Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Church, State, and Education in the Young American Republic

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Church, State, and Education in the Young American Republic

Article excerpt

Thomas Jefferson's tombstone bears the inscription he composed for it, identifying him as "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia." Of the great man's many achievements and services to his country, he selected these three as the ones by which "I wish most to be remembered."1 Self-government, religious freedom, and public education were all fundamental to American republicanism as he defined it. Jefferson believed that the disestablishment of religion, freeing the mind from "monkish ignorance and superstition," would firmly ground "the blessings and security of self-government."2 But the general history of American education between 1815 and 1848 did not confirm Jefferson's hopes; statesponsored secular education did not provide the foundation for American republicanism. In principle, the Enlightenment presupposed state responsibility for popular education.3 In American practice, the state significantly defaulted on this obligation.

On the other hand, organized Christianity continued to play a much more active role in American life than Jefferson had expected. Often religious freedom turned out to -mean freedom for religion rather than freedom from religion. As a result, religious institutions sometimes proved more effective means for Americans to exercise their self-government than did political ones.


One of the striking anomalies of American history is the discrepancy between the founders' grand plans for education and the paucity of their actual accomplishments. This is nowhere more evident than in the failure of the project for founding a national university in the District of Columbia. George Washington had conceived the idea. As president, Washington proposed the university to Congress in his first annual message, worked on various plans for its establishment, and was still commending it strongly in his famous Farewell Address-but all in vain. In a final gesture, the Father of His Country willed a portion of his large estate to form a core endowment for a future national university. But Congress ignored his bequest, until in 1823 the fund finally became worthless when the company in whose shares it was invested went bankrupt.4

Opposition to a national university came partly from doubts about its constitutionality, partly from the jealousy of existing colleges that feared being overshadowed, and partly from sheer parsimony. Washington evidently envisioned the national university as a mixed public-private corporation analogous to Hamilton's national bank, so the university inherited some of the enemies of the bank. Originally, Jefferson supported Washington's plans for a national university and had advised him to staff it with emigre professors from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. As president, however, Jefferson came to the conclusion that, although a national university would be welcome, a constitutional amendment would be required to authorize it.5 Given his belief that the national bank had been unconstitutional, Jefferson thus protected himself against a charge of inconsistency. One portion only of Washington's plans for national higher education was fulfilled by Jefferson's administration: the founding of the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802. The Naval Academy at Annapolis was not founded until 1845, by Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft during the Polk administration's build-up to war against Mexico.6

All of the first six presