NATIONAL AID TO EDUCATION

 

July 4, 1883

Woodstock, Connecticut

 

I wish to thank Mr. Bowen and the other gentlemen who have had charge of the arrangements for this celebration, for the opportunity to repeat before this audience some of the considerations, in favor of National Aid to Education.

 

When our great civil war ended eighteen years ago the work of reconstruction began. The main question was how to deal with the people of the States which had supported secession. The larger part of the white people of those States had made war against the general government. The colored people, four million in number, had been loyal, but they had always been slaves. The opinion tersely stated by Chief Justice Chase, after a few years discussion in Congress and before the people, finally prevailed. He said, “I am in favor of universal amnesty coupled with universal suffrage.” The general judgment as to amnesty was that after the war ended, under our system, States could not be permanently held as conquered provinces. As to suffrage the pithy statement of General Sherman was not to be questioned. The General, speaking of the enlistment of colored troops, said “after the victory is won, the hand that lays down the musket cannot be denied the ballot.” Thus it came to pass that by the adoption of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the constitution, and the legislation under them, universal amnesty and universal suffrage became the foundation stones of reconstruction.

 

With these principles embodied in solemn constitutional and legislative enactments sanguine patriots deemed every legitimate result of the war forever secured. Grave questions which have been debated from the foundation of the government, were no doubt conclusively determined by the war, and by the reconstruction measures which followed it. No State will ever again be found in arms against the constitutional authority of the National government. The union of these States is perpetual, and to uphold it will forever hereafter be regarded in every part of our country as a duty of sacred and lasting obligation upon every citizen. Slavery “the false and fatal idea that man can hold property in man” will never again have a place in the statutes of this or any other civilized people. In the celebration of this day, patriotic citizens will not fail gratefully to remember that Abraham Lincoln, and the Union army and the loyal people whom he led, have settled beyond recall those vital issues of the great civil war. If Lincoln and the soldiers and citizens who stood steadfastly by him had failed, the Fourth of July would have been to all Americans, a day of grief, and shame, and unutterable humiliation. But by their victory and its results, this day is made more glorious than ever before. With the authority of the National government established, with slavery abolished, with the Union preserved, we can adopt the language of Mr. Webster in the great debate, and say with undoubting faith, that “we have high exciting gratifying prospects held out before us, for us and four our children.” We rejoice that these noble prospects, and the other inestimable blessings of the Union triumph, in the terrible conflict, are not hemmed in by state lines, nor confined to any section of our country. The people of the South share in full measure the fruits of the victory in the war in which they were defeated. We note with unstinted gratification the progress that the South has made since the war. We are glad to see a free labor system successfully organized; that their material prosperity is perhaps greater than ever before; that race prejudices and antagonisms are disappearing; that the passions and animosities of the war are subsiding; and that the harmony and concord and national sentiments of the days of the revolution are again returning.

 

There is, unhappily however, another side to this picture which is full of interest, and is of serious import. We have now had thirteen years of experience with universal suffrage under our amended constitution. This experience confirms the often quoted and familiar opinions of the fathers of the Republic. They held that where all are citizens and all are voters the necessity is imperative, fundamental and overwhelming that there should be free education for all. Ignorant voters are ammunition for demagogues. Public and private credit, social peace and order, property and life are unsafe in any community where the voters who make and execute the laws cannot read and write. The fathers, to whom this day is consecrated, on this subject, spoke often and earnestly, and without a dissenting voice.

 

Washington in his farewell address said, “It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

 

Promote then as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

 

Jefferson in a letter to Lafayette wrote, “Ignorance and bigotry like other insanities, are incapable of self government.

 

To another he wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

 

John Adams said, “Reformation must begin with the people, which can be done only in effect in their education. The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expense of it. If nations, should ever be wise instead of erecting thousands of useless offices or engaging in unmeaning wars, they would make a fundamental maxim of this, - that no human being should grow up in ignorance.”

 

I need not extend these quotations. Dr. Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Jay, Hamilton, Patrick Henry and other patriots of the Revolution held, and uniformly expressed similar opinions. The acts of the fathers were no less significant than their utterances. Lands were granted to the States and reserved in the territories for educational purposes from the foundation of the government. These acts were recommended and approved by Washington, and the other early Presidents. The most important act of the Congress of the Confederation after the Declaration of Independence was the ordinance of 1787 for the government of the Northwest Territory. “This ordinance contained the following article: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, SCHOOLS AND THE MEANS OF EDUCATION SHAL FOREVER BE ENCOURAGED.”

 

In pursuance of this article extensive grants of land were made by appropriate legislation for the support of general education among the people of the States of the old Northwest Territory.

 

This ordinance and the legislation under it, with their great fundamental principles of governmental duty and private right have stood the test of experience. After almost a century of trial, we are still able to say with the historian of the ordinance that, “never probably in the history of the world, did a measure of legislation so accurately fulfill, and yet so mightily exceed the anticipations of the legislator. The ordinance has been well described, as having been a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night in the settlement and government of the northwestern States. When the settlers went into the wilderness they found the law already there. It was impressed upon the soil itself, while it yet bore up nothing but the forest.”

 

The five prosperous Commonwealths that have grown up as if by magic upon this territory contained at the last century almost twelve millions of people and their progress is still unabated.”

