In November 1776, while a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Thomas Jefferson was selected to head a committee charged with the task of revising the laws of Virginia, subject to approval by the General Assembly. Although Americans were now at war with Britain, Jefferson believed it vital that Virginia’s legal code be changed in accordance with republican principles, and he devoted much of the next two years to this task.
Among Jefferson’s drafts for new legislation was the celebrated “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” but there was another piece of legislation that Jefferson viewed as even more important: “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” In Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781), Jefferson summarized his educational plan as follows:
This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor [i.e., superintendent], who is annually to choose the boy of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools [high schools, in effect] of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of [Virginia], for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.
The next stage of this filtering process, Jefferson goes on to explain, occurs when half the students supported at public expense in grammar schools are dismissed after six years, perhaps to become teachers themselves. The remaining students then receive scholarships to study for three years at the College of William and Mary. (For various reasons, Jefferson later became disillusioned with his alma mater and substituted the University of Virginia, which he founded in 1819, instead.)
Jefferson’s bill never passed the Virginia Assembly, and it was not until 1796 that the Assembly instituted a more modest scheme of public education. Jefferson never gave up, however. In his later years, after retiring from public life, he continued to advocate his plan, with some minor modifications.
Many historians have praised Jefferson for his efforts on behalf of public education, while portraying him as a forerunner of the common school movement that began to take off during the late 1830s, under the leadership of Horace Mann in Massachusetts. Some historians have also linked Jefferson to other American advocates of state schooling in the late eighteenth-century, such as Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Samuel Knox, Robert Coram, and Samuel Harrison Smith.
These are dubious associations, for reasons I cannot fully explain here. (I will discuss other American advocates of state education in later essays.) For now, suffice it to say that some commentators have distorted Jefferson’s ideas about education by representing them as an embryonic version of later plans for a universal system of education that is free and compulsory.
There is no doubt that Jefferson shared the prevailing view of Enlightenment intellectuals that a “general diffusion of knowledge” is essential to a free society. As he wrote in 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Similarly, in a letter to George Washington (1786), Jefferson said:
It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan.
In an oft-quoted letter to John Adams (1813), Jefferson expressed hope that public schools would become “the keystone in the arch of our government.” Such statements may appear to be nothing more than Enlightenment truisms, but it is important to understand how Jefferson’s views on public schooling differed from the standard Enlightenment call for a uniform system of state education that would produce “republican machines” (to use the disturbing phrase of Benjamin Rush).
Jefferson’s plan, as indicated in the passage quoted above from Notes on the State of Virginia, called for a highly decentralized system in which small wards (“districts of five or six miles square”) would establish and control their own schools. Jefferson feared centralized authority, so he did not want even a state government to “take this business [of elementary education] into its own hands.” In his “Plan for Elementary Schools” (1817), Jefferson warned that if a governor and state officials were to control the district schools, “they would be badly managed, depraved by abuses,” and would soon exhaust the available funds.
The key to local school districts, according to Jefferson, is that they give parents direct and ultimate control over how their children are educated. To suppose that schools will he better managed by “any authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward…is a belief against all experience.” A government can no more manage schools than it can manage “our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores.” Elementary education should be the concern of local communities under the supervision of parents; it should not be controlled by the federal or state governments.
Extreme decentralization was thus the centerpiece of Jefferson’s plan for public schools, and he warned of the potential consequences should this feature be ignored.
What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or the aristocrats of a Venetian Senate.
For Jefferson, the distribution of power among federal, state, county, and local agencies was indispensable to America’s “system of fundamental balances and checks for the government.” When a person is empowered to control his own destiny at the local level, “he feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election, one day in the year, but every day.” Such a person will defend his liberty; “he will let the heart be torn out of his body, sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.”
Jefferson’s intense opposition to centralization was illustrated in an ill-fated plan for public schools sponsored by Charles Mercer in the Virginia Assembly. In 1817, Mercer’s plan passed in Virginia’s lower house, but it was defeated in the senate. The decisive vote against Mercer was cast by Jefferson’s protégé, Joseph Cabell — a man who had labored in behalf of Jefferson’s educational proposals. Why did Cabell, acting in accordance with Jefferson’s desires, oppose the Mercer plan? Part of the reason lay in Mercer’s desire to grant considerable power to a state board of education. This was anathema to Jefferson who, as one historian put it, “expressed both fear and scorn when contemplating a centralized state authority in education.”
Throughout most of his life Jefferson favored providing three years of free education to all (free) children, rich and poor alike. By 1820, however, Jefferson had changed his mind. Only pauper children should receive free schooling; those parents able to pay tuition should be required to do so. Jefferson believed that the fees of parents who could afford to pay would cover much of the cost of educating pauper children. The remaining expenses would be minimal: “To a county, this addition would be of about one-fifth of the taxes we now pay to the State, or about one-fifth of one per cent.”
Jefferson’s early proposal used the word “shall” when discussing the construction of schools in each district. But later, in 1816, Jefferson proposed that local voters should decide the matter themselves. It “should be put to their vote whether they will have a school established.” If they vote the proposal down, “let them remain without one.”
Jefferson’s attitude toward compulsory attendance laws — a cornerstone of modern public education — is worth noting. Some historians have maintained that Jefferson, in his early proposals, implicitly favored compulsory attendance for three years of elementary education. But Jefferson never said this, and it cannot legitimately be inferred from his words. In 1817, Jefferson made his one and only pronouncement on compulsory attendance laws: He opposed them, while noting the delicate and complex issues involved.
A question of some doubt might be raised…as to the rights and duties of society towards its members, infant and adult. Is it a right or a duty in society to take care of their infant Members in opposition to the will of the parent? How far does this right and duty extend? — to guard the life of the infant, his property, his instruction, his morals?
Jefferson answered his own questions thusly: “It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of the father.”
Instead of compulsory attendance laws, Jefferson recommended another incentive: The right to vote should not be granted to people who cannot demonstrate basic literacy skills. “If we do not force instruction, let us at least strengthen the motives to receive it when offered.”
True to his Enlightenment beliefs, Jefferson argued that an ignorant citizenry is bound to succumb to tyranny. In 1814, he praised a new Spanish constitution because it withheld voting rights from “every citizen who could not read or write.” This provision would give Spain “an enlightened people, and an energetic public opinion which will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government.” A few years later, Jefferson called for the disenfranchisement of Americans who cannot “read readily in some tongue, native or acquired.”
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth book, The System of Liberty, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.