If you had been alive in eighteenth-century America, you would've had little opportunity for formal schooling or an advanced education. Unless you were among the elite or at least of some means, your chances of attending a local academy or Harvard College weren’t great. But the American Revolution ushered in a new era of education in the United States that paved the way for the educational opportunities we take for granted today.
Education became seen as central to the survival of the republic, with local communities, states, and the new federal government all interested in expanding educational opportunities for some Americans, though not as much for others. And in the 1820s, Thomas Jefferson would embark on last great project of his life – the founding of the University of Virginia – which he hoped would preserve the meaning of the Revolution as he understood it.
On today’s show, we’re fortunate to have two old chums return to the program to talk with Jim Ambuske about the crucial role of education in early America.
Dr. Mark Boonshoft is the Executive Director of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and he is the author of Aristocratic Education and the Making of the American Republic, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2020. We’re joined by Dr. Andrew O’Shaughnessy, the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, who recently authored The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2021.
Interview published: February 17, 2022
Transcript created: July 6, 2022
Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon
Guests: Dr. Andrew O'Shaughnessy, Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello
Dr. Mark Boonshoft, Assistant Professor of History, Virginia Military Institute
Jim Ambuske: Hey everyone. I'm Jim Ambuske and this is Conversations at the Washington Library. If you had been alive in 18th century America, chances are you would've had little opportunity for formal schooling or an advanced education. Unless you are among the elite, or at least of some means your chances of attending a local academy or Harvard College were not that great. But the American Revolution ushered in a new era of education in the United States that paved the way for the kinds of opportunities we take for granted today.
Education became seen as central to the survival of the Republic with local communities, states and the new federal government all interested in expanding education for some Americans though, not so much for others. And in the 1820s, Thomas Jefferson would embark on the last great project of his life, the founding of the University of Virginia, which he hoped would preserve the meaning of the Revolution as he understood it.
On today's show, we're fortunate to have two old chums return to the program to talk about the crucial role of education in early America. Dr. Mark Boonshoft is the Executive Director of the American Society for 18th Century Studies. And he is the author of Aristocratic Education and the Making of the American Republic, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2020.
We're joined by Dr. Andrew O’Shaughnessy. He's the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. And he recently authored the Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson's Idea of a University, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2021. So eat a good breakfast, make sure your pencils are sharpened and don't stick that gum under the desk, because today we're off to educate early Americans with Drs. Mark Boonshoft and Andrew O’Shaughnessy.
Mark Boonshoft, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, thank you very much for coming back on the program. You were both on early in the course of my tenure in the host chair as I began to build my empire. And so I'm delighted to have you back together talking about a very important topic, which is education. Education of course is essential to our lives.
It's very important in the modern era. We see it in the United States as the foundation of our civic life in a lot of ways, but it's also bound up in politics and I think we're gonna have a good time talking about how education in the Early Republic was bound up in politics. But Mark, let me start with you because I wanna talk a little bit about the purpose of education in Early America, before the American Revolution and what opportunities a middling individual like me might have had to receive an education before public education became ubiquitous in the centuries that came after.
Mark Boonshoft: Great place to start. Uh, and thanks again for having me back, Jim. So education before the Revolution was limited in most places, uh, in what became the United States. The place in the, in what became the United States that had the most available access to education was New England, where there were laws for town schools, for example, that were designed to basically instill literacy in the majority of the population.
And this was mostly for kind of religious purposes. Beyond that what we would consider elementary education was quite limited throughout most of what became the United States and access to education was especially more advanced education was really limited to those people with means to, to get whether it was private tutoring or other forms of private education, or even attending a university, you know, Harvard in the 17th century, William and Mary, Yale and those people would've been, uh, aspiring for careers in the ministry or the professions like being a lawyer or certain doctors.
To put it to in your terms, uh, I guess for a middling person like you, Jim, uh, the, the opportunities would've been limited. Um, but that's said, there was some night schools, for example, especially in cities where would be clerks or, um, you know, people who wanted to work in an accounting house could get math, education, penmanship, certain kinds of writing education.
And then there was also some limited female schooling, um, in the form often of finishing schools for elite girls. And the last point I should make is that there were attempts at missionary education, towards Indigenous People that worked to varying degrees of success and, uh, education for enslaved people was quite limited as it was for, uh, free African Americans in the North.
Jim Ambuske: And that makes sense. Part of your book focuses or much of your book focuses on this idea, or this institution called an academy, what precisely defines an academy in this period?
Mark Boonshoft: Academies were in theory, more advanced than the kind of town school, elementary education that you would find in New England, they would often have some sort of rudimentary classical training, uh, more advanced math, English composition, and, and oratory training, but really an academy was whatever anybody called an academy.
Um, and so you, you kind of had a range here. But they came into and they became very important in especially 18th century, British North America when immigration was booming, communities were forming and that meant churches were forming and outside of New England, which had Harvard and Yale or the Anglican Church in Virginia, which had William and Mary, uh, the problem was that pulpits weren't getting filled because you needed basically to be college educated, to be ordained as a minister in many of the kind of Protestant Reform Protestant denominations.
And so academies kind of came in to fill that void, um, and offered again, a sort of more advanced classical training that would be useful to a minister with the intention of, uh, kind of creating homegrown American clergy because right, it was a, was a bit of a tough sell to get an Oxford or Cambridge or an Edinborough educated minister to come to, especially, you know, Western Pennsylvania or places like this.
Uh, and so there was, uh, academies became kind of the solution, an institution that could be formed without too much oversight from an imperial state or from colonial government.
