America’s Founders’ on Education

Recent announcements and initiatives have highlighted both the state of contemporary American education and the deep divides in our society. However, it cannot be denied that most Americans are woefully uninformed across a host of subjects: ‘…most Americans do not know even the basics of American history and civics, as only 36 percent of all citizens can pass the multiple-choice portion of the American Citizenship Test, a test which requires only six out of 10 correct answers to pass. While only 19 percent of Americans below the age of 45 can pass, 74 percent of American seniors can pass, showing that American civic education has declined over the years.” (Thomas Lindsay and Hixon Frank, How and why a proper education in American history would inspire patriotism, August 16, 2020, The College Fix: )

In the classical tradition, we look to history to better understand the crisis of today and to enlighten the path forward. America’s Founders believed deeply that education was integral to the survival and success of the republican experiment they created, which has resulted in unprecedented and unduplicated progress and prosperity, and the longest-lasting Constitution of government in the history of the world. In their own words:

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

~ Thomas Jefferson, 1820

“The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”

~ Thomas Jefferson, 1824

“Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”

~ George Washington, 1790

So much did they value education, that in organizing the expansion of the new republic, Congress (in its pre-Constitution iteration) adopted the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established a system wherein one square mile of land within every township was reserved for education.

The Founders clearly esteemed excellence in knowledge of the world as essential for personal and political self-government, but they, having closely studied history, human nature, and civics, understood that much more than providing mere information was required for people to live together in a free and just society under rule of law, exercising their God-given, inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Indeed, the Northwest Ordinance, considered our fourth founding document, passed on July 13, 1787, by the same founders who drafted the Bill of Rights, states,

“Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Our Founders were deeply concerned about the health of America throughout the ages, and had a great deal to say on how rising generations must be educated if the American Republic were to survive in its true form:

“We have no government armed with power, capable of continuing with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. (Greed), ambition, revenge, or (seduction) would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

~ John Adams, 1798

“No free government, nor the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

~ George Mason, 1776 (Virginia Declaration of Rights)

“… (The people) are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty. For this purpose the reading in the first stage, where they will receive their whole education, is proposed, as has been said, to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them [citizens] of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

~ Thomas Jefferson, 1781 (Notes on the State of Virginia)

“The objects of this primary education…would be, ….

To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties;

To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either;

To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment;

And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.

To instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests and duties, as men and citizens, being then the objects of education in the primary schools, whether private or public, in them should be taught reading, writing and numerical arithmetic, the elements of mensuration, (useful in so many callings,) and the outlines of geography and history.

(Thomas Jefferson et al, 1818)

“Let (ministers) and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age, by impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls; of inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy, and, in subordination to these great principles, the love of their country; instructing them in the art of self-government, without which they never can act a wise part in the government of societies, great or small; in short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system, which will happily tend to subdue the turbulent passions of men, and introduce that golden age…” ~ Samuel Adams, 1790

“Religion and good morals are the only solid foundation of public liberty and happiness.” … “A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.” “If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security.”

~ Samuel Adams

“Liberty will not long survive the total extinction of morals.”

~ Samuel Adams

“[R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Purity of morals [is] the only sure foundation of public happiness in any country.

[T]he [federal] government … can never be in danger of degenerating… so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the people.

[T]rue religion affords to government its surest support.

Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.

~ George Washington

“It is universally admitted that a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”

~ James Madison

“Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time…”

~ Charles Carroll

“Righteousness alone can exalt them [America] as a nation. Reader! Whoever thou art, remember this; and in thy sphere practice virtue thyself, and encourage it in others. [T]he great pillars of all government and of social life: I

mean virtue, morality, and religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone, that renders us invincible.”

~ Patrick Henry

“We are now to rank among the nations of the world; but whether our Independence shall prove a blessing or a curse must depend upon our own wisdom or folly, virtue or wickedness…. Justice and virtue are the vital principles of republican government.”

~ George Mason

“[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

~ George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

To summarize these and countless more quotes from our founders, we return to a theme well-known to classical educators: the three supports of a good life and thus the ends of a classical education are excellence in: knowledge of the world, moral character, and civic virtue, or in other words, rising generations must learn the true, do the good, and love the beautiful.

In his 1835 – 1840 quest to understand the source of American exceptionalism, commonly called Democracy in America, but also entitled The Republic of the United States of America, and its Political Institutions, Reviewed and Examined, Alexis de Tocqueville observed,

“It cannot be doubted that, in the United States, the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic; and such must always be the case, I believe, where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.”

Although the times in which we live dictate that classical charter schools and standard government managed schools not teach actual religion, a true and accurate accounting of history requires that the religious and moral underpinning of the American Republic, and the original intent of our Founders with respect to the teaching of true facts, moral character, and civic virtue, be closely studied. A reading of our Founders’ quotes reveals a vastly different opinion on the legality and propriety of teaching Christianity in community-funded schools, as well as what ‘public’ education meant, but that is a discussion for another day.

Christian and homeschool programs should look to Greco-Roman as well as Judeo-Christian foundations of Western Civilization to inform their study of American Heritage, and consider that “all of the great Christian theologians and thinkers of early America were soaked and steeped in the classics. Not only did they think a classical education was consistent with a Christian vocation, they considered it absolutely essential.” (Martin Cothran: 2020)

For those who want to dive deeper:

The Classical Education of the Founding Fathers, January 9, 2020, by Martin Cothran at Memoria Press: “In order to become like those we admire, we must not only admire them, we must do what they did.”

“The Founding Fathers were of varying backgrounds and disparate political beliefs, but they shared two characteristics that distinguished them from other men of their time—and from most men of any time: wisdom and virtue. And it is for this reason, beyond just wanting to become familiar with who they were and what they did, that many parents are interested in teaching their children about the men who founded the United States of America. But more than just teaching our children about these men, many of us are also interested in how our children might become more like them. So rather than just admiring them for these traits, we should strive to understand how they came to possess them.”

The Classical Education of the Founders, December 11, 2016, by Christian Kopff at The Imaginative Conservative:

“The American Founders knew from history that a curriculum successful at teaching its graduates to think, communicate, and lead could produce anarchy or tyranny instead of ordered liberty, unless those skills were practiced by leaders committed to virtue and the love of liberty…”

“Why, for instance, did colonial colleges insist that young people demonstrate that they could read the orations and dialogues of Cicero to gain admission? I suggest the reason was Cicero’s character as much as his writings. Cicero was a popular politician, who rose to the highest office in republican Rome, the consulship. He was a successful defense attorney, who also prosecuted a few significant cases. He composed dialogues on rhetoric, politics, and ethics and wrote letters that are models of the genre. Cicero’s range of accomplishments inspired the ideal of the Renaissance man, the man for all seasons. He represented what it meant to be educated. In our own time, we appeal to the specialist, the expert. During the great creative age of the modern period, from the Renaissance through the American Founding, the opposite was true. Men as different as David Hume, Edmund Burke, and John Adams took Cicero as their model in their careers and writings. Bright amateurs knew Cicero in a way that only specialists do today, or rather, in ways that no specialist does today because today’s specialists do not model their lives on Cicero. His influence encouraged many educated folk to strive for lives that balanced philosophical thought and political action, while it inspired the superior to achieve greatly. Locke’s theory of property, the care Jefferson devoted to his letters, the years Burke spent

prosecuting Warren Hastings, Hume’s Dialogue on Natural Religion are only some aspects of the eighteenth century decisively influenced by Cicero’s life and example. Their ideal was not an expert or a technocrat, but someone who balanced a thoughtful ethical life with active participation in politics.”