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Reading 1: Education as the Keystone to the New Democracy
Thomas Jefferson believed that the young nation's survival as an independent democracy absolutely depended upon its success in educating the people. His experiences in Europe as Minister to France (1784-1789) allowed Jefferson to draw direct comparisons between his new country and "the old world" of Europe. Writing from Paris in 1786 to George Wythe, his former law professor at the College of William and Mary, he described America's unique social and political setting and outlined the importance of public education to America's future.
. . . If all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudices . . . a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out. [Our people] could not have been so fairly put into the hands of their own common sense, had they not been separated from their own parent stock and been kept from contamination, either from them, or the other people of the old world, by the intervention of so wide an ocean. To know the worth of this, one must see the want of it here. I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness. If any body thinks that kings, nobles or priests are good conservators of the public happiness, send them here. It is the best school in the universe to cure them of that folly. ...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. . . .1
Thomas Jefferson understood "that knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, that knowledge is happiness."2 However, it is important to remember that in Thomas Jefferson's lifetime, there was no system of public education like we have today. Only the children of wealthy families could receive the tutoring required to attend a university. This limitation of educational opportunities meant that only the wealthier members of society could achieve positions of leadership. Jefferson felt strongly that the control of power by the wealthy posed a threat to America's democracy. This larger issue was a topic of heated debates chiefly between Jefferson--who felt that the government should be composed of the most virtuous and talented citizens, rich or poor--and Alexander Hamilton--who felt only the wealthy, and therefore educated, elite should rule on behalf of the common people. In a letter to John Adams written in 1813, Jefferson described how a public education system would contribute toward replacing "artificial aristocracy," or leadership based on wealth, for "a natural aristocracy" based on merit:
. . . I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. . . . There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society. . . .3
In the same letter, Jefferson described a public education bill he submitted in 1779:
And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been complete. It was a bill for the more general diffusion of learning. This proposed to divide every county into wards of five or six miles square, like your townships; to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools, who might receive, at the public expense, a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects, to be completed at an university, where all the useful sciences should be taught. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition and birth for public trusts.
Although Jefferson's bill for a system of public education was not voted into law by the Virginia legislature, he remained committed to these ideas. In 1796, he submitted a similar bill, achieving only limited success. The legislature agreed only to the establishment of elementary schools, subject to each county's discretion. Jefferson lamented the fact that even this action was ineffective due to the funding provisions:
One provision of the bill was that the expenses of these schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, everyone in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor; and the justices, being generally of the more wealthy class, were unwilling to incur that burden, and I believe it was not suffered to commence in a single county.4
In a letter to Thaddeus Kosciusko from 1810, Jefferson expressed his continued hopes for a system of public education:
I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain its strength. 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be in reach of a central school in it.5
Additional years passed by before sufficient legislative interest in higher education allowed Jefferson to use his political skills to press, once again, for establishment of a public university in Virginia. On February 21, 1818, a year after the bill had been introduced, the Virginia Legislature finally passed the law to establish a public university. Recalling that 39 years had passed since the introduction of his first more comprehensive public education bill, Jefferson nonetheless celebrated the law establishing the university as "a bantling [baby] of forty years birth and nursing."6
Questions for Reading 1
1. Why is it significant that Jefferson wrote his letter to George Wythe from Paris in 1786?
2. In his letter to George Wythe, Jefferson drew some comparisons between America with Europe. What did he feel were the advantages of being an American citizen?
3. What were the dangers Jefferson associated with an uneducated nation?
4. What were the components to the system of public education that Jefferson proposed? What inequalities was it meant to address?
5. Why did the established aristocracy resist Jefferson's attempts to create a public school system?
6. Explain Jefferson's beliefs about the relationship between education and democracy. Do you think these beliefs helped Jefferson remain committed to public education? Explain.
Reading 1 was compiled from Bernard Mayo, ed., Jefferson Himself: The Personal Narrative of a Many-Sided American (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1942); Merrill D. Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson (New York: Penguin Books, 1975); and Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, editors, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 Volumes, (Washington, D.C.: 1903-1904).
1Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, editors, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 Volumes, (Washington, D.C.: 1903-1904), 5:396.