Jim Ambuske: Andrew, let's talk a little bit about Thomas Jefferson's early education life. And the subject of your book is the foundation of the University of Virginia and Jefferson's central role in that.
And I realize actually, just now we could talk about Jefferson's education or King George the Third's education. You could speak to both, but let's stick with TJ. Before Jefferson did a lot of other things, he grew up wanting to become a lawyer. What was his early educational experiences like?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: His sort of early childhood education consisted of attending very small plantation schools, one at Tuckahoe in which he got a pretty good basic, uh, education in the classics, but he went to the College of William and Mary when he was still 16.
This was where he really blossomed. He, uh, had an excellent tutor, the only lay faculty member of the College of William and Mary, which had incidentally at the time was the only college in the South and the second oldest in America after Harvard. William Small was very much a product of Scottish Enlightenment; he'd heard of some of the major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment and so familiarized [00:07:00] Jefferson with those ideas and he spent off and on about two years at the College and was then training as a lawyer.
But you know, this was also part of his education under George Wythe, who would later become the first professor of law of the College of William and Mary, but he always looked back on his early college years as really representing what he regarded as the ideal of an education, because Small introduced him to, Wythe and introduced him to the Colonial Governor Fauquier and they would have music evenings at the governor's mansion, and also discussions, current events and trends, intellectual trends.
And to him that was very stimulating and he felt that education should be about a community in which professors are in many ways, paternal figures to their students.
Jim Ambuske: Was Jefferson's education, then typical of the, uh, planter class, or was it distinctive in some ways?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: It was largely typical in the education system was much more elitist in the South, as we've mentioned, thanks really to the Puritan Movement and the emphasis on wanting every child to be able to read the Bible you had incredibly high levels of literacy in Massachusetts, Connecticut, probably the highest levels in any country, uh, except perhaps Scotland, which also had high levels of literacy for the same reason.
Uh, in Virginia, it was always a very elitist education. I, I'm always amused by the British Royal Governor there in the late 17th century, William Berkeley, who famously said, “thank goodness we don't have printing presses and books.” Uh, you know, it's just a source of sedition. On the other hand, the elite planters wanted to have an education partly in their quest for, uh, gentility and judging themselves really by the standards of gentility in the Mother Country, still a colonial system.
When Jefferson was in college, uh, and that education would principally be a classical education, Greek, Latin. Of course, we, we forget the classics was quite broad in its way because it introduced velocity, rhetoric, uh, history. And the great thing about studying classical Rome and Greece is you’re looking at a civilization that is now over and therefore you can look at the empire up, its rise and fall.
And so, it did have a lot to offer and we did see that the political figures in this period often use classical tropes to illustrate, um, their speeches, but in one way, Jefferson's education was different, um, that he was being introduced to science and introduced to the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. This was almost entirely because of William Small. It's interesting that Small did not spend very long at the College of William and Mary.
He returned to live in England. He became part of the famous Lunas Society, an intellectual group in Birmingham, which consisted of another figure who was to be very important to Jefferson later, Joseph Priestly. And it's possible that Jefferson really rather held that against the College, what he really was against, and I think is not really been properly observed by most people written about the university is that, um, he, not only wanted religion excluded no department of theology, no chapel, but he didn't even want clergy teaching at a college or indeed a public school.
And this is one of the reasons he never managed to get a public school system in place, but he, I think he felt that, uh, not only would they evangelize and one domination would, uh, dominate, that they would prevent the teaching of some subject areas or least not embrace them to the degree that he felt necessary.
Jim Ambuske: Building on that point, and Mark back to you, uh, we've introduced ideas of geography and religion here. And I wanna stick with religion for a moment, well I guess we can throw geography in too, because in the Mid-Atlantic it seems like there is a great concentration of academies, as you say, in your book, but also the fact that many of these academies are run by Presbyterian Synods and congregations.
One of the things that academies are supposed to do is pump out ministers. Why is there this interest in pumping out more ministers? And what's the context in which that rate need arises?
Mark Boonshoft: Yeah, this is a, a great question. So as both Andrew and I have been alluding to between Harvard, Yale and the town schools, New England pretty well had education, uh, under control, but they were the Puritan Society.
The Mid-Atlantic there's sort of two contexts here. One is the immigration that I mentioned earlier with lots of people coming from Ireland, uh, from Scotland, from Dutch speaking and German speaking nations. And those are different denominations. They were largely Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed church members, German Reformed, and then some Lutherans.
And then if you go south really, you're kind of into Anglican country. So that first of migration is happening in that Mid-Atlantic region and it becomes this kind of diverse and fertile ground for religious innovation. And so it's really an important side of what some historians call the Great Awakening, this kind of outpouring of evangelical religion, some of which is born of the fact that there aren't enough ministers.
And so people are searching for spiritual meaning and need to have it outside of the context of a relationship with a minister. And so a personal kind of born again relationship with God becomes desirable, but these denominations are also trying to maintain their own authority to maintain the social order.
And so academies become this kind of beachhead for establishing a colonial base of religious institutions, uh, and ministry and including ministers to kind of serve that growing population. So at the same time that they're building academies and there's competing ones, you'll have Evangelical Presbyterians building academies.
And then colleges, like, as you mentioned, Princeton, and you'll have this sort of non-evangelicals building competing ones. This is actually where the University of Delaware comes from, but they also are building, um, their own homegrown American kind of ecclesiastical institutions, synods, which are the kind of organizing body of Presbyterians and, and similar organizational structures among the reform churches.
And that's all kind of born in this ferment of the Awakening and an attempt to kind of create religious stability and religious life in a place of, of growth and diversity and, and energy.
