Horace Mann was born in Franklin, Massachusetts in 1796. In his youth he worked long hard hours on the family’s farm and most of his primary education consisted of dull memorization and recitation of sections of textbooks and the Bible in a one-room school house. Nevertheless, Mann learned enough Latin and Greek to be admitted to Brown University as a sophomore where he excelled in studies of ancient literature, oratory, and debating and upon graduation in 1822 he went on to read law with a mentor lawyer in Connecticut. After finishing his legal studies, Mann wanted to move closer to his widowed mother in Franklin, but not too far away from Boston, so he settled in Dedham where the Norfolk county courthouse was. By 1826 Mann was conducting a busy legal practice for area merchants and farmers. In addition, Mann was civically engaged as a respected participant in Dedham’s Town Meeting and on the town’s School Committee., so much so that in 1827 he was elected as Dedham representative to the Massachusetts state legislature where he sponsored legislation to establish state mental hospitals and build a tax-supported railroad between Boston and Worcester.
Upon winning election as senator for Suffolk County in 1834, Mann became interested in the Common School movement which called for free public schools that could cultivate patriotism, train skilled workers, facilitate social mixing of rich and poor, and foster democratic attitudes in young people. With this goal in mind, from 1837 till 1848 Mann served as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. In this capacity Mann traveled around the U.S. and Europe to learn about the best educational ideas. He used this knowledge to promote Common Schools reforms, including legislation to create the first state-wide graded elementary and secondary public school system with a well-organized curriculum, engaging instruction, and four teacher education colleges to professionally-train teachers. His public education innovations, publicized in his 12 Reports of the Secretary of the State Board of Education were imitated throughout the U.S. When Mann stepped down as education secretary in 1848 to run for the congressional seat of deceased John Quincy Adams, he also assumed Adam’s mantle as a major anti-slavery spokesman and an opponent of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. After running a losing campaign to become Massachusetts governor in 1852, Mann accepted the presidency of Antioch College in Ohio: under his leadership Antioch became one of the first U.S. coeducational colleges as well as the first college to admit African-Americans. In his last commencement address shortly before his 1859 death, Mann memorably exhorted graduates to “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
The Pilgrim Fathers amid all their privations and dangers conceived the magnificent idea of a universal free education for the whole people. For this grand conception, they stinted themselves, amid all their poverty, to a still scantier pittance; amid all their toils, they imposed upon themselves still more burdensome labors; and amid all their perils, they braved still greater dangers. Two divine ideas filled their great hearts,–their duty to God and society. For the one they built the church, for the other they opened the school.
In later times, and since the achievement of American independence, the universal argument in favor of free schools has been that the general intelligence which they are capable of diffusing is indispensable to the continuance of a republican government. Under our republican government, the minimum of this education can never be less than sufficient to qualify each citizen for the civil and social duties he will be called to discharge, an education as teaches the individual the great laws of bodily health, as qualifies for the fulfillment of parental duties, as is indispensable for the civil functions of a witness or a juror, as is necessary for the voter in municipal and in and in national affairs of this great republic.
Again, the expediency of free schools is sometimes advocated on grounds of political economy. An educated people is always a more industrious and productive people. Intelligence is a primary ingredient in the wealth of nations. …The moralist, too, takes up the argument of the economist. He demonstrates that vice and crime are not only prodigals and spendthrifts of their own, but defrauders and plunderers of the means of others, that they would seize upon all the gains of honest industry and exhaust the bounties of Heaven itself without satiating their rapacity. And yet, there is not at the present time, with the exception of the States of New England and a few small communities elsewhere, a country or a state which maintains a system of free schools for the education of its children.
I believe that this amazing dereliction from duty originates in the false notions which men entertain respecting the nature of their right to property. In the district school meeting, in the town meeting, in legislative halls, everywhere, the advocates for a more generous education could carry their respective audiences with them in behalf of increased privileges for our children, were it not instinctively foreseen that increased privileges must be followed by increased taxation. Against this obstacle, argument falls dead. The rich man who has no children declares that a contribution from him to educate the children of his neighbor is an invasion of his rights of property. The man who has reared and educated a family of children denounces it as a double tax when he is called upon to assist in educating the children of others also; or, if he has reared in his own children without educating them, he thinks it peculiarly oppressive to be obliged to do for others what he refrained from doing even for himself. Another, having children, but disdaining to educate them with the common mass, withdraws them from the public school, puts them under a [private tutor] and then thinks it a grievance to be obliged to support a school which he [regards with contempt.].
It seems not irrelevant, therefore to inquire into the nature of a man’s right to the property he possesses, and whether any man has such an indefeasible title to his estates as renders it unjust in the government to assess upon him his share of the expenses of educating the children of the community as the nature of the institutions under which he lives, and the well-being of society, require.
To anyone who looks beyond the mere surface of things, it is obvious that the primary and natural elements of all property consist in the riches of the soil, in the treasures of the sea, in the light and warmth of the sun, in the fertilizing clouds and streams and dews, in the winds, and in the chemical and vegetative agencies of Nature. All that we call property, all that makes up the valuation or inventory of a nation’s capital, was prepared at the creation, and was laid up of old in the capacious storehouses of Nature. For every unit that a man earns by his own toil or skill, he receives hundreds and thousands, without cost and without recompense, from the all-bountiful Giver. A proud mortal, standing in the midst of his luxuriant wheat-fields or cotton plantations, may arrogantly call them his own; yet what barren wastes would they be, did not Heaven send down upon them its rains, its warmth and its light, and sustain, for their growth and ripening, the grateful vicissitude of the seasons!
Nature ordains a perpetual transfer from one generation to another of all property,–in the soil, in metals and minerals, in precious stones, and in more precious coal and iron and granite, in the waters and winds and sun; and no one man, nor any one generation of men, has any such title to or ownership of these ingredients of all wealth that [would give him the right to refuse] when a portion of it is taken for the benefit of posterity. In regard to the application of this principle of natural law,–that is, the three following propositions, then, describe the broad enduring foundation on which the common school system reposes: