October 26, 1882
Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen – Without preface I proceed at once to state the proposition which I ask your considerate attention. The friends of popular education believe that the time has fully come when national aid should be given wherever aid is needed, and to the extent that it is needed, for the free education of all the citizens of the United States. The grave necessity for national aid for education is in the Southern States, and especially for the colored people. But the white people of the South also need it. The people of New Mexico and the other Territories need it. It is not improbable that by reason of immigration from countries where popular education is neglected, some of the new States and some of the large cities may need it. The Indians did need it, but happily the large appropriations recently made for their education – amounting to almost half a million of dollars for the next fiscal year, and the action of the government during the last few years in behalf of their education at Hampton, at Carlisle, in Oregon, at the Indian agencies, and at tribal schools, have at last fully committed the nation to the wise and beneficent policy of fitting the Indians, as far as practicable and as fast as practicable, for the duties and privileges of American citizenship.
The bills pending in Congress on the subject of national aid for education are of two classes. One class seeks to establish a permanent fund by devoting to the purpose the receipts of the sale of public lands, or from the taxes on spirituous liquors, or from other unspecified sources. By the other class of measures the money required is appropriated directly from the public treasury. The measure which perhaps meets with most favor is the latter class. It requires that ten or fifteen millions of dollars a year shall be distributed among the States – each State to have that proportion of this sum which its illiteracy bears to the illiteracy of the whole country. This appropriation, it is contemplated, will be continued long enough to test the value of the measure, or until the States themselves shall become able to provide for the free education of all citizens.
And now, my friends, what are the grounds upon which these measures are supported? This question opens a wide field of discussion – a field so large I do not hope to make even a hasty survey of the whole of it in the time limited by the proprieties of this occasion. Fortunately, it is not at all important that I should attempt it. The facts, the figures, and the arguments bearing on the subject are all familiar. The embarrassment is that they have been repeated so often and presented so ably that one hesitates to spread them again before such an audience as this. But if the question is asked, why repeat what is already so familiar, the reply is cogent and near at hand. The evil we deplore and wish to remove still remains. In spite of the work of the religious denominations, and of benevolent associations and individuals, the number of ignorant men armed with ballots which control the Nation’s destiny grows larger and larger. Congress hesitates to act, and has adopted no remedy, and has not even reached a test vote on the question. This leaves to the friends of free and universal education at the South no recourse, except further agitation. This is the American way to obtain from the government needed reforms. Senators and Representatives have made reports and speeches, which cover the whole ground. Voluminous and valuable writings leave nothing to be desired by the citizen who would conscientiously investigate this question.
There is another testimony in behalf of the right side of this important subject which must not be overlooked. More than seventeen years have passed since the close of the great war which consolidated the Union, gave liberty to the slaves and opened the way for free education at the South. During all of that time a stream of benevolent enterprises and efforts has been poured into the South in aid of this work by the various religious denominations and by missionary and charitable associations. Rich men have been glad to contribute to it generously out of their abundance. Many men and women from humble homes have nobly given their best years – their very lives – in the face of privations, hardships and unparalleled discouragements to uplift an obscure and injured people just released from the house of bondage. The history of these voluntary organizations and voluntary individual efforts is radiant with examples of self-sacrificing devotion in doing the work of the Divine Master, which are at once touching and sublime. If one could enumerate all that has been done, contributed, sacrificed and suffered by associations and individuals for the regeneration of the South, it would go far toward demonstrating to the satisfaction of all fair-minded people that God has given to this generation of the prosperous citizens of the United States a duty and a privilege with respect to their countrymen of both races in the South of unexampled interest to the Nation and to the cause of human freedom throughout the world.
But admirable as their work has been, if we wisely consider the magnitude of the task that remains, we shall begin to apprehend that we have only picked up here and there a few pebbles on the shore, while the great ocean of ignorance stretches vast and untouched before us.
The following statistical tables are all too familiar:
(Due to formatting issues, table is not reprinted here.)
From these tables it appears that the illiterate voters in each one of the eight Southern States having the largest proportion of emancipated slaves exceed in number the majority of votes ever cast even at the most important elections. In one of these States the ignorant voters constitutes an absolute majority of the total voting population of the State. In more than one-third of the Union the ignorant voters are almost one-third of the total of number of voters. Most seriously important of all, these tables show that the illiterate voters of the South have increased in the last ten years, from 1870 to 1880, almost two hundred thousand. This increase of ignorant voters in the last decade exceeds the number of votes cast in any one of more than twenty of the States of the Union at the last Presidential election. Adopting a phraseology that was very familiar in the political debates of a generation ago, it may be truly said that ignorance at the ballot box has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.
