The History of American Education from 1820-1920: Part I

Written by Kerry Ellard on May 30, 2021

Ralph Waldo Emerson & The Age of Jacksonian Democracy

In the early 1800s, Massachusetts resembled Europe more than most other parts of America, at least in the sense that it had a recognized and long-established aristocratic ruling class. Connected to this, it had established institutions, including the nation’s first public school, Boston Latin, and university, Harvard. It was effectively ruled by the Unitarian Church, founded by the descendants of the Puritans, the democracy-wary, highly literate aristocratic families who ran the Church.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Concord in 1803 to one of those families, was descended from nine Puritan preachers. He followed in their footsteps, attending Boston Latin, and then Harvard’s Divinity School, where he trained as a Unitarian Minister.

In the 1820s and 1830s, as Jacksonian democracy (connected to the unprecedented near-abolition of property qualifications for white male suffrage) and various reform movements swept the nation, Emerson reluctantly concluded that the religious, political, and social assumptions he had been raised with were insufficient to meet the moment. He resigned from his ministry, broke with the Unitarian Church, and engaged in a long period of contemplation and international travel. 

While Emerson’s philosophy is famously difficult to describe, he eventually concluded that all modern men and women had to rely on their own intuitive judgment, via observing and directly encountering Nature and the logic of its universal laws. No secondhand testimony was sufficient for reaching truth, in Emerson’s eyes, as ossified and complacent authorities had lost their ability to communicate universal truths. He therefore encouraged each American to develop and trust his or her own judgment rather than rely on authorities and traditions. He became a renowned lecture in Northern America, and published essays that won him worldwide fame. By the Civil War, he had a reputation as something like America’s only intellectual or philosopher and was a major celebrity who influenced countless 19th and early 20th century reformers, especially those raised in Massachusetts. 

Many of Emerson’s ideas were generally popular, especially in New England elite circles, throughout the nineteenth century. His skill was in his ability to synthesize them into sermons and apply them to ideals of self-reliance and Jacksonian democracy in a way that appealed to those who had reservations about the judgment of people with less educational and social training. He was unmistakably a member of the New England ruling class, and yet he believed that the day of their rule was long gone, and spent his life trying to chart a course for America’s future that could accommodate the rapid changes. He attempted to fuse conservative and radical strains of thought into a new American identity. As one biographer has put it:

“As society had become less deferential, as politics had turned democratic, and as Boston and the nation as a whole had become more open, his own professors and his father's ministerial associates had by 1838 chosen a smug exile…The Divinity School Address, much like his 1836 Nature, was Emerson's pointed intellectual admonition. When he urged the divinity students to "go alone," he was telling them to be honest with themselves, to acknowledge that their Unitarian mentors were members of an effete, elitist community that had lost touch with the vitality of the nation. Anyone who trusted their own sensibilities could see that Unitarianism had already reached its apogee and would never extend beyond the parochial confines of eastern Massachusetts. Everyone could divine that the old institutions had become irrelevant…Emerson clamored for his colleagues to undertake a sort of democratic conversion. To save themselves and the faith, they had to look beyond Boston…to a protreptic embrace of culture in the name of the American people…Emerson resolved to show his fellow New England intellectuals the way.”


Early Attempts at Political and Educational Reform to Deal with Democracy

Emmerson's fellow New England intellectuals were definitely looking for a leader, panicked as they were by the growing power of the unruly masses and new money industrialists (“Yankees”), who they saw as lacking the necessary virtue and training to govern themselves, as well as the increasingly aggressive southern “Slave Power.” They began to pin their hopes on an alliance of northeastern and western Americans bonded by shared commitments to uniquely American self-government, self-reliance, liberty for all men, and universal moral law. 

America became famous for its unique, self-directed work ethic, and, unlike in Europe, industrialization and professionalization were not dominant parts of the work culture until the 1880s and 1890s. 19th century America was a land of farmers and small businessmen with local ties. What factory and wage work existed was not very regulated, rationalized, or systematized.

In 1869, Harvard’s new president, Charles William Eliot, casually mentioned in his inaugural address that “In this country the University does not undertake to protect the community against incompetent lawyers, ministers, or doctors.”
Licensing doctors was over a decade away, and the current situation worried some people:

“As property ceased to create citizens, it also lost its power to shape their character. If democracy required such qualities as solidity reason, and commitment in its citizens, they needed other means to acquire them... Into this breach rushed the educational reformers Horace Mann, Henry Bernard, and their associates-who promised to shape these democrats' public character during the malleable, habit-forming years of common schooling... Democratic citizens, Mann declared, had "the absolute right to an education" and their society an equally compelling stake in their receiving one.”


This was a major proposal, as few Americans experienced anything resembling modern schooling until the end of the 19th century. While Mann had some success, public school systems were not firmly established nationwide until the 1920s. While America now had many universities besides Harvard, they focused on classical and religious training. Europe was far ahead when it came to systematic and specialized higher education, especially technical education, usually funded by the state, which was largely nonexistent in America.

Intellectuals and Industrialized Europe Not Representative of the 19th-century American Experience 

But this education was intended for a select few, just like Harvard, which was considered a finishing school for the sons of Boston aristocrats by the time of the Civil War. Despite centuries of intellectuals’ grand plans, education of the masses remained rare. Reformers tended to assume that society’s continued existence, and certainly modern progress, depended on having everyone educated to some level of technical proficiency, orderliness, and cultural sophistication. However, no society has ever come close to this utopian ideal, and yet many have continued to function and progress.

Emerson seemed to intuitively understand if each person relied on his or her inborn capacity for learning and judgment, most would navigate life well enough, and some would discover the genius within themselves and use it to meet society’s needs, and this resonated with the experiences of the average American in his day. Instead of Mann’s vision, American democracy produced a different kind of informal education system to meet the nation’s needs—one of the lively local political structures and constant newspaper-driven debate:

“Democratic politics of this diffuse sort … required extraordinary energy to sustain. Early in the 19th century, newspapers spread far more extensively throughout the United States than anywhere else in the world. Frankly partisan, these mobilized the faithful, fought out local battles, dissected political debates and linked with their counterparts elsewhere. To utilize this network, Americans made themselves literate. With little help from public schools, democratic communication sent literacy rates soaring between 1800 and 1840: from around 75 percent of adult whites to around 95 percent in the north, from around 50 percent to around 80 percent in the south. Talk was at least as important as print. During these same years, the norms for public rhetoric changed from the language of a gentleman's monopoly around 1800 to a generally accessible "civil rhetoric"-a lightly polished everyday language that for the balance of the 19th century served nationally as a medium for democratic discussion…”'


It is difficult to convey just how different from modern expectations American education was from about 1820-1860. In Eliot’s 1869 inaugural address, mentioned above, he characterized the situation as follows:

“Only a few years ago, all students who graduated at this College passed through one uniform curriculum. Every man studied the same subjects in the same proportions, without regard to his natural bent or preference. The individual student had no choice of either subjects or teachers. This system is still the prevailing system among American colleges, and finds vigorous defenders. It has the merit of simplicity. So had the school methods of our grandfathers—one primer... a single common course of studies, tolerably well selected to meet the average needs, seems to most Americans a very proper and natural thing, even for grown men. As a people, we do not apply to mental activities the principle of division of labor; and we have but a halting faith in special training for high professional employments. The vulgar conceit that a Yankee can turn his hand to anything we insensibly carry into high places... We are accustomed to seeing men leap from farm or shop to court-room or pulpit...What special training do we ordinarily think necessary for our diplomatists?—although in great emergencies the nation has known where to turn... This lack of faith in the prophecy of a natural bent, and in the value of a discipline concentrated upon a single object, amounts to a national danger.”


And yet, despite the obvious downsides, America had generally done quite well by this system. Perhaps it could be improved upon, but America had managed to stabilize itself and even grow stronger after the democratic revolution and the apocalyptic Civil War.

In fact, after the Civil War, industrialization and financialization quickly picked up in the Northeast, as did education more generally. While the idea of training masses of children to be obedient factory workers appears to have been little more than an intellectual fantasy, higher education did come to be more responsive to the needs of the corporate world. “Elite northeastern colleges became preparatory universities for modern capitalism,” and this included Harvard, which underwent major reforms under the forty-year presidency of Charles William Eliot.