Jim Ambuske: Why was it so significant that the elite be educated? I, I think we've got a little bit of hint, Andrew, in what you, uh, commented about, about the 17th century Virginia governor, but why was it so important for men like Jefferson, for elites to have that kind of education?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: It was obviously reinforced their status, their status. And it connected them with the Mother Country and the elite there. So, since really the Renaissance, the idea that, uh, a gentleman should be educated had come into vogue. And, uh, also of course there was a certain amount of practical education as well. Law was very popular and even if a person never practiced law, they would often need to know it, uh, if they were planters because of the inevitable cases in which they would be involved.
Interestingly, Jefferson was all in favor of a vocational education, but, uh, he stressed that a person needed a broader foundation. So, he thought lawyers should spending at least two or three years reading in other areas and becoming broadly educated before they specialize in law. Which is interesting, cause it really parallels the idea of treating professional education as postgraduate, a place like Columbia, you can't do business as an undergraduate, it has to be as graduate.
After the American Revolution,the idea then is that you need an educated class to put the interest of the country forward and to be what was known time as virtuous leaders. And it means what it does today. The virtuous also had the connotation of putting self-interest aside and acting for the public good.
And it was felt that people who had been educated, especially educated in Republican ideas and understood why former republics had failed that they would indeed act with the best intentions. Although Jefferson always knew the danger was that they wouldn't and therefore felt that a general public education was a good idea after the revolution, in order to hold those in power accountable.
Jim Ambuske: Before we get to the Revolution, I've been thinking a lot about Kate Carté's book on this notion of a Protestant empire. And I'm kind of wondering then how education before the war was both a means to reinforce a connection to Great Britain, but also I think Andrew you've suggested a kind of a potentially subversive element in American society.
Mark Boonshoft: A lot of the, uh, academies and colleges that form in this mid, especially in the Mid-Atlantic, um, but elsewhere too, in the mid 18th century, by the time of the Seven Years War are trying to make claims that they serve the overall interest of the empire by producing, uh, an elite that can stabilize things that is broad minded will make shrewd policies that will see themselves as somehow connected with the Mother Country.
And so, even if they're coming from, you know, dissenting churches, Presbyterians, right, there's an established church in England, it's the Anglican church, Presbyterians are not Anglicans. But even if they are coming from dissenting traditions, that they're still useful to the empire so the president of Princeton in 1760 gives a very famous oration celebrating at the death of king George the Second, for example.
They're trying to illustrate their utility there. And in the context of the Seven Years War, the fact that they're Protestant and not Catholic in the context of fighting the French is also useful to them. And so it's, it's an attempt to kind of reinforce their place in the empire.
They use similar arguments to in fact, get funding, for example, from people back in Britain, most often of their own denomination, but still they're kind of making it an argument that they are in part strengthening the empire, even if they had some subversive elements. And if, even if they were able to make, in retrospect, the American Colonies somewhat more independent.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: The Presbyterians were one of the most active religious groups in founding schools and universities, the Anglicans to some degree, but what they all shared in common was that not only did they want people to be able to read the Bible, but they also wanted to train ministry. The clergy needed to be trained.
This would be very different from Baptist and Methodists later on, or, or even Quakers who took much less interest, especially in higher education than the Presbyterians. And the Presbyterians ultimately went on to create the great majority of universities by the early 19th century. Uh, Yale became the most influential of the universities in terms of training college presidents.
But I think it's very telling that during the American Revolution, a third of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence had been to college. And similarly, a third who, uh, signed the Constitution and yet less than 1% of people, of just men attended college really beginning in the mid 18th century through to much of the, uh, 19th century.
So they, they played really a disproportionate role and lawyers also play a, a disproportionate role in all of these, uh, proceedings.
Jim Ambuske: Let's pick up on those threads there. And I, in my email to you, I made a distinction between the war's effect on American education and the Revolution. Let's, let's start with the war first and sort of the practical implications of a military conflict for American education.
Then we can move on to the capital R revolution. Mark, what, what's the status of American education during the war? What happens and, and what significance do you see there?
Mark Boonshoft: I really appreciate the distinction you're making here in, in this question between the, the war and the Revolution, the war is just unbelievably destructive to American education.
First of all, the teachers and students, especially at the academies and colleges, they're ambitious young men, um, and right, the war offers an opportunity and outlet for their ambitions. So they basically just run from the schools into the continental lines or militia service, and then some join kind of the British side and fight as loyalists.
And so the people are gone, so the schools are not gonna run. And then often academies and colleges had decent size buildings in a world where there aren't that many. And so they become barracks or store houses for supplies. And so many of them get blown up. There's famously on Nassau Hall at Princeton, supposedly a dent in the rock from a cannon ball.
You see this happening kind of across the country. So the physical infrastructure of education gets bombarded literally, and it interrupts other formal schooling as well as male heads of household are going into the service. So younger kids are, are then being drafted into doing more of the work in the home.
And so their opportunities for education are, are limited. And finally it's dividing religious denominations from their European counterparts. And so funding dries up to a certain extent. So just in all manner of ways, the war is just absolutely disruptive and destructive.
Jim Ambuske: But it sounds like though, then that a lot of the people who are in these academies are in these colleges, they become integral to the revolutionary movement itself.
In, in a military capacity, or as Andrew alluded to in a political or legal capacity as well.
Mark Boonshoft:Yeah, absolutely.
Jim Ambuske: Andrew let's pick up on that thread then. Jefferson's a lawyer. Uh, a lot of the, the men who are in the, uh, Continental Congress who sign the Declaration, who go on to sign the Constitution and frame it, are lawyers, are recipients of this education.
