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On Education
Speech of Representative Thaddeus Stevens, in the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,
April 11, 1835 "On Free Public Schools"

Page One

    Mr. Speaker: I will briefly give you the reasons why I shall oppose the repeal of the school law. This law was passed at the last session of the legislature with unexampled unanimity, but one member of this House voting against it. It has not yet come into operation, and none of its effects have been tested by experience in Pennsylvania. The passage of such a law is enjoined by the Constitution; and has been recommended by every Governor since its adoption. Much to his credit, it has been warmly urged by the present Executive in all his annual messages delivered at the opening of the Legislature. To repeal it now, before its practical effects have been discovered, would argue that it contained some glaring and pernicious defect; and that the last Legislature acted under some strong and fatal delusion, which blinded every man of them to the interests of the Commonwealth. 

   I will attempt to show that the law is salutary, useful and important; and that consequently the last Legislature acted wisely in passing, and the present would act unwisely in repealing it; that instead of being oppressive to the people, it will lighten their burdens, while it elevates them in the scale of human intellect.

    It would seem to be humiliating to be under the necessity, in the nineteenth century, of entering into a formal argument to prove the utility, and to free governments the absolute necessity, of education. More than two thousand years ago, the deity who presided over intellectual endowments ranked highest for dignity, chastity and virtue, among the goddesses worshiped by cultivated pagans. And I will not insult this House or our constituents by supposing any course of reasoning necessary to convince them of its high importance. Such necessity would be degrading to a Christian age and a free Republic! 

   If then, education be of admitted importance to the people under all forms of government, and of unquestioned necessity when they govern themselves, it follows of course that its cultivation and diffusion is a matter of public concern, and a duty which every government owes to its people. In accordance with this principle, the ancient republics, who were most renowned for their wisdom and success, considered every child born subject to their control, as the property of the State, so far as its education was concerned; and during the proper period of instruction, they were withdrawn from the control of their parents, and placed under the guardianship of the Commonwealth. There all were instructed at the same school; all were placed on perfect equality, the rich and the poor man's sons, for all were deemed children of the same common parent -- the Commonwealth. Indeed, where all have the means of knowledge placed within their reach, and meet at common schools on equal terms, the forms of Government seem of less importance to the happiness of the people than is generally supposed; or rather, such a people are seldom in danger of having their rights invaded by their rulers. They would not long be invaded with impunity. Prussia, whose form of Government is absolute monarchy, extends the blessing of free schools into every corner of the kingdom -- to the lowest and poorest of the people. With a population equal to our whole Union, she has not more than 20,000 children who do not enjoy its advantages. And the consequence is, that Prussia, although governed by an absolute monarch, enjoys more happiness, and the rights of the people are better respected than in any other form of Government in Europe. 

    If an elective Republic is to endure for any great length of time, every elector must have sufficient information, not only to accumulate wealth and take care of his pecuniary concerns, but to direct wisely the Legislatures, the ambassadors, and the Executive of the Nation -- for some part of all these things, some agency in approving or disapproving of them, falls to every freeman. If, then, the permanency of our Government depends upon such knowledge, it is the duty of Government to see that the means of information be diffused to every citizen. This is a sufficient answer to those who deem education a private and not a public duty -- who argue that they are willing to educate their own children, but not their neighbor's children.

      But while but few are found ignorant and shameless enough to deny the advantages of general education, many are alarmed at its supposed burdensome operation. A little judicious reflection, or a single year's experience, would show that education, under the free-school system, will cost more than one-half less, and afford better and more permanent instruction, than the present disgraceful plan pursued by Pennsylvania. Take a township of six miles square and make the estimate; such townships, on an average, will contain about 200 children to be schooled. The present rate of tuition generally (in the country) is two dollars per quarter. If the children attend school two quarters each year, such township would pay $800 per annum.  Take the free school system -- lay the township off into districts three miles square; the farthest scholars would then have one mile and a half to go, which would not be too far. It would require four schools. These will be taught, I presume, as in other States, three months in the winter by male, and three months in the summer by female teachers; good male teachers can be had at from sixteen to eighteen dollars per month and board themselves; females at nine dollars per month. Take the highest price,


         eighteen dollars for three months, would be                     $54.00
         And then for females at $9 for three months                       27.00

         Each school should cost                                                        81.00
         Four to a township                                                                       4

          The price now paid for the same is                                      800.00

          Saving for each township of six miles square, $476.00 per


    If the instruction of 200 scholars will save by the free school law $476, the 500,000 children in Pennsylvania will save $1,190,000! Very few men are aware of the immense amount of money which the present expensive and partial mode of education costs the people. Pennsylvania has half a million of children, who either do go or ought to go to school six months of the year. If they do go, at two dollars per quarter, their schooling costs two millions of dollars per annum! If they do not go when they are able, their parents deserve to be held in disgrace. Where they are unable, if the State does not furnish the means, she is criminally negligent. But by the free school law, that same amount of education which would now cost two millions of dollars, could be supplied at less than one-third of this amount. The amendment which is now proposed as a substitute for the school law of last session is, in my opinion, of a most hateful and degrading character. It is a re-enactment of the pauper law of 1809. It proposes that the assessors shall take a census, and make a record of the poor. This shall be revised, and a new record made by the County Commissioners, so that the names of those who have the misfortune to be poor men's children shall be forever preserved, as a distinct class, in the archives of the county! The teacher, too, is to keep in his school a pauper book,  and register the names and attendance of poor scholars; thus pointing out and recording their poverty in the midst of their companions. 

