Lincoln on Education

Written by Kerry Ellard on January 14, 2022

In his public remarks on education, Abraham Lincoln tied the subject to his political philosophy, emphasizing its importance in cultivating respect for America’s political traditions, as well as self-reliant individuals capable of upholding those traditions. In an earlier piece, I noted that this reflected the New England tradition of education, which spread west and became the “Yankee” democratic tradition.[1] I also noted that, over the course of his career, the way Lincoln talked about education changed from an emphasis on understanding the values of one’s community to an emphasis on securing one’s autonomy, in both judgment and action, which he seemed to think would result in individuals rising to a defense of community values.

“…it is evident that [Lincoln], like Emerson, had come to see the value of America’s largely uniquely decentralized and democratic ‘Government,’ and the collective knowledge ‘network’ that had resulted from it. By ‘universal education,’ Lincoln did not mean equal access to a standardized national system of schooling, but rather that each person was recognized as having a ‘head’ of his or her own, and that this head was his or her ‘natural guardian, director, and protector.’ The idea that every human being could use his or her mind to act meaningfully, and that he or she had the right to do so, was far more radical and democratic in Lincoln’s time than most later reformers portrayed it.”[2](Emphases added).

Whereas later reformers like Dewey portrayed classical education as elitist, exclusive, and without practical value, that was a wholly inaccurate description of the Yankee version, especially as expressed by Lincoln in the above-quoted piece. Lincoln believed that every American could derive great satisfaction and practical benefit from being able to “read the histories of his own and other countries,” as well as “moral and religious" works. Indeed, as a later piece will indicate, Dewey seems to have realized this late in his life, and tried to revive the tradition in a way more suited to his understanding of modern America.[3]

As President, Lincoln’s only references to education dealt with the education of freed slaves.[4] While Lincoln did not live to see the Reconstruction, we can get some idea of what this might have looked like by studying the remarks made by Reconstruction-era Republicans.[5] Most were probably a bit more fixated on formal or government-provided schooling than Lincoln was, given that he knew firsthand that success without it was possible,[6] and that he had never lived in a place with a public school system.[7] The Republicans who spoke on the subject after the war tended to be from Massachusetts, which had the oldest and most developed public school system in the country.

In the post-war debates, particularly those over the permissibility of segregation in the emerging southern public school systems, we see that the Republican conception of education revolved around cultivating citizens who were equal before the law, just as Lincoln’s did.[8]

For example, in 1874, Senator George Boutwell, of Massachusetts, remarked that “To say...that equal facilities shall be given in different schools, is to rob your system of public instruction of that quality by which our people, without regard to race or color, shall be assimilated in ideas, personal, political, and public, so that when they arrive at the period of manhood they shall act together upon public questions with ideas formed under the same influences and directed to the same general results…” Boutwell further explained, sounding rather like Horace Mann, that "theory of human equality cannot be taught in families," but that "in the public school, where children of all classes and conditions are brought together, this doctrine of human equality can be taught, and it is the chief means of securing the perpetuity of republican institutions.”[9]

One legal scholar has described the Republican Party view of education of this time in a way that corresponds to the political themes of Lincoln’s speeches throughout his life:

“To the supporters of the civil rights bills during the Reconstruction period…the focus was on an equality of rights not on whether the processes of government were infected by discriminatory intent. The Fourteenth Amendment…meant that legally enforceable civil rights are the same for all…The practical test was to ask which rights a white citizen would be able to enforce, and to extend the same set of rights to all.”[10]

Like most Republicans who were influential during the Civil War era, Lincoln’s views of education were inextricable from his devotion to the political principles articulated in the party’s philosophy. These principles were derived from the Yankee conception of democratic citizenship-oriented education. As exemplified by the efforts of Horace Mann, the goal was enabling people of all backgrounds to interact as political equals. Everyone would now be assured an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the existing political community, according to its long-established practices. From Lincoln’s perspective, this was not seen as a fundamental shift in the nature of the educational or political system, but an extension and perfection of its existing nature.[11]

1. See Weibe, R.H. (1996) Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (“At a deeper level, self-selection powered the entire democratic process [in 19th century America]. No principle lay closer to the core of its operations than the one governing participation: the way to get into American democracy was to get into it. Ask nobody's permission, defer to nobody's prior claim. Just do it.”)

3. See Jeremy Engels, ”Dewey on Jefferson: Reiterating Democratic Faith in Times of War (forthcoming in Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Culture),” 2014, https://www.academia.edu/5278423/Dewey_on_Jefferson_Reiterating_Democratic_Faith_in_Times_of_War_forthcoming_in_Trained_Capacities_John_Dewey_Rhetoric_and_Democratic_Culture_ (”[In the 1930s, Dewey] invoked two icons of American history to suggest that, perhaps, Americans could defeat their totalitarian enemies. History thus gave Dewey hope that Americans would not fail in this desperate hour: ’I for one do not believe that Americans living in the tradition of Jefferson and Lincoln will weaken and give up without a whole-hearted effort to make democracy a living reality.’”) See also John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action, 1939, in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Vol. 11. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. 1-65 (”I make no apology for linking what is said in this chapter with the name of Thomas Jefferson. For he was the first modern to state in human terms the principles of democracy. Were I to make an apology, it would be that in the past I have concerned myself unduly, if a comparison has to be made, with the English writers who have attempted to state the ideals of self-governing communities and the methods appropriate to their realization. If now prefer to refer to Jefferson it is not, I hope, because of American provincialism, even though I believe that only one who was attached to American soil and who took a consciously alert part in the struggles of the country to attain its independence, could possibly have stated as thoroughly and intimately as did Jefferson the aims embodied in the American tradition: ‘the definitions and axioms of a free government,’ as Lincoln called them.

Nor is the chief reason for going to him, rather than to Locke or Bentham or Mill, his greater sobriety of judgment due to that constant tempering of theory with practical experience which also kept his democratic doctrine within human bounds. The chief reason is that Jefferson's formulation is moral through and through: in its foundations, its methods, its ends. The heart of his faith IS expressed in his words ‘Nothing is unchangeable but inherent and inalienable rights of man.’ The words in which he stated the moral basis of free institutions have gone out of vogue. We repeat the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, but unless we translate them they are couched in a language that, even when it comes readily to our tongue, does not penetrate today to the brain. He wrote: ‘These truths are self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Today we are wary of anything purporting to be self-evident truths...”)

4. “…he was not directly involved in the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act. He signed the Morrill bill into law without comment, and he did not mention the action his next State of the Union message. Edward Danforth Eddy, Jr., the historian of the Morrill Act, characterized Lincoln as a ‘man undoubtedly ahead of his times’; however, "new education in agriculture...had never been one of his strong concerns.’” Berube, Maurice R., American Presidents and Education (United Kingdom: Greenwood, 1991.) Lincoln’s conception of formal education did not include “industrial “education,” which was not a popular idea until well after his death.See my earlier pieces on the topic and ibid. (“It was not until the emergence of World War I that Wilson perceived the importance of an educated work force for America's economy. One main reason for the lack of correlating education and the economy in the minds of our chief executives was the nature of this nascent industrial capitalism. The major industries that developed were ones, like iron, steel and the railroads, that prized brawn over brains. There were some technological breakthroughs such as the telegraph…however, economic development sought unskilled labor more than those highly educated. At the turn of the century slightly over 2 percent of college-age youth were in institutions of higher education.”) Cf. Thomas J. Somerby (an operator in the Military Telegraph Corps) to John H. Masters, December 14, 1861, quoted in Amherst Graduates' Quarterly (United States: Alumni Council of Amherst College, 1926). ("It is one of the best possible tributes to the telegraph that it interests the very best minds. Up in Amherst same of the ginger-pop professors used to sniff a little at my enthusiasm about telegraphy. They regard it as a trade, and not just the thing for a college man. Now comes Abraham Lincoln, the foremost of all living men today, throws his long legs across the table where [the War Department telegrapher] is receiving despatches [sic]…and says: ‘’Young man. I would give a thousand dollars if I had learned to do that was young. The ability to read those signals is a never-ending mystery to me.'”)