What do they bring to the table from those experiences that help shape the founding documents of the United States?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: Well, it, it gives them training in debate. Most of us don't formally receive, although rhetoric was very popular in this period. Um, the precise use of language and, uh, also of course in constitutionalism.
And I think that's why they played such an important role because this was a period of constitution writing. The state constitutions were written before the great federal Constitution. They were sort of dress rehearsal, and sometimes they rewritten many times, but it certainly needed a lawyer's skill.
And Jefferson was really masterly at, uh, drawing up bills, his bills very much like the Declaration of Independence. It had a preamble that explained the bill and gave a history and background to explain the backgrounds to why this measure was necessary in creating the university, drafted all bills. And they're also written in very clear English.
In fact, he joked with his ally in Creighton University, Joseph Cable, that, uh, you might want to make the language more confusing in the training of modern lawyers.
Jim Ambuske: And that trend has certainly continued that's for sure.
Jim Ambuske:After Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence there he’s the lead draftsman, uh, you know, he eventually goes back to Virginia because he, he sees the real action there and it's really keen to help with the new state constitution. But can you talk, Andrew, a little bit about some of Jefferson's early efforts to institute broader based education in Virginia in ways that I would imagine he hoped will become a model for other places in what is becoming the new United States.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: Well, of course the war was disruptive, but what is remarkable is how many of these political leaders were interested in education and that even as the war raged, they were thinking about the postwar society and the necessity of having a good educational system to uphold the Republic.
Uh, they were very aware that most revolutions end in Civil War and end in tyranny, and they saw education really as the great panacea that could protect the country from that fate. And so while literally Benedict Arnold is raiding the shores of Virginia, Jefferson in the legislature in 1779, produced a bill for the general diffusion of knowledge, uh, which would've created a public education system in Virginia.
It would've given both boys and girls three years of education. It has been said by some historians that he's been over praised for a bill that never passed. But I think it's important to just see how remarkable it was in the context of the time, there was no public education system in this period, anywhere, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Scotland, they came closer than anyone else. And Russia was beginning to experiment and certainly various of the absolutist countries dictants that indicated their intention of a public school education.
But the Prussian public school education wasn't really developed until the early 19th century. There’s one crucial difference between the plans in Europe and Jefferson’s. In Europe, they wanted, uh, education to strengthen government, uh, and to produce good bureaucrats as well of course, as professional people necessary.
And Jefferson obviously wanted, uh, highly educated people to help protect the Republican system.
Jim Ambuske: And Mark, thinking about Jefferson's activities in, you know, the late 1770s is an interest in public education. Is there, do we see similar things happening elsewhere, or are people trying to create academies in the midst of the war?
Even though there is a destructive military conflict taking place, but there is the opportunity to begin putting into practice these wider ideals.
Mark Boonshoft: I think Andrew's right, absolutely right. To emphasize just how wide ranging and creative some of the proposals were at this time, despite the war going on to reform American education. During the war years, you get this burst of thinking about public education, about education that is broader based for a citizenry that is not as elitist as it has been in the colonies and elsewhere in the world.
So you see, for example, I think five or six of those state constitutions that Andrew mentioned have provisions to provide for some public support for a broad base of education. In addition to Jefferson’s 1779 bill he's important figure in framing the Northwest Ordinances, which would require public education in the territories that eventually become states, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and so forth.
The Constitutional Convention considers the idea of having a national university. And then even the colleges, there's thoughts of reforming them to make them more republican. So that the classic example is, you know, King's College where Alexander Hamilton went becomes Columbia in 1784, sort of, as soon as the British leave, this is one of the first things that the New York state legislature deals with shortly after or before, my chronology is a little fuzzy here.
I, I'm forgetting, but what becomes the University of Pennsylvania is really transformed from this Anglican bastition to, uh, really a kind of Presbyterian one, but it is framed at least as conforming the university to kind of Republican principles. So there's this kind of effort to reimagine what education can be happening in the crucible of war.
The question of kind of, whether it comes to fruition is, uh, and when is a very different can of worms.
Jim Ambuske: Well,let's open that can of worms because they did. After the war, they, Americans had to decide what the purpose of education was going to be and reading both your work, it's very clear that there is a strong link between politics and education, both at the local level and certainly the national level as Americans are trying to figure out what they want this Republic to be.
Why does it become bound up in politics and what are some of the results?
Mark Boonshoft: I see the political figures at the time, focusing on education to solve kind of two interrelated problems. The first is how to create citizens who can self govern.
You have to kind of distribute a virtue on a broad base so that, uh, the populus is kind of attendant to the possibility of tyranny. Um, can understand the political machinations that are happening around them and guard against demagogues and, and the like, but there's also the challenge of providing a logic and underlying logic, a justification for inequality that that is who should rule in a republic, framed in a world of, uh, overthrowing hereditary power and proclaiming that all men are created equal.
And so right, you have to replace heredity and hereditary aristocracy with something else. And academic merit becomes this kind of foundational conceit underlying what they come to call, uh, a natural aristocracy or a natural aristocracy of merit. So that there's a justification for some person having power over another that's based on something other than birth.
But then the question becomes if education is not fully equal, is a natural aristocracy actually natural, or is it based in merit at all? Or is it really kind of recreating, um, the old forms of power under a new guise? Um, and so that's again where some of the ideas of state support for schooling comes in that progressive redistributive taxation is a way to kind of create a system of education that actually brings all the people into the same building.
So you can really measure merit, create equal opportunity, and really actually replace this hereditary system with something based in those revolutionary ideals that all men are created equal and that therefore talent is distributed equally among the ranks of people.
