The Legacy of the “Sectional Conflict” in American Education

Written by Kerry Ellard on May 4, 2022

This piece provides evidence for a dynamic to which I have alluded in other pieces: the hostility many white southerners felt towards the New England tradition, the only well-developed educational tradition in American education at the time, and the problems this posed for the reformers who built the modern public school system.

The big-picture reasons for this conflict are easy to understand (major North/South ideological conflict), but I get the sense that people have trouble believing the extent of the hostility, even prior to the Civil War. In this piece, I hope to give the reader a more concrete sense of the specific regional and ideological issues that fueled these tensions by examining some examples provided by Zach Quaratella in a recent piece of scholarship on “Anti-Southernism in New England Common Schools.”


Quaratella’s argues as follows: in the two decades prior to the Civil War, the efforts of Northern teachers came to “betray an implicit allegiance with anti-southern mentality,” and “the changing paradigms of education in New England contributed to and intertwined with its rising sectional ideology."

As I have indicated in the past, I think “New England education” is more accurately described as “Massachusetts education.” While New England had a distinct culture, Massachusetts was the regional leader and had unique traditions and circumstances that affected its educational efforts. Quaratella suggests some of these in a comparison between Massachusetts and Rhode Island:

“Mann had a reform-minded counterpart in Henry Barnard, who worked to emulate Mann’s reforms in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Rhode Island did not boast Massachusetts’s deep educational roots. Massachusetts’s Calvinists founded their first public schools in the early 1600s and their first college in 1636. They saw education as a means to eradicate the influence of the devil. Historian Frank Tracy Carlton notes, “As might be expected, in Rhode Island where this theocracy (Calvinism) was never enthroned, the early educational development was dwarfed.” A Yale University graduate, Barnard worked tirelessly in Connecticut to reform common schools, and Rhode Island employed him to review its public schools in 1843. Barnard faced unique challenges in Rhode Island as he struggled to establish normal schools and endear the population to the concept of districted public schools, but he was able to mimic Mann’s policies.’”

A footnote explains the “unique challenges” Barnard faced in Rhode Island: “The challenges were unique in the sense that no theocratic system of education existed in the state, as was the case in Massachusetts.”

Whatever one thinks about this, there is a reason that most of these trends started and reached their fullest expression in Massachusetts, even if the ideas were popular elsewhere. Massachusetts pioneered the widespread education of children because the dominant religion provided a strong motivation for the community leaders to invest in such an arrangement, and the ability to build on these efforts made later reforms easier. The common school system was very much a Massachusetts production. Quaratella acknowledges this later in the piece:

“In my study, I have chosen to focus mainly on the shared story of two New England states, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. For any scholar of the common school reform movement, Massachusetts is an obvious choice. Home to Horace Mann, the leading figure in educational reform, Massachusetts also boasted the most complete schooling infrastructure in the country. Rhode Island was typically among the first states to follow Massachusetts’s lead, so it offers many of the same themes. Broadly speaking, reform efforts in Massachusetts and Rhode Island spread throughout the region and followed pioneers westward. I do not attempt to extrapolate my conclusions outside of New England, however, because the common school system in the Old Northwest had not developed to the extent of New England before the Civil War.”

The common schools in New England emphasized virtue and moral suasion, and, whatever the exact causation, after Mann’s reforms, “the graduates who emerged from New England common schools were more likely to be morally and ideologically opposed to slavery and the Southern way of life.”

Quaratella argues that the education reform efforts associated with Horace Mann were effective at increasing the number of students with a strong sense of civic responsibility, and an accompanying confidence in their ability to provide moral and social leadership: all based on a “northern” code of values like democracy and free labor. This was especially true given another contemporary trend, one that caused other states to take a greater interest in replicating Massachusetts’ efforts, just as it encouraged state natives like Mann to improve upon and expand them.

Entering the nineteenth century, suffrage expanded to include larger swaths of white males, especially in the northeastern states. With the exception of Rhode Island, which did not enact universal male suffrage until 1843, New England states were among the first to expand the right to vote to most of its male citizens. To legislatures throughout the region, the importance of education became linked to the democratization of the vote. Boys would shape the future electorate; molding them into men who would decide the country’s future was critical. Girls would grow up to raise children as “republican mothers,” so their education held equal importance.”

As a result, primary school attendance had increased significantly throughout the North by 1850, though it remained far from universal, and access varied significantly by region and other factors. The students who began enrolling in such schools in the early 1840s came of age right around the outbreak of the Civil War.

In my opinion, Quaratella’s account conflates various educational reform and ideological trends going on in Massachusetts at this time, but I agree with his main point that we should pay more attention to the “reverberations that education can have on a society, even if that effect is inadvertent,” by examining such cases. While I’m not sure that it was the new common school education specifically that made the difference, it is true that, around the time of Mann’s reforms, Massachusetts educational culture came to reflect “a Northern subjectivity that admonished the South.”

Quaratella suggests this had to do with a turn towards indoctrination, obedience, and conformity:

“From 1800 to 1850, the common school underwent drastic changes, ostensibly to spread the fruits of education to the masses. The issue for reformers during this period was that students were learning, but not the correct material. New England schools and parents had always been effective at maintaining literacy, but they often failed to imbue the average student with a uniform moral framework. Common schools of the mid-1800s no longer focused on ancient languages or distant geography; they turned their attention to citizen building.”

That may be accurate, but the student population had also changed—the common schools were “ostensibly to spread the fruits of education to the masses,” such as the children of rural families, urban workers, and immigrants. The need to imbue students with a uniform moral framework may have been unnecessary in earlier years, when the population was more culturally homogenous, with a long history of shared religious and political traditions. There was also a lot of disruptive social change, and national political controversy, changing the nature of the demands placed on citizens. The sectional controversy alone could have caused greater cohesion and uniformity among Northerners, as they rallied against a common threat and defined themselves against it. Quaratella suggests something like this may also have happened:

“In the school’s development from small, private schools to mechanized student-factories, it altered the citizen who emerged. Whereas private schools and apprentices relied on the fear of corporal punishment, common schools created systems of normalization and observation that made children voluntarily obedient. This form of obedience also bred conformity, which may have contributed to New England’s developing regional identity. The aversion to corporal punishment in classrooms created another sectional rift between the North and South. Observing the Southern culture of corporal punishment and brutality, New Englanders must have scoffed, or at least felt a sense of cultural superiority. Northern society was changing, and the common school reflected, perpetuated, and spread those changes to new generations.

Given the above, it is not at all surprising that white Southerners would feel threatened by an expanding public school system based on the Massachusetts educational tradition. Both Northerners and Southerners saw their entire way of life at risk, and many would grow to see the classroom as a battlefield for American ideology. Consider that, as Quaratella notes, “Most common school reforms occurred in the 1830s and 1840s; a decade later the Republican Party formed, just as common school graduates came of voting age.”

  1. All quotes in this piece are taken from Quaratella, Zack, ""The Ornament of Human Society": Anti-Southernism in New England CommonSchools" (2013).Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 656. https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/656.

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.