veteran of the American Revolution and served as a schoolmaster teaching night classes in New Castle, Delaware. He was a member and director of that city’s Library Company, he was publisher of the anti-Federalist newspaper, the Delaware Gazette, he was elected a delegate to the Delaware Constitutional Convention of 1791, and he was a leader in the Patriotic Society of the County of Newcastle throughout the second half of 1794 and the beginning of 1795. As a newspaper editor, member of the Wilmington Library Company, and the local democratic society, Coram established venues to articulate his dissent toward Federalist policies. The chasm between Washington’s policies and Coram’s ideology rest upon the fact that while both men “had risked their lives in the American Revolution,” their “experience[s]…profoundly transformed them…in very different ways,” according to Cotlar (quoted in Dotts, 2012). For Washington, the war’s end signaled a time for unity and harmony; for Coram, America’s birth demonstrated the political efficacy of organized dissent and a new undetermined beginning.

In fact, Coram memorialized his interpretation of the Revolution and his advocacy for education in his Political Inquiries (Coram, 1983). In it, he condemned European systems for depriving citizens of property and denying them access to formal education, all institutionally supported through common law. He contrasts European systems with native Indian cultures by explicating the high poverty rate among the former and the happiness of the latter. Private property was a system Coram believed maintained and perpetuated poverty and want in “civilized” societies, while native Indians shared land in common. The latter indigenous cultures reflected significantly greater harmony and happiness than did European cultures. They were much more egalitarian, and it was this sense of equality that Coram hoped to develop through agrarian reforms and universal education. He sent his treatise to President Washington, but there is no record of his ever reading it. Nevertheless, Coram’s 90-page treatise on land reform and universal education offers modern readers another glimpse into previously unknown interpretations of the American Revolution.

Of course, not all individuals supported public education, but among those who did, according to the historical evidence, the educational proposals and themes are broadly identified in the figure below. While government-supported public education was a radical idea at the time, Federalist proposals supported public education for conservative purposes, and Jefferson and Coram supported public education systems with more egalitarian and democratic expectations, respectively.

Federalists: Webster, Rush AntiFederalists: Jefferson Democratic: Coram
Support strong central government via the new Constitution Support a decentralized system of governing: states and local governance Support a decentralized system of governing: states and local governance
Maintain social and economic status quo Accept limited structural change in order to develop economic and political independence among individuals Accept structural changes in order to develop economic and political independence among individuals.
Support publically funded school systems to develop and maintain strong inner moral values based on Christianity and patriotic adherence
to the nationstate.

Order and harmony are emphasized.

Support public school systems detached from religious institutions and a greater focus on the use of individual reason. Preparation for
limited political participation at the local level.

Three years of primary schooling available to all white children at public expense with opportunities for male scholars from poor families
to advance.

Support universal public schooling throughout the United States at public expense.

Curriculum expected to focus on some form of critical analysis of the status quo and preparing citizens to be active in democratic

Maintain existing property relations and electoral restrictions based on property ownership Advocate for agrarian laws

–Proposed the end of primogeniture and entail

Proposed distributing 50 acres of land to every adult white male in Virginia

Favored limited expansion of the franchise

Advocate for agrarian laws

Proposed the broad redistribution of property

Attacked traditional and institutionalized forms of European land accumulation and English common law

Viewed the American Revolution as the climax of history and in need of memorialization through the new Constitution Viewed the American Revolution as an acceptance of change driven by shifting political consciousness.

Promoted generational change.

Viewed the American Revolution as a rejection of outdated political, social, and economic systems.

Promoted continued pragmatic change.

Figure 7 Representation of political and educational themes following the American Revolution

Questions to Consider

  • Education was clearly important to many of the Founding Fathers. Why did they not include education as a right guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution like other rights, such as free speech and press?
  • Why are Christian values emphasized in Noah Webster’s and Benjamin Rush’ education proposals? Were they necessary?
  • How was public education compatible with the idea of republican government?
  • How did Thomas Jefferson’s plans for public education in Virginia represent his understanding of republican government?
  • Why did Thomas Jefferson advocate the separation of church and state? How does this relate to his educational plans?
  • Robert Coram, a revolutionary war veteran and teacher during this period, presents the most radical of education reforms, which he sent to President George Washington. How do you think they were received? Why does he include in his educational proposal a deeply critical review of private property and English customs?
  • Do you recognize any conflicts between some of the educational proposals during this time period and revolutionary arguments related to independence and liberty?
  • What was learned from the American Revolution as reflected in these educational proposals?
  • Are there any contemporary parallels that can be made with this time period?


Burke, Edmund. (1987). Reflections on the Revolution in France. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Cotlar, Seth. (2011). ‘Every Man Should Have Property’: Robert Coram and the American Revolution’s Legacy of Economic Populism. In Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, edited by Alfred F. Young, Gary B. Nash, and Ray Raphael, 337-353. New York: Vintage Books, 337-353.

Dotts, Brian W. (2015). Beyond the Schoolhouse Door: Educating the Political Animal in Jefferson’s Little Republics. Democracy and Education, 23 (1), Article 5.

Dotts, Brian W. (2012). The Political Education of Democratus: The Negotiation of Virtue during the Early Republic. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Kaestle, Carl F. (1983). Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. New York: Hill and Wang.

Liell, Scott. (2003). 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press Book Publishers.

Morgan, Edmund S. (1988). Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Paine, Thomas. (1945). The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. Collected and edited by Philip S. Foner. New York, NY: The Citadel Press.

Richard, Carl J. (1995). The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rush, Benjamin. (1965). “Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools.” In Essays on Education in the Early Republic, edited by Frederick Rudolph, 1-23. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Urban, Wayne J. and Wagoner, Jennings L, Jr. (2009). American Education: A History. Fourth Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wagoner, Jennings L., Jr. (2004). Jefferson and Education. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Webster, Noah. (1965). “On the Education of Youth in America.” In Essays on Education in the Early Republic, edited by Frederick Rudolph, 41-77. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Wood, Gordon. S. (1991). The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Press.


Activity 1

Divide students up into groups and have them compare the education proposals put forth by any or all of the following: Webster, Jefferson, Rush, and Coram. Have groups differentiate in each proposal what they like and do not like and to provide reasons for their decisions. Once discussions within groups have finished, open the discussion up to the entire class. Students can compare their answers and deliberate on their choices. For each proposal, students may wish to consider the following questions:

Influence of religion

Does religion play a role in the proposal? If so, is it a good idea? How does the author justify basing the education proposal on religion?

If an education proposal is not based on religion, discern why this may be the case.

In either case, do you find the proposals to be compatible or incompatible with the general principles of the American Revolution? Explain.

Public or private education

Does the education proposal involve government support? If so, explain why. If not, explain why. What kind and extent of government support is proposed? Why?

Are these proposals compatible or incompatible with the general principles of the American Revolution? Explain.

How do the proposals compare, if at all, with public and/or private education today?

Moral values and citizenship

What kind of moral values are supported by the proposal? How does the author of the proposal define or describe citizenship or citizen virtue? Are these expectations explicitly described or are they implied?

How do the moral values and citizenship expectations in the proposal reflect or fail to reflect the principles of the American Revolution?

How do the moral values and citizenship expectations reflect the author’s perception of human nature, children, the learning process, and the purposes of public schooling?

Activity 2

Students can role play the authors of the education proposals mentioned in this module including hypothetical persons were opposed to government-supported education. Based on whom they role play, students can offer historically relevant arguments in favor and against public schooling.

Activity 3

Thomas Jefferson’s curriculum was different for boys and girls, and he offered no education to slaves. After researching his proposals for curricula differentiation, entertain a class discussion on students’ findings and why he proposed these differences. Have students discuss why slaves were not included in his education proposals. Finally, as the instructor, assist students as they begin thinking about and discussing institutional forms of discrimination and racism, and how these forms continue to be present today as a result of their historical connections.

Activity 4

Have students reflect upon and discern the possible reasons why the Founding Fathers excluded education or schooling as a right in the Constitution or in its subsequent Bill of Rights. Have groups of students meet together in order to discuss and draft a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to public education. Give each student a copy of the Bill of Rights in order to compare the structure of amendments and clauses in order to draw linguistic parallels with their own amendment.

External Readings & Resources

Liberty! The American Revolution

This three-disc film, produced in the United States by PBS and directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, tells the detailed story of the American Revolution. This film also provides perspectives from the American Founders and the British. This film’s narration relies on primary historical sources, and the film includes positive and negative aspects of the historical events leading up to and including the Revolution. Length: 6 hr.

Supplemental Materials

Founding Fathers (National Constitution Center)

The Constitution of the United States (National Constitution Center)

The Thomas Jefferson Papers (The Library of Congress)

Thomas Jefferson: Creating a Virginia Republic (Library of Congress)

The American Founding (Teaching American History.Org)

America’s Historical Documents (National Archives)

The American Founding Era (The University of Virginia Press)

The Founders’ Constitution (University of Chicago and the Liberty Fund)

Addis, Cameron. (2003). Jefferson’s Vision for Education, 1760-1845. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Bailyn, Bernard. (2003). To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders. New York: A. Knopf.

Bailyn, Bernard. (1992). The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Enlarged Edition. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Conant, James B. (1962) Thomas Jefferson and the Development of American Public Education. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Cremin, Lawrence. A. (1980). American Education: The National Experience, 1783-1876. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Holowchak, M. (2013). “The Diffusion of Light”: Jefferson’s Philosophy of Education. Democracy and Education, 21 (2), Article 4.

Jefferson, Thomas. (1779). A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. (Courtesy of The Founders’ Constitution, University of Chicago and the Liberty Fund).

Justice, Benjamin. (Ed.). (2013). The Founding Fathers, Education, and ‘The Great Contest’: The American Philosophical Society Prize of 1797. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kaestle, Carl E. (1983). Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. New York: Hill & Wang.

Pangle, Lorraine Smith and Pangle, Thomas L. (1993). The Learning of Liberty: The Educational Ideas of the American Founders. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Rudolph, Frederick. (1990). The American College and University: A History. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Rush, Benjamin. (1798). Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, selected writings. (Courtesy of the Founders’ Constitution, University of Chicago and the Liberty Fund).

Urban, Wayne J. and Wagoner, Jennings L, Jr. (2009). American Education: A History. Fourth Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Webster, Noah. (1788). On the Education of Youth in America. (Courtesy of the Founders’ Constitution, University of Chicago and the Liberty Fund).


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