Jim Ambuske: Andrew, as we had talked about during the war itself, Jefferson had started to make some moves to establish broader based education.
What does he see as the function of education in the postwar period as Americans are trying to figure out, you know, one, what is an American supposed to be, but also how are Americans supposed to govern themselves?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: Well, his bill for the general diffusion of knowledge, this is the bill for public schools that he put forward in 1779, the case that it makes is basically that education is for specific reasons and that this is to have schools educate the general population so that they can hold government accountable if, and when, they have, uh, voting rights.
Obviously women didn't have voting rights at the time, neither here nor anywhere in the world, but, uh, he saw the importance of women in terms of educating children at home in the early years and value therefore basic education. It's interesting in his later discussions of education that he doesn't just try to justify it in those terms.
And we should never forget he was a politician and that, uh, politics is the art of the possible. I mean, people pointed out that, uh, it was a pyramid scheme, the best, and the brightest would go to college, but only a very tiny percentage of people would ever get, uh, scholarships and be paid for by the state.
Um, whether that was what he wanted or just what he knew he could, uh, get, um, and I think we tend to forget that. Um, and it certainly seems to me that he was aware of the value of education. More generally, not least as bringing people pleasure and happiness, uh, in life and bringing about progress in the sciences in innovation.
And he always understood the vocational value and he, he also, uh, believed in education for its own sake. Uh, people tend to think he was a STEM person, science technology, engineering, mathematics, uh, and certainly he put great emphasis on people, uh, receiving, uh, background in modern science. But, uh, the term science was used very generally in this period.
Uh, it was, it was more a methodology than a particular discipline. It was, um, ideas based on reason and factual deduction and empirical approach to evidence. So he, for example, later when he founded the University thought that Anglosaxon was essential cause it gave people a background in their language.
It was very important for understanding the legal system, uh, and you know, he believed in this myth that the Anglosaxon had the first early republican style government.
Jim Ambuske: Mark, let's come back to you and talk about these pernicious Federalists, because they are in power in a sense after the Revolution, but more specifically with the adoption of the Constitution for a time.
And Federalists, as we know, get clobbered in Jefferson's Revolution of 1800, but besides the federal judiciary where they make a lot of appointments, it seems like education was where they had a lasting influence that survived their political power.
Mark Boonshoft: Federalists basically control education policy in every state through about 1800 and a little later in other places.
So this is a, the question is based on, I think empirical reality, and I think what's important to note is the context in which they start to focus their attention on education is not all that dissimilar from what we've talked about and what Jefferson's seeing about the creation of a republic or some of these other groups that are pushing for, you know, these constitutional provisions.
But, they have a particular interpretation of what's happening around them, particularly in the 1780s, where they see state governments passing laws, uh, paper money laws, debt relief laws, things like this that are compromising the stability of, of newly won independence.
And they blame a lot of what's happening at the state level on essentially democratic excess, that kind of uneducated less well to do people are coming into power and passing these kind of myopic policies. So they're concerned with remedying, uh, that to a certain, to a certain extent. And so I, Andrew brought up this distinction earlier where Jefferson sees education as necessary for kind of training people to be a check on power.
Whereas if you look in, in monarchies, like in, in the Prussian system, they're kind of training bureaucrats to uphold and, and strengthen the central state or, uh, or what have you. And I think Federalists are kind of in that latter camp, that they see education as a way to strengthen central state power, but also kind of good governance at the state level by creating schools and they focus their attention on academies. Again, to train liberally minded, broadly minded, classically educated, young men of already kind of reasonable status who they believe will not be doing the kinds of things that those uneducated folks were doing at the state level in the 1780s.
So they get state governments to charter, to give kind of legal existence to huge numbers of academies. They funnel money to these schools that are again, really training a presumptive elite, a group of people that are more or less the local gentry, county level kind of children of county level, a well to-do lawyers.
And, and, and the like, and they're focusing on really, you know, the classics and oratory and, and things to create the kind of leadership group, a gentile elite that, that Andrew was describing before. And so whether they're training a natural aristocracy of merit that is somehow different than a hereditary aristocracy is, you know, maybe an open question and really to some people, it seems like what they're doing is really laundering the privilege of this, uh, existing group providing a kind of republican justification through education of reifying, the power of people who already had access to it for reasons that are not entirely tied to talent or merit.
Uh, and so to say, people deserve to be in power because they're, uh, well educated when education is completely inaccessible to, you know, the 20% of the population who are African American, access to power is not available to women and even poor white men in most of the country are still having trouble getting access to these academies is kind of, uh, a tough sell.
Jim Ambuske: And it goes into this idea that elites in hierarchy, maintains stability. How do you keep society together if you don't have class distinctions and then those class distinctions have different levels of education?
Andrew, one of the most important points I think you make in your book is that you cannot disentangle Jefferson's founding of the University of Virginia from his own biography and his own life. And a lot of what he's doing in the 1790s, and certainly past 1800, is pushing back against the Federalist vision for the republic.
How do we see Jefferson's political ideology manifest itself in his desire to create an institution like the University of Virginia?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: This is a point that I think is being missed by virtually everyone who's written on the university. And that is, um, that the reason that he was so concerned to found a university and in fact have a good education system in the South more generally was that, um, he regarded Northern colleges as being too dominated by religion.
And you saw them basically as proselytizing and he was even more alarmed that they were all Federalist colleges for the most, uh, part. And that, that surprisingly, that was also true in the south where federalism was much, um, weaker. And it's very telling to me that he first put forward the idea of a University of Virginia, rather than simply a separate institution and new institution rather than simply reforming the College of William and Mary.
