In the United States, May 1 is National College Decision Day, the deadline for prospective college students to commit to their institution of higher education. In recognition of this momentous day, I give you Horace Mann, the founder of the common school (i.e., public education) in America.

Horace Mann (Image from

In the early centuries of America, children learned to read at the laps of their parents, first tracing and sounding out the letters, then attempting some book, more often than not the Bible. Books like The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The England Primer supplemented this learning, and by and large this reading education, along with instruction in legible writing and basic ciphering, was all that a young boy or girl needed to prosper in colonial life.

White male literacy rate in England reached 40% in England while, in America, about 70% of white males could read and write.[1] The first colonists who settled in New England – the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and others – understood the importance of literacy. The illiterate man was ignorant and easily taken advantage of. In a letter from 1816, Thomas Jefferson affirmed, “[W]here the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”[2]

In April of 1635, the town of Boston established the first public school in America, called Boston Latin School and modeled after the Free Grammar School of Boston.[3] This all-boys institution taught Latin, Greek, and the humanities. Just a year later, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established the first Harvard University, the first institution of higher education in America. While many towns and the various religious denominations funded and ran their own schools, it was not until the mid-19th century that the public school system in the United States began to develop.

A plaque commemorating he Boston Latin School (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Horace Mann (May 4, 1796 – August 2, 1859), a Bay Stater (many of the educational reforms in America seem to originate from Massachusetts), grew up a poor child who largely self-taught himself. (He did attend school about two months a year.) He gained admittance to Brown University in Providence, RI, and, after graduating valedictorian in 1819, pursued a law degree at the prestigious Litchfield Law School in Connecticut. A clerk for some time under Judge James Richardson of Dedham, in 1823 Mann passed the bar exam to practice law in Massachusetts.

An interest in law and admirable oratorical skills launched Mann into politics beginning in the late 1820s. He served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1827 to 1833, which position he used to promote the founding of a mental health asylum in Worcester, MA. This facility, the Worcester State Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1833 and expanded in 1835.[4]

Worcester State Lunatic Asylum (Photo from Asylum Projects)

Mann married Charlotte Messner, daughter of the Brown University President Asa Messner and a woman of frail health, in 1830. Sadly, their marriage lasted only two years, for in 1832 Charlotte died from tuberculosis. His numerous letters, today preserved in the Mann-Messer Collection at the Brown University Archives, profess his great love for Charlotte.[5]

Heartbroken, Mann left Dedham and relocated to Boston. He joined law firm of Edward G. Loring, who oversaw the Anthony Burns case in 1854.[6] (Anthony Burns was a runaway slave who Loring ruled had to return to his owner, according to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. As it so happened, Mann was an anti-slavery Whig.) At his lodging in Boston, Mann met Mary Peabody, the sister of social crusader Elizabeth Peabody, who he would eventually marry.

Encouraged by friends, Mann ran for the Massachusetts Senate, and procured a spot in 1835. When elected president in 1836, Mann began tackling the struggling schools in Massachusetts. In 1837 he created the Massachusetts Board of Education, of which he was the state secretary.

A couple of pages from the New England Primer (Photo from Conservapedia)

Social troubles ran amuck in New England, especially as the Industrial Revolution bore upon America, industry supplanted agriculture, and rural settlers flocked to cities. Mann, as many other reformers and thinkers had before him, proposed his own solution to the mess: education. He called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.” His plan ran on six key principles[7]:

  1. Citizens cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom;
  2. This education should be paid for, controlled, and maintained by the public;
  3. This education should be provided in schools that embrace children from varying backgrounds;
  4. This education must be nonsectarian;
  5. This education must be taught using tenets of a free society; and
  6. This education must be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.

Mann served as State Secretary for the Massachusetts Board of Education for eleven devoted years, during which time he published extensively, which works included the biweekly Common School Journal and annual reports for the public, to promote his vision of tuition-free, tax-supported, equal access public schools in America.

Classroom of Miss Kate Hobart, Horace Mann School on November 11, 1892 (Photo from the City of Boston Archives)

For his honeymoon with Mary peabody in 1843, he toured eight European countries and studied the common schools there. From this research he determined three objectives for his project[8]:

  1. State collection of education data
  2. State adoption of textbooks through the establishment of state-approved school libraries in each district
  3. State control of teacher preparation through the establishment of “Normal Schools” (teacher colleges)

(Naturally, his proposition met with much opposition, particularly among state-wary Americans who did not care for this government overreach into education. Many objections mirrored those that have promulgated in more recent years with the emergence of the Common Core State Standards in 2009.)

Through his work, the heterogeneous, non-graded, one-room school was created.[7]

A one-room schoolhouse (Photo from the Buchanan County, IA Historical Society)

In 1848 Mann resigned from the Board of Education, and thereupon served for four years in the U.S. Senate, a seat left vacant by the then-deceased John Quincy Adams. From this position, he vociferated against slavery. At the end of his term in 1852, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH, opened, and he accepted their offer of presidency. He spent the rest of his life as president and professor at Antioch, teaching philosophy and theology. Because of financial troubles, the college struggled, but Mann kept it afloat with help from investors in New England.[9]

In August of 1859, Mann lost the battle to a debilitating cancer. In his lifetime and after, his ideas on education spread beyond New England, so that his legacy of a tuition-free school system lives on in the United States of today.

Image from Tim Fargo on Twitter
Image from The Best Schools
[1] Literacy rates, 1500-1700
[2] Jefferson’s letter to Yancey
[3] History of Boston Latin School
[4] The Worcester State Lunatic Asylum
[5] The love of Horace Mann and Charlotte
[6] About Edward G. Loring
[7] The education ideas of Horace Mann
[8] Horace Mann and the beginning of government schools
[9] The education and career of Horace Mann