Tyranny Founded on Ignorance

Grammar School in 1790s. By: Granger.

The early Republic were the years where American civil society was developing its own distinctive character. One component of that civil society was the newly created educational institutions, which many early Americans viewed as one of the safeguards against the dangerous ignorance that was supposed to allow a monarchy to continue.

For example, Simeon Doggett stated in Discourse on Education “that the mode of government in any nation will always be moulded by the state of education. The throne of tyranny is founded on ignorance. Literature and liberty go hand in hand.” Simeon Doggett, Discourse on Education (1797), in Frederick Rudolph, ed., Essays on Education in the Early Republic (Cambridge, MA, 1965), 155-56.

These ideals were captured in Massachusetts’ constitution: “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue diffused generally among the people . . . [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”

Thomas Jefferson was also a proponent of these ideals, and he developed a plan for the education system in Virginia in the 1779 Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. In this bill, he proposed a “three-tiered pyramid of local education. At the base would be three years of free elementary schools for all white children, boys and girls. The next level offered twenty regional academies with free tuition for selected boys . . . Finally, the state would support the best ten needy academic students at the university level, the aristocracy of talent that he described as ‘the most precious gift of nature.'” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 473 quoting Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston, 1948), 282-83.

While Jefferson’s system, and other similar systems dreamed up by intellectuals, ultimately were not implemented in their imagined forms, it set the groundwork for the familiar system we know today to be created in the late 1800s. See Daniel Walker Howe, Church, State, and Education in the Young American Republic, JER, 22 (2002), 1-24.

The early Republicans imagined a universal education system throughout the country that would provide high quality education but notably only for white children. This backward thinking unfortunately characterized many of the early Americans, who had no regard for minorities. Despite that shortcoming, many of the Republicans’ dreams for the educational system in the country came to fruition.

While the American education system has come under intense scrutiny and questioned for its position in the world, the early ideals of having an informed, educated population raised from a young age has generally come true. Most importantly, it may be debatable, but most would agree that the widespread ignorance that permitted tyranny in the late 1700s has all but disappeared.

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