Sir, hereditary distinctions of rank are sufficiently odious; but that which is founded on poverty is infinitely more so.  Such a law should be entitled "An act for the branding and marking the poor, so that they may be known from the rich and proud." 

   Many complain of the school tax, not so much on account of its amount, as because it is for the benefit of others and not themselves. This is a mistake. It is for their own benefit, inasmuch as it perpetuates the government and ensures the due administration of the laws  under which they live, and by which their lives and property are protected. Why do they not urge the same objection against all other taxes? The industrious, thrifty, rich farmer pays a heavy county tax to support criminal courts, build jails, and pay sheriffs and jail-keepers, and yet probably he never has had and never will have any direct personal use for either. He never gets the worth of his money by being tried for a crime before the court, allowed the privilege of the jail on conviction, or receiving an equivalent from the sheriff or his hangmen officers! He cheerfully pays the tax which is necessary to support and punish convicts, but loudly complains of that which goes to prevent his fellow-being from becoming a criminal, and to obviate the necessity of those humiliating institutions.

    This law is often objected to because its benefits are shared by the children of the profligate spendthrift equally with those of the most industrious and economical habits. It ought to be remembered that the benefit is bestowed not upon the erring parents, but the innocent children. Carry out this objection, and you punish the children for the crimes or misfortunes of their parents. You virtually establish cases and grades, founded on no merit of the particular generation, but on the demerits of their ancestors; an aristocracy of the most odious and insolent kind--the aristocracy of wealth and pride.

   It is said that its advantages will be unjustly and unequally enjoyed, because the industrious, money-making man, keeps his whole family constantly employed, and has but little time for them to spend at school; while the idle man has but little employment for his family, and they will constantly attend school. I know, sir, that there are some men, whose whole souls are so completely absorbed in the accumulation of wealth, and whose avarice so increases with success, that they look upon their very children in no other light than as instruments of gain -- that they, as well as the ox and the ass within their gates, are valuable only in proportion to their annual earnings. And, according to the present system, the children of such men are reduced almost to an intellectual level with their co-laborers of the brute creation. This law will be of vast advantage to the offspring of such misers. If they are compelled to pay their taxes to support schools, their very meanness will induce them to send their children to them to get the worth of their money.  Thus it will extract good out of the very penuriousness of the miser. Surely a system which will work such wonders, ought to be as greedily sought for, and more highly prized, than that coveted alchemy which was to produce gold and silver out of the blood and entrails of vipers, lizards, and other filthy vermin!

   Why, sir, are the colleges and literary institutions of Pennsylvania now, and ever have been, in a languishing and sickly condition? Why with a fertile soul and genial climate, has she, in proportion to her population, scarcely one-third as many collegiate students, as cold, barren New England? The answer is obvious: She has no free schools.  Until she shall have, you may in vain endow college after college; they will never be filled, or filled only by students from other States. In New England free schools plant the seeds and the desire of knowledge in every mind, without regard to the wealth of the parent or the texture of the pupil's garments. When the seed, thus universally sown, happens to fall on fertile soil, it springs up and is fostered by a generous public, until it produces its glorious fruit. Those who have but scanty means, and are pursuing a collegiate education, find it necessary to spend a portion of the year in teaching common schools; thus imparting the knowledge which they acquire, they raise the dignity of the employment to a rank which it should always hold, honorable in proportion to the high qualifications necessary for its discharge. Thus devoting a portion of their time to acquiring the means of subsistence, industrious habits are forced upon them, and their minds and bodies become disciplined to a regularity and energy which is seldom the lot of the rich.
It is no uncommon occurrence to see the poor man's son, thus encouraged by wise legislation, far outstrip and bear off laurels from the less industrious heirs of wealth. Some of the ablest men of the present and past days never could have been educated except for that benevolent system. Not to mention any of the living, it is well known that that architect of an immortal name, who "plucked the lightnings from heaven, and the sceptre from tyrants," was the child of free schools. Why shall Pennsylvania now repudiate the system which is calculated to elevate her to that rank in the intellectual, which, by the blessing of Providence, she holds in the natural world? To be the key-stone of the arch, the "very first among her equals?" I am aware, sir, how, difficult it is for the great mass of the people, who have never seen it in operation, to understand its advantages.  But is it not wise to let it go into full operation, and learn its results from experience? Then, if it prove useless or burdensome, how easy to repeal it! I know how large a portion of the community can scarcely feel any sympathy with, or understand the necessities of, the poor; or appreciate the exquisite feelings which they enjoy when they see their children receiving the boon of education, and rising intellectual superiority above the clogs which hereditary poverty had cast upon them. It is not wonderful that he whose fat acres have descended to him from father to son in unbroken succession, should never have become familiar with misery, and therefore should never have sough the surest means of alleviating it. Sir, when I reflect how apt hereditary wealth, hereditary influence, and perhaps, as a consequence, hereditary pride are to close the avenues and steel the heart against the wants and the rights of the poor, I am induced to thank my Creator for having, from early life, bestowed upon me the blessing of poverty. Sir, it is a blessing -- for if there be any human sensation more ethereal and divine than all others, it is that which feelingly sympathies with misfortune.


Continue to Page Two

See also Stevens' Speech in Favor of a Bill to
Establish a School of Arts in the City of Philadelphia






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