essays

Jun 1, 1980

Early Federal Education Policy

The reviewer examines key tensions between America’s founding documents.

“The Missing Link: New England Influence on Early National Educational Policies.” The New England Quarterly 52(June 1979):219–233.

On July 13, 1787, the Continental Congress in New York City passed the North-west Ordinance. Two months later the Federal Convention in Philadelphia adopted a draft of the United States Constitution. The texts of the documents they drafted seem to reflect discrepant attitudes concerning the importance of education. While the Northwest Ordinance contains a ground-breaking clause on the establishment of public schools, the Constitution makes absolutely no mention of the subject of education. What were the reasons for this radical difference between two such fundamental documents of the Republic?

The background of the Northwest Ordinance was that the federal government under the Articles of Confederation possessed millions of acres of unsettled territory resulting from the colonies’ cession of their western lands and from the settlement of Indian claims. How was this land to be allocated and what governmental structures and policies should be created? A major source of conflict involved the method to be used in surveying and distributing the land. Historian Edmund Burnett characterized the dispute as a choice between “a New England system of compact settlements or sale by townships and a Southern system of indiscriminate or individual locations.” The township system won out in the 1787 ordinance, largely because of a strong New England lobby and the Congress’ desperate need for money.

During the winter of 1785–1786, the Rev. Cutler and a group of New England Revolutionary War veterans formed the “Ohio Company of Associates” to secure large holdings of western territory. One year later, Cutler made overtures to Congress to purchase land, while promoting the adoption of a New England form of governmental structure for the whole area. Anxious to please its prospective New England buyers, Congress in 1787 divided the territory into townships and appointed “lot number 16” in each township for the establishment of public schools. A fundamental precedent in the history of American education had been set.

By contrast, the Federal Constitution’s silence on education seems to reflect the Founding Fathers’ conviction that schools were properly the function of churches or local and state governments. Beyond this commitment to local autonomy, it seems quite possible that the question of schools was shelved to avoid fueling already inflammatory sectional animosities.

The Northwest Ordinance, however, was sufficient to have a determining impact on future educational development in the United States. As a result of its salutary influence, the settlers of the Northwest Territory established better schools at a faster rate than the inhabitants of any other new region in the history of the country.