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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
» PART I. THE COLONIAL PERIOD
» Chapter III

«·The Leadership of the Churches · The Colonial Press·»


Schools and Colleges

Religion and Local Schools.—One of the first cares of each Protestant denomination was the education of the children in the faith. In this work the Bible became the center of interest. The English version was indeed the one book of the people. Farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans, whose life had once been bounded by the daily routine of labor, found in the Scriptures not only an inspiration to religious conduct, but also a book of romance, travel, and history. “Legend and annal,” says John Richard Green, “war-song and psalm, state-roll and biography, the mighty voices of prophets, the parables of Evangelists, stories of mission journeys, of perils by sea and among the heathen, philosophic arguments, apocalyptic visions, all were flung broadcast over minds unoccupied for the most part by any rival learning.... As a mere literary monument, the English version of the Bible remains the noblest example of the English tongue.” It was the King James version just from the press that the Pilgrims brought across the sea with them.

A Page from a Famous Schoolbook
A Page from a Famous Schoolbook

For the authority of the Established Church was substituted the authority of the Scriptures. The Puritans devised a catechism based upon their interpretation of the Bible, and, very soon after their arrival in America, they ordered all parents and masters of servants to be diligent in seeing that their children and wards were taught to read religious works and give answers to the religious questions. Massachusetts was scarcely twenty years old before education of this character was declared to be compulsory, and provision was made for public schools where those not taught at home could receive instruction in reading and writing.

Outside of New England the idea of compulsory education was not regarded with the same favor; but the whole land was nevertheless dotted with little schools kept by “dames, itinerant teachers, or local parsons.” Whether we turn to the life of Franklin in the North or Washington in the South, we read of tiny schoolhouses, where boys, and sometimes girls, were taught to read and write. Where there were no schools, fathers and mothers of the better kind gave their children the rudiments of learning. Though illiteracy was widespread, there is evidence to show that the diffusion of knowledge among the masses was making steady progress all through the eighteenth century.

Religion and Higher Learning.—Religious motives entered into the establishment of colleges as well as local schools. Harvard, founded in 1636, and Yale, opened in 1718, were intended primarily to train “learned and godly ministers” for the Puritan churches of New England. To the far North, Dartmouth, chartered in 1769, was designed first as a mission to the Indians and then as a college for the sons of New England farmers preparing to preach, teach, or practice law. The College of New Jersey, organized in 1746 and removed to Princeton eleven years later, was sustained by the Presbyterians. Two colleges looked to the Established Church as their source of inspiration and support: William and Mary, founded in Virginia in 1693, and King’s College, now Columbia University, chartered by King George II in 1754, on an appeal from the New York Anglicans, alarmed at the growth of religious dissent and the “republican tendencies” of the age. Two colleges revealed a drift away from sectarianism. Brown, established in Rhode Island in 1764, and the Philadelphia Academy, forerunner of the University of Pennsylvania, organized by Benjamin Franklin, reflected the spirit of toleration by giving representation on the board of trustees to several religious sects. It was Franklin’s idea that his college should prepare young men to serve in public office as leaders of the people and ornaments to their country.

Self-education in America.—Important as were these institutions of learning, higher education was by no means confined within their walls. Many well-to-do families sent their sons to Oxford or Cambridge in England. Private tutoring in the home was common. In still more families there were intelligent children who grew up in the great colonial school of adversity and who trained themselves until, in every contest of mind and wit, they could vie with the sons of Harvard or William and Mary or any other college. Such, for example, was Benjamin Franklin, whose charming autobiography, in addition to being an American classic, is a fine record of self-education. His formal training in the classroom was limited to a few years at a local school in Boston; but his self-education continued throughout his life. He early manifested a zeal for reading, and devoured, he tells us, his father’s dry library on theology, Bunyan’s works, Defoe’s writings, Plutarch’s Lives, Locke’s On the Human Understanding, and innumerable volumes dealing with secular subjects. His literary style, perhaps the best of his time, Franklin acquired by the diligent and repeated analysis of the Spectator. In a life crowded with labors, he found time to read widely in natural science and to win single-handed recognition at the hands of European savants for his discoveries in electricity. By his own efforts he “attained an acquaintance” with Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, thus unconsciously preparing himself for the day when he was to speak for all America at the court of the king of France.

Lesser lights than Franklin, educated by the same process, were found all over colonial America. From this fruitful source of native ability, self-educated, the American cause drew great strength in the trials of the Revolution.


«·The Leadership of the Churches · The Colonial Press·»