 

In view of the impressive declarations of the fathers, and of their solemn official acts, we need not pause to demonstrate the importance of popular education to free institutions, nor to show that the subject is within the scope of the constitutional authority of the National Government.

 

Unfortunately, that principle which was the corner stone of the institutions which Washington and Jefferson and the Continental Congress sought to establish in the Northwest Territory, was omitted in the measures adopted for the reconstruction of the South. Those measures established universal suffrage. The principles of the fathers require that they should also have provided for universal education. This would have been comparatively unimportant if the number of illiterate voters had been small. The vast extent of the evil is now only too well known.  The total number of men of voting age who could not read and write in the late slaveholding States, was in 1870, one million and one hundred and sixty-seven thousand. In 1880 the number of illiterate voters had increased to one million three hundred and fifty-five thousand. In each of eight Southern States the illiterate voters exceed in number the majority of votes ever cast even at the most exciting elections. Most seriously important of all, the illiterate voters of the South have in the last ten years increased almost two hundred thousand. This increase of ignorant voters alone exceeds the number of votes cast in any one of twenty of the States at the last Presidential election.

 

It will not, I trust, be thought that I would disparage the efforts that have been made since the war by the churches, by philanthropic associations, and by individuals to uplift the colored people of the South. Far from it. The figures of the census are spread before you to show the magnitude of the work we are considering, and to show that it can be dealt with only by whole power of our now united people. Under slavery there could be no system of free schools. The general education both of white people and of colored people was wholly neglected. Only the large property holders of the South were provided with educational facilities. They had in their own States schools, academies and colleges of the North, and the universities of Europe were open to them. But when the war ended the impoverishment of the South was more complete and disastrous than ever before befell a wealthy and civilized community. Their lands remained, but they were wasted by the ravages of war. Their labor system was destroyed, and their currency and credits perished with the confederacy. Without capital, without credit, without a labor system, and burdened with debt they were in no condition to establish free schools. The colored people eager to learn. To them education was a badge of freedom. But encumbered with we know not how many centuries of barbarism behind them, and certainly with two or three centuries of bondage, they were utterly helpless to do anything which presupposes knowledge and experience in relation to the complex methods and organizations of social life in highly civilized communities.

 

The difficulties of the situation in the South are manifestly due to slavery. The illiteracy of large masses of blacks and whites, the lack of familiarity with school organization, the indifference and hostility to education, the impoverishment of the late slaveholders, and the inability of the colored people to bear the expense of schools, either public or private, are all results of slavery, and stand like a wall in the way of educational progress.

 

I do not debate the question, who was responsible for slavery. It is perhaps enough to say that the Union and Constitution breathed into this nation the breath of life. To the Union and the Constitution we are indebted for our present prosperity, power and prestige and the still more inspiring future which lies before us. The Union and the Constitution to which we owe all that we are, and have been, contained and recognized slavery. All who took part in forming the Union or in framing the Constitution, all who maintained them down to the war which brought emancipation are in some degree and in some sense responsible for slavery. The only American citizens who are in no way responsible for slavery and its consequences are the sons of Africa. ”They are here by the crimes of our ancestors and the misfortunes of theirs.” And it is especially these colored people who now eagerly and with uplifted hands implore the Nation for that light which education alone can give, and without which they cannot discharge the duties which the Constitution requires by making them citizens and voters.

 

In the history of popular education nothing is better settled than this: The only power able to establish and support an efficient system of universal education is the Government. In the South by reason of slavery and its pernicious legacies, to provide for the free education of all by State authority, is simply impossible. The colored people were held in bondage, and therefore in ignorance, under the Constitution of the Nation. They were set free and made citizens and voters by the most solemn expression of the Nation’s will, and now, therefore, the duty to fit them by education for citizenship and suffrage is devolved upon the whole people.

 

The Southern States, with commendable zeal, have begun the work. The best minds in those States support it. The intelligent and able general agents of the Peabody fund, of the Slater fund, and of many philanthropic enterprises in the South, all concur in reporting that the educational work of the Southern State governments is generally in capable and trustworthy hands. What is now needed is pecuniary aid – that aid which the nation is abundantly able to furnish. Ignorance, if widespread, anywhere in our country imperils the welfare of every other part of the United States, is at once our highest duty and our highest interest. Education is the friend of whatever is most to be desired in civilized society. It is hostile only to that which is bad. There is no safe foundation for free government without it.

 

Let me in conclusion recall to your minds weighty words spoken fifty years ago by Edward Everett:

 

“We have in the order of Providence allied ourselves to a family of sister communities. We have called them into a full partnership in the government; the course of events has put crowns on their heads and scepters in their hands; and we must abide the result.”

 

The real government in this country is that of opinion, and with the means of and authority for universal education in our hands, it is “optional with us whether the power to which we have subjected ourselves shall be a power of intelligence or of ignorance; a reign of reflection and reason, or of reckless strength; a reign of darkness or of light.”

 

To complete reconstruction and regeneration in the South the only force now left to the government or the people is popular education. Let National aid to this good cause be withheld no longer. Let it be given by wise measures based on sound principles and carefully guarded. But let it be given promptly, generously and without stint, to the end that the whole American people, of every race and of every nationality, may be reared up to the full stature of manhood required for intelligent self-government under our republican institutions.

 

Go to top of page