5. See Berube, American Presidents and Education. (“Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, gave slaves freedom and accelerated the number of slaves escaping to the North, flooding refugee camps and causing a crisis of resettlement. Lincoln's generals perceived the need for the education of these former slaves. The South had denied 4 million blacks the opportunity to read and write, fearing that knowledge would breed discontent. Many Union generals made appeals to citizens in the North to help teach these former slaves. The most influential
appeal was made by General W.T. Sherman. In February 1862 he called upon the conscience of the North to "enable blacks to support and govern themselves" through a ‘suitable system of cultivation and instruction.’ Numerous benevolent societies in Northern cities responded to these appeals and sent teachers as well as food and money to the areas newly freed by the Union armies. Thus the freedmen's schools were born. By 1869 there were nearly 10,000 of these teachers in every part of the South.' The teachers sought to create a "complete school system for freedmen.’”)

6. During the 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln wrote a short third-person autobiography, which was published as a campaign biography. In it, he said this about his education: “Abraham now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student, and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law license. What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar—imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.” http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/autobiog.htm. See also Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (p. 65). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. (“He grew up, it will be remembered, in the darkest period in the history of American education. Even in New England, where the Puritan spirit had once required each town to establish a public school, education languished; it would be another fifteen years before Horace Mann and his allies forced the reorganization of public education in Massachusetts and other states. Outside of New England the situation was even worse, and most states had no public school system. The Northwest Ordinance had carefully set aside public lands to support education, but most of the fund was squandered. When Indiana was admitted to the Union in 1816, its constitution required that free public education be made available to all, but no money was ever appropriated for schools. The schools that did exist were proprietary efforts. A self-described teacher secured subscriptions of $2.00 or $2.50 from the parents of children in his neighborhood, built or rented a building, and opened shop. The physical facilities were, at best, primitive.”)

7. Michael W. McConnell, "Originalism and the Desegregation Decisions," 81 Virginia Law Review 947 (1995), https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=12624&context=journal_articles (“…there was a substantial basis for uncertainty about the legal status of public education as late as the 1870s. Education was then at a time of transition, and it was far from clear that any child had a legally enforceable "right" to it, at least in most states. By the turn of the century, however, this uncertainty had been resolved. Every state in the Union had established a universal system of compulsory education funded by public taxation. The right to publicly funded education was embedded in the constitutions of the states, and the common school had attained its modem role as the principal institution for the inculcation of American ideals of citizenship-a role envisioned, perhaps prematurely, by proponents of the Sumner bill. It had become unthinkable that any state would abolish its schools- as unthinkable as it was, in 1871-75, that any state would abrogate the common law rights of its white citizens. By the turn of the century-and certainly by the time of the Brown decision in 1954-there could be little doubt that schools satisfied the criteria even the opponents of the 1875 Act understood for the existence of civil rights. The right to education had become stable, uniform, and legally enforceable.”)

8. Ibid. (“…the dominant Republican position was based not so much on an abhorrence of racial discrimination as a general moral evil as on a particular understanding of the concept of citizenship…The issue, for them, was not relations between the races but realization of an ideal of a government of citizens who were equal in their rights before the law…”)

9. Quoted in ibid. Emphases added. Lincoln would not have agreed with the idea that such things could not be taught in the home or other places besides public schools, but this idea was popular with people from Massachusetts, where the existence of integrated citizen-cultivating public schools was taken for granted.

10. Ibid. (“Thus, in the view of its supporters, the [1875] civil rights bill did not create any new rights or obligations.”)

11. This attitude explains the seemingly paradoxical approach of President James Garfield, who, like Lincoln, was born in a log cabin and rose to become a prominent Republican politician. While Garfield “enjoyed a distinguished career as an educator” and was “largely responsible as congressman for the creation of the U.S. Office of Education, which in 1979 became the Department of Education,” he saw “no especial economic value in education,” writing "I do not believe in a college to educate men for the profession of farming.” Berube, American Presidents and Education. This philosophy of education is at odds with progressive and/or industrial conceptions of education. Half a century after the alleged meeting, a man claimed that Lincoln had told him that he did not believe formal schooling was an effective way to train soldiers; whether or not this is true, formal technical training was simply not seen as a means of societal advancement in this culture. See note iii, above, which describes the attitudes towards telegraphy displayed by New England professors and Lincoln himself.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.