In the Electoral College which chooses the President, in both Houses of Congress, in all the departments of the national government, ignorance at the South is as efficient for evil – as mischievous and dangerous – as if it was in New England or New York, or here in the Western Reserve. It was settled by the war for the Union beyond recall that the United States constitute one people and have one national life, one interest and one destiny.
Recognizing this to be one of the legitimate results of the war, the people of the Nation by constitutional amendments entered into every State and defined and regulated those vital elements of free government – citizenship and suffrage. In pursuance of these amendments the lately emancipated slaves by the most solemn expression of the national will became citizens and voters. In the presence of these facts, how can a statesman say that under this Constitution there is no duty and no power to give national aid to fit by education these freedmen for the responsible positions in which the Nation has placed them?
Under the Constitution as it was under the vital amendments were made, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and other great men of the early days of the Republic, whom we are accustomed to call the “Fathers,” by significant and solemn enactments and recommendations fully affirmed the principle that the general government could and ought to give encouragement and aid to the education of the people. They placed in the ordinance of 1787 for the government of the Northwest Territory, as the corner stone of the institutions they wished to build, this article: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Under every administration from the origin of the government to the present time, appropriations of money or land for education in the States and Territories have been made by the general government, and it is now too late to question the constitutional power of Congress to make such grants.
The exercise of this authority by Congress is in strict accordance with the distribution of the governmental powers, which is one of the distinguishing features of our American institutions. Whatever in civilized communities individual citizens can do better than any public authority is wisely left to individuals. Whatever local organizations, such as counties, towns and cities, can more efficiently accomplish than individuals, or the State, or national government, belongs to the local authorities. The extensive range of powers which State governments can most beneficially exercise should be confided to the States. The aim of the framers of the national Constitution, and of the people who have amended the original instrument, has been to confer on the national government those supreme powers which would enable it to secure to the people of the United States, “union,” “justice,” “tranquility,” “the common defense,” “the general welfare,” and “the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.”
The history of education in this country and in Europe abundantly proves that individuals and communities never have and never can provide universal education. Government alone is adequate to the task.
In the free States, in many cases, after a long and doubtful struggle, it has been settled that the State can and ought to provide free instruction for all its people. In almost all of the late slave- holding States, however, especially in those States in which the number of colored people is large, the efforts made since their reconstruction have conclusively shown that to establish and support an efficient system of free education without the aid of the national government , in the existing condition of the South, is simply impossible. The situation of the South is so manifestly exceptional that it is needless to dwell upon it. Slavery and free schools would not dwell together. Slavery did not, could not, tolerate universal education. I do not pause to debate the question, who was responsible for slavery. It is perhaps enough to say that the Union and the Constitution breathed into this Nation the breath of life, and gave to it that glorious history of which we are so proud. To the Union and the Constitution we are indebted for our present prosperity, power and prestige, and the still more inspiring future that lies before us. The Union and the Constitution, to which we owe all that we are, and have been, and shall be, 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 are the sons of Africa. “They are here by the crimes of our ancestors and the misfortune 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.
The slaveholders of the South had their full share of educational facilities. But when the war ended, their impoverishment was more complete and disastrous than ever before befell a wealthy and civilized community. Without capital, without credit, without a labor system, and burdened with debt, they were in no condition to establish free schools. Want of means was not the only difficulty. Neither white nor colored people at the South had any knowledge or experience which would help them in establishing popular education. The colored people were 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.
We need not dwell on this aspect of the subject. It has plainly come to pass that the whole question of popular education in the South must be considered and dealt with by the great body of the whole people of the Nation. The appeal must be to the popular judgment, conscience and patriotism. War measures and political measures are no longer required to settle the controversies of the past, or for reconstruction in the South. To finish the work of uplifting the slave, and to fuse into one harmonious whole our lately divided people, we must rely upon the healing influences of time, and upon the forces which religion, business and education can furnish. Of these forces, the government can usefully employ only one. The stream of time will flow on, “The designs of Providence to fulfill.” Religion, depending under God, upon individual conscience and sense of duty, unaided by government, wins its way into the voluntary contributions and efforts of Christian men and women. Business, an agency of vast and unmeasured power in promoting the peaceful progress of mankind, results from a deeply seating and universal principal of human nature – self-interest – and will most efficiently do its work when government wisely lets it alone. To complete reconstruction and regeneration in the South, the only force now left to the government is popular education.
Let popular aid to this 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 may be reared up to the full stature of mental and moral manhood required for intelligent self-government under American institutions.