He puts this forward in 1800 in the midst, really of a, uh, bruising presidential election. And he, he was very bitter during that election that some of his harshest critics and opponents were clergy in the North, but not least the presidents of universities in the North, the leading offender was Timothy Dwight, a Yale University, who's president of it, um, who was warning everyone that, uh, they'd be forced to learn the French Revolutionary Anthem La Marseillaise..
And that they would be turned into atheists if Jefferson became president and essentially, and a year later, he was asking students to pledge that they would never vote for Thomas, uh, Jefferson. And of course, Jefferson thought, uh, that the Federalists would destroy the legacy of the American Revolution, that they were crypto monarchists, they'd turned America into a satellite of Britain.
And so he saw this, uh, as critical that, uh, that should-be colleges that would inculcate the real principles as he saw them of 1776. Uh, some of course have inevitably regarded his, um, fears of Northern colleges as linked to slavery and abolitionists. But it's actually not a very convincing argument because Northern colleges were not abolitionists.
And places like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, uh, were very conducive to slave owners. And Princeton, a third of its students right up to the Civil War were from the, uh, South and furthermore, the issue of slavery while it certainly appeared during the Constitutional Convention, but it was not what divided the two political parties.
It was only later that some of the, uh, Federalists became abolitionist, but those in the South of the same party were not abolitionists. In fact, they were critical in Charleston, South Carolina of Jefferson having talked to Benjamin Banneker and they used that, um, in their campaign against him, he was the free Black mathematician who basically asked Jefferson to make good on the pledges of the Declaration of Independence.
Furthermore, Jefferson always said he himself was anti-slavery. A lot of people have seen it as hypocritical and not really meant, but, uh, he would be insisting to the end of his life that, um, if the issue was not addressed, it would lead to bloodshed. He saw it as an urgent issue, but again, he felt it was for another generation to do.
And part of the idea of the university is it would be the best and the brightest who would bring about progress. Uh, he said that we will be regarded as future generations, like our witch burning ancestors.
Jim Ambuske: This is a good moment to ask about the legacies of Early American education in our own time.
Andrew let's continue on with you then. What do you see as the legacies of Jeffersonian ideas of education?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: Well, I think one of the legacies is that, uh, America has some of the highest literacy rates in the world. The South obviously lagged behind for a long way. Although it did see a lot of difference among the white population in the South with England in the same period. And indeed it may be one of the factors which really accounts for the decline in both places and a failure to, as it were, keep up with the economic, um, competition.
Certainly a lot of his ideas for university have had a huge impact and in many ways anticipate the modern university, uh, the idea of a secular university, virtually every college at the time in America required that students go not just once a week to chapel, but twice a day, another major innovation was, um, the idea of an elective curriculum.
This had already been tried at the University of North Carolina and College of William and Mary, but Jefferson's university really popularized that, um, idea and then many others, it's really the first university to start using exams and a real emphasis on the lecture rather than recitation, which it may be unbelievable but those still using recitation at Harvard, um, in this period.
The other thing I think that really stands out about the United States today and that we can trace from this period is just the sheer number of colleges and proportion who go to college and the emphasis on our education. So even by the Revolution, amazingly there were nine colleges in America.
Remember England only had two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, and, uh, the first university to be founded outside of Oxford and Cambridge was in the late 1820s, University College London. That later became part of London University, which incidentally was very likely influenced by Jefferson who sent his plans to the founders of that university, and two of their first faculty were from the University of Virginia.
So the, the real connections there. But the fact that as many as forty percent today spend at least some time in college, I think that a huge impact on the economy, the system more generally and of course, a lot of people are don't and don't finish their degree, but it does open them up to the value of ideas and to thinking.
You know, a great weakness in England in the 1950s and 1960s was the quality in managers and really the, in business and the very low levels of education was very likely they'd not been to university.
I once gave a series of talks on the Queen Mary. The particular ship, 50% were American, 50% British. And yet Americans attended the lectures by two to one and not just my lectures, uh, but those of British lecturers on British subjects. And so of course the speakers were constantly discussing. Why, why do Americans go to these lectures more?
And it only occurred to me afterwards that most of these were people over 60. And I proportion that those from Britain would've gone through the system when only 5 or 6% were going to university and then nearly all male. And so there there'd been a huge difference and therefore I think less willingness and almost a fear of exposing oneself by going into a lecture.
Jim Ambuske: That's really fascinating, Mark, uh, what say you? I think, was it Noah Webster who, who coined the phrase, republican laws and monarchical education or something to that effect? What do you see as a legacy?
Mark Boonshoft: Yeah, that, that was Webster in his, uh, sort of pracy on importance of education in, uh, republics. I think that the fact that this generation emphasized the civic importance of education above all else is something worth, uh, remembering.
I, you know, I'm somewhat cynical about our current state in, of education in the United States, uh, especially college education, which seems to have been increasingly, increasingly pushed to emphasize career readiness and, and that has trickled down into the K-12 space where college and career readiness is kind of the mantra.
But, you know, I think thinking about the role of education in democratic life was at the forefront in the period that both Andrew and I write about. And, and I think that's disappearing, but I also think on a more specific level, some of the critiques that are were offered, especially by Jeffersonians of the Federalist education policies ring very true to me, um, now.
They were of a mind that if elites educated themselves separately, that that would undermine any prospect of equal opportunity because it would kind of keep elites from investing in a system that served all, and that would undermine, you know, really the promises of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and that it was, it, it fell to the state to create a, a system that raised up every one.
