The Revealing Historical Differences Between Northern and Southern Education in America, Part I: The Northern Education Tradition

Written by Kerry Ellard on January 7, 2022

Written shortly after the Civil War, the following remarks by George Boutwell represented the “Radical” Republican view of the role of American public education:

“Opening the public schools of this country to every class and condition of people without distinction of race or color, is security.... [T]he rising generation in each of these generations will advance to manhood with the fixed purpose of maintaining these principles. Intelligence is the security for the principles in which we believe, and ignorance is the protection of the principles and the policy we oppose. A system of public instruction supported by general taxation is security, first, for the prevalence and continuance of those ideas of equality which lead every human being to recognize every other human being as an equal in all natural and political rights; and the only way by which those ideas can be made universal is to bring together in public schools, during the forming period of life, the children of all classes, and educate them together…in [integrated] public school. ... [T]his doctrine of human equality can be taught, and it is the chief means of securing the perpetuity of republican institutions.”[1]

This exemplifies what I call the “Northern” education tradition in America, though it was really the “Massachusetts” tradition, which was later copied throughout the north and west to the extent resources and interest allowed, and introduced to the south following the war.[2]

As I said in Emerson on Education, in earlier centuries, Massachusetts’ Puritan ruling class had believed that in the New World, the stability of their small, experimental community was best served by having a populace that could investigate the nature of right and wrong for itself, mainly by referring directly to the Bible. They believed relying on individual conscience was the best way to secure their values and religious authority.

This tradition had changed significantly by the mid-19th century, when the Puritans were long gone and Massachusetts was no longer ruled by elders of an official church. But, its basic structure proved remarkably persistent and was effective in cultivating principled, enthusiastic, and eloquent republican citizens.[3] Massachusetts was the first place to provide widely accessible taxpayer-funded schooling—Boston’s schools banned racial segregation years before the Civil War—and to make elementary school compulsory. It involved an emphasis on reading and internalizing the principles of foundational American documents, such as political speeches and the Declaration of Independence, producing the kind of philosophical grounding Boutwell described. Education was, first and foremost, a matter of community security, in that it made sure every citizen knew the moral and political principles under which the community operated—and that he or she was able to intelligently defend them.[4]

This tradition influenced Yankees who had settled out west, as exemplified by the remarks of Abraham Lincoln upon first running for office in 1832. Then in his early twenties, and living in a relatively busy community for the first time, Lincoln declared his views on the value of an “at least, a moderate education…for every man”, and his own ambitions to promote this development:

“Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves. For my part, I desire to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present, and should be gratified to have it in my power to contribute something to the advancement of any measure which might have a tendency to accelerate the happy period.”[5]

At the time, Lincoln had received no more than six months of forming schooling himself, so the lack of specifics cannot be surprising. But his conception of education is similar to Boutwell’s, in terms of education’s role in enabling direct knowledge of the community’s moral values and political principle, and thereby building character and making the community more virtuous. Lincoln was particularly concerned, as his career progressed, with the ability of citizens to maintain the right to freely exercise their judgment and defend their interests as they saw them.

In Part II, I will discuss the political and moral conflict between the North and South, and how that related to education in the years leading up to the war and during the Reconstruction.

1. Quoted in Eric C. Sands, American Public Philosophy and the Mystery of Lincolnism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009.)

2. See Mark Groen, “THOSE INCENDIARY YANKEE SCHOOLBOOKS: Educational Politics and Sectional Conflict in Mid-Nineteenth Century America,” American Educational History Journal; Charlotte Vol. 31, Iss. 1, (2004): 44-50, https://www.proquest.com/openview/f2fc1236302e0fb88af93036961f249d/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=29702 (“The American system of common schools first emerged in the 1830s, under the stewardship of Superintendent Horace Mann, in Massachusetts. The rapid expansion of common schools and the broad usage of their accompanying textbooks, between the 1840s and 1870s, spread the cultural ethos of New England throughout the South and West. Nearly all of the books, textbooks, and most of the popular periodicals prior to the Civil War, went to press in publishing houses located in New York or New England. The Southern and Western States published comparatively few books, periodicals, or newspapers. As a result, most textbooks used by children in the United States during the nineteenth century reflected the cultural biases of New England. School-books proved to be a powerful means of transmitting Northeastern cultural values, and some of the social views expressed in those textbooks provoked controversy in other sections of the country.”)

3. See, for example, Sherry Schwartz, “The Origins of History's Mission in American Schools: A Case Study of Hannah Adams,” Theory & Research in Social Education, vol. 29, no. 2, Spring 2001, College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies, https://digital.lib.usf.edu/SFS0024304/00101.

4. See Schwartz, “A Case Study of Hannah Adams” (“[Adams] felt that the creation of a democracy, particularly in the form of a large republic, was the most fragile and delicate of all types of governments. The only way to keep a democracy from slipping into corruption, tyranny and degeneration was the careful education of all its participants. Every citizen had to be aware of his/her rights and re-possibilities; every citizen also had to be a decent person. New citizens not only had to be familiar with America's new laws, but had to actively participate in their preservation. Each had to be morally responsible for the establishment and maintenance of an orderly government…The unique nature of a republican form of government depended upon a virtuous citizenry for its very existence. Such involvement necessitated a thorough education, not for an aristocratic few, but for all American citizens.”) (Internal citations omitted).

5. Abraham Lincoln to the People of Sangamon County. [1832-03-09]. /documents/D200008. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Digital Library. https://papersofabrahamlincoln.org/documents/D200008.

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.