Charles William Eliot and Harvard 

Talented at chemistry and administration, Eliot wanted to bring the school more in line with the needs of the modern world, which to him meant those of businessmen and the Progressive philosophy common to European elites, and, increasingly, American ones. For him, this meant more focus on science, research, and practical results, but also on specialization. He introduced an elective system, believing each man should locate his strengths and devote himself to specializing in those topics, as this would be the best way to encourage innovation and progress.

Eliot was also interested in secondary education, believing that they were once again on the cusp of a democratic uprising that had to be managed by intellectuals. He responded in part by providing self-education literature that would provide a liberal arts education for motivated young people who could not afford formal schooling. His attitude towards secondary school was that it should be standardized, with a broad focus on the fundamentals, in much the old style. But this should change in college, when a man was old enough to choose his pursuits.

Eliot had a conservative temperament and upbringing, and was not on board with all Progressive views. He supplemented his European ideas with some traditional New England ones. He remained significantly influenced by many of Emerson’s ideas, but while he knew better than to standardize them, something Emerson had always resisted, he cherry-picked quotes and used them to bolster his own pragmatic choices. For example, Emerson’s exhortation to concentrate one’s intellectual energy on a calling, rather than by trying to be everything to everyone, was used to underwrite Eliot’s elective program.  

While there was affinity between the ideas, Emerson was not really talking about career specialization, but rather throwing everything one had into the best work available and not getting distracted by trifles. “The good lawyer is not the man who has an eye to every side and angle of contingency, and qualifies all his qualifications, but who throws himself on your part so heartily that he can get you out of a scrape,” he wrote.

Both men were advising others to know their chosen subject inside and out, but Emerson likely saw more fluidity in the process.

Progressive Education: Its Rise Between 1880 and 1920

Increasingly, education reformers were drawn to Progressive ideas that inevitably led to the conclusion that most people were not capable of understanding modern society and had to be governed by an expert class. Some, like John Dewey, still strongly opposed expert rule, but agreed electoral democracy was unsatisfactory, and lamented that the structures that would permit local democratic participation had been eroded. After World War I, however, he believed in keeping electoral democracy until some new form of “knowledge and insight” arose that would allow for a modern form. But by then, in the 1920s, Progressive ideas were dominant, a national class of educated experts was in control, and assembly line-work was much closer to the norm, with manufacturing jobs booming around 1900 and doubling over the next two decades.


Secondary Education

Interestingly, in the early 20th century, as professionals became high-status, even low-salaried college teachers were highly respected, “perhaps because they seemed to keep alive the old dream of self-directed work,” studying topics of interest to themselves rather than chasing more material rewards.

As teaching young children became a socially appropriate career for young, unmarried, educated women around the 1870s—one of the only socially appropriate careers for women—secondary schools proliferated. Though they were not introduced in a standardized way, and many were initially private, they were frequently based on German concepts like kindergarten. Germany was then the leading intellectual center of the world, especially when it came to education. Many of these women trained in Europe, sometimes receiving an education there, and became Progressive education reformers. 

Their theories included the usual intellectual conceit that all depended on using novel expert education techniques to train all students to be competent participants in the complex modern world. This was a far cry from the sentiments expressed in Emerson’s famous essay Self-Reliance, written in 1841:

“If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not 'studying a profession,' for he does not postpone his life, but lives already.”


Part II will focus on the history of the modern university system and early childhood education in America.


  1. Field P.S, Emerson, W.R. (2003) The Making of a Democratic Intellectual.
  2. Weibe, R.H. (1996) Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy.
  3. Eliot, C. W. (1869) “Inaugural Address as President of Harvard College".
  4. Weibe, R.H. (1996).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Eliot, C. W. (1869).
  7. Emerson, W.R (1860) The Conduct of Life, “Power".
  8. Weibe, R.H. (1996).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Emerson, W.R (1841) Essays, First Series, Self-Reliance".

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.

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