And I think that their critique of the idea that academic merit is real in certain sense in a system where education is unequal, uh, is, is a really valuable one. And we have an increasingly, uh, unequal school system. Uh, the heyday of integrated, that is racially integrated education in the United States was the year I was born 1988.
We have gone down from there ever since. Right? So we are actually increasingly unequal in schooling in, in the United States. And yet the preeminence of people with certain educational pedigrees in politics and public life is really grown in that time. And the notion, the importance of higher education and the pedigree of where one goes to school is increased tremendously.
You can see this in like the admission rates going down, down, down at the most selective private colleges and, and, you know, public Ivies like UVA, for example. Um, and so we are living in a world of increasing inequality, but where education is becoming even more of a basis for, um, one stature in society and I think the Jeffersonians had a pretty shrewd, on point critique of that
Jim Ambuske: More Conversations after the break.
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Mark, what book are you reading right now?
Mark Boonshoft: Well, I just finished Andrew’s, so that was great.
So, but I won't use that as my answer. Uh, the history book I'm reading right now is, uh, Samantha Seeley's Race, Removal, and the Right to Remain, which is a sort of study of, um, migration and forced removal in the Early Republic and how that shaped the boundaries of belonging and who counted as citizens, but also how, um, Native Americans and free African Americans pushed back against kinda racially exclusionary policies.
I'm only part way through, but it's really tremendous.
Jim Ambuske: That's on my list as well. Andrew what's on the, uh, nightstand at the moment?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: I've similarly read Mark’s, uh, book, uh, which I must say it's really the only book that I know that, uh, covers the topic of the academies, which was such an important part of American education.
It seems almost unbelievable to me that it's a topic that's neglected given the number of educational schools and the number of those people who write on education. It was also very broad. He didn't just take, uh, it's not the typical monographs. I chaired the George Washington Prize this year and we recommended that as one of the finalists, my, uh, committee did not get to choose the winner, but, um, I was delighted though that your name was put forward, uh, for some much deserved recognition of the book.
Um, the most recent book, uh, that I read was Roy Porter on the British Enlightenment, which is quite an old book, um, in that it's from about 2004 or 5, but, uh, an excellent book on the subject. Not least because most people don't think of England, at least when they think of the Enlightenment. Uh, and he reminds us that the three key figures that are seen as foundational to the Enlightenment, Bacon, Newton, and Locke, you know, they're all English and Jefferson regarded them as his Holy Trinity.
Interesting that he identified those three and had their portraits up in his parlor together. I have to say in lockdown, I've been reading quite widely on a number of areas. Um, and one book that I enjoyed the most, that's not very dated, but when I was talking about my last book, The Men Who Lost America, a lot of people said, have you ever read David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest about Vietnam.
And I must admit this engaged me more with the Vietnam era than any book that I've read. It seems to me that it would be great for any leadership or decision making course. And I see huge parallels between, uh, that and the British during the American Revolution. Indeed, I'm going to be writing a paper in an article, uh, drawing on my previous book, uh, to make the case and to look at the American Revolution as a counter insurrectionary warfare for the British, I see real parallels to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and it's not that those conflicts are unwinnable, there's always the choice and the British made in Ireland of just keeping for certain their army there in the 18th century and, uh, occupying a place for several hundred years.
But, uh, eventually people decide it's not that they've defeated these great powers, they just decide that the cost and benefits are too great and outweigh the benefit.
Jim Ambuske: Mark, who is the author you most admire?
Mark Boonshoft: Andrew had really kind things to say about my book. And so actually, interestingly, the person I lost to Mary Beth Norton is, uh, very high on my, my list of authors I most admire. She writes incredibly lucid, but complex books about, uh, range of topics in Early American history. And, and I aspire to, to be like her.
And then I just want to also shout out my, my old dissertation advisor, John Brook, who as a, as a kind of researcher who asks big questions, but digs into the weeds of archival research is always been a model for me and in just framing the work I do. And so between the two of them, I think that's sort of the authors that are my, my lone stars.
Jim Ambuske: Andrew, how about you?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: And I felt certainly Mary Beth Norton, uh, I was glad to see her as a winner because I think it's almost like a lifetime achievement award and all of her books often have a fresh perspective on the topic that's we regard as very familiar. So I think that is quite, uh, remarkable.
I was a big fan of Pauline Maier, who won the George Washington Prize. And it meant a huge amount to her because despite her great reputation, she said to me, and of course she is now deceased, she had never won a prize before. So this is, I think, an illustration of the good that Mount Vernon can do.
Um, I suppose the great one for me was Bernard Bailyn, but I obviously betray my interest in high politics. Um, but he did write a number, his first book was on education and, uh, he did write on immigration, uh, and political ideology. Nevertheless, I find it ironic that historians spend so much time talking about the leadership and the White House.
In the current era and yet seem not to think that doing high politics for other periods is necessary or important, and they prefer the bottom up as they call it, uh, approach. Whereas I think it matters a great deal who is at the top and, uh, they can make real changes, uh, that are beneficial or very negative.
And it's not just about agency of those below them. Although those below them can restrict what they're able to do, but also empower.
Jim Ambuske: Uh, sticking with you, Andrew, what's the most exciting document you've ever found in your research?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: Well, I, this last book, uh, what was it? I know I'm very lucky because I have the Jefferson Papers right next door to myself. Who are editing, who are editing as we speaking ten of them documents relating to the period of Jefferson’s retirement and his founding of the University. And what is exciting me collectively is that this is the most richly documented period of Jefferson's life.
Uh, to the extent that at times you can feel as though you are in the room, you know, you can describe what it was like for a student to go up and dine at Monticello. And it's really quite amusing that the student described how, uh, firstly, Jefferson was going deaf in the last year of his life, but he, he just pushed his chair back.
Because he wanted to see the students talking to each other and to be animated some of these students since then it as young as 16, um, some of them couldn't spell word republic, they spelled it with a “b.” One of the students described how Jefferson's daughter Martha sort of gently teased him during the dinner, and he invited every student to dinner on a Sunday night in groups of three, anything up to seven, uh, so that every student in the University dined with him and she started teasing him saying he doesn't like novels and we gave him, uh, Sir Walter Scott and he disliked it.
Um, but then she was a very mischievous and said, I just love reading, uh, William Blackstone's, uh, legal commentaries. Well, nobody would read any legal book, I think, just for fun. But she knew that that would be particularly grating to him, cause he almost wanted to have that book banned from the university.
He thought that it would turn American lawyers into Tories and monarchists so it was a real tease that quite amusing, uh, in terms of their relationship. Oh, incidentally, you asked me for specific documents, the, thanks to the papers, we found three drafts of the Rockfish Commission, which is the commission, creating the university but also the blueprint for what the university was going to be like.
And we can see the evolution of Jefferson's thinking and also his brilliance as a politician. And this really came across to me writing the book. And so he'd already drafted the report before these 22 or so commissioners met and they were elected, you know, they were appointed by the governor from throughout the state and they pretty well just voted in support for all the, uh, various terms that he wanted.
Jim Ambuske: Mark?
Mark Boonshoft: I said I had just finished Andrew's book and, and he has all this, all of this comes through in just evocative ways, all, all of what he's just described. And I found myself jealous of some of the source base that, that Andrew had for this, uh, 1810s and 1820s period of Jefferson's life. Um, cuz sometimes, uh, studying education, uh, as important as it is, you know, you're reading, uh, it can be dry documents about boards of trustee meetings and things are not always the most exciting.
But uh, so sometimes I was, you know, I think this is important for people to understand, sometimes historical research is just powering through. But there is one document that I remember finding in the archives and just pumping my fists. Um, and it was this, uh, diary day book kept by somebody named John Stockholm.
I found it in at, at the Firestone Library at Princeton University in the Ashbel Green Papers. I, I may have unraveled why they were in there, why I was in there, or asked a curator more likely, but, but I don't remember. But in any event, John Stockholm was a, from 1780-1781, and he was a school teacher in, um, Elizabethtown area of New Jersey, and it's a diary of him keeping school, what he's reading, and then periodically mustering with the militia to, you know, fight off, uh, British invasions and then just going back to school so that it was the most illustrative source I, I had for kind of showing the way the war was when we talked about earlier, disruptive and kind of destructive to American education was this brief diary, wonderfully fun source to use.
Jim Ambuske: That's fantastic. Mark, sticking with you right now. How do you hope people remember your work?
Mark Boonshoft: I hope they remember it. Um, uh, I'll go with rigorous and analytical, but yet readable. I think I'm, I'm a historian who, who writes based on questions, um, and problems that I see in the historical record in our historical understanding rather than I, I don't think I'm very good with actually writing about people and that is often the best way to, to write accessible books.
But, but, I hope I can write in a readable and accessible way in this mode that I, I prefer, or at least I think I'm better suited to.
Jim Ambuske: Well, I, vouch that you have. Uh, Andrew?
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: I'd certainly endorse Mark's comments about writing readable and engaging books. Uh, we are one of the few subject areas which can really speak to a larger public.
And of course not all books would be suited to general readers and we, we still need those books, whether it be something like a demography of New England and the 17th century, and that kind of scholarship is necessary. But when you can engage readers, I also like to think that I put all of my topics in a broader context from outside America.
Um, I am particularly influenced by an imperial approach to the American Revolution, looking at the, that didn't rebel, looking at the policies Britain pursued before the American Revolution outside America, that tells us a lot about, uh, what they were doing in America. And similarly, the colonies that didn't rebel tell us quite a bit about those that, uh, did.
Um, and even with this last book, uh, that seems much more a book about a domestic book, but of course all the great influences on education were actually coming from Europe. And, uh, Jefferson's gift was not necessarily to completely invent an idea, but he had a brilliant gift of synthesis and blending ideas and influences and in a way that was novel, which is of course, what a lot of musicians do, uh, when they come up with a new song taking from different traditions and other musicians that they, uh, admire.
And, uh, that I think was his real gift.
Jim Ambuske: Mark, Andrew, thank you very much. This has been a delight. I'm pleased to have you back and look forward to seeing you in person sometime soon.
Mark Boonshoft: Likewise. Thanks, Jim.
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: Thank you.
Jim Ambuske: Thanks for joining us today on Conversations, a production of the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. I'm Jim Ambuske, your host and producer. Jeanette Patrick offered editorial assistance with additional support provided by Mount Vernon's Media and Communications Department. Our music is “Witches Brew” by C.K. Martin.
Be sure to subscribe to Conversations on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you get your favorite programs. If you like the show, please rate and review it on your favorite podcast app. Find this and other episodes by heading over to our website georgewashingtonpodcast.com. Thanks and we'll see you next time.
Mark Boonshoft is the Executive Director of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and a historian of early America. After receiving a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University (2015), Mark worked on the Early American Manuscripts Project as a post-doctoral fellow in the New York Public Library’s manuscripts division. His first book, Aristocratic Education and the Making of the American Republic, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in fall 2020, and was a finalist for the 2021 George Washington Book Prize.
Author | Historian
Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy is Vice President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. His previous books include An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean and The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, winner of the George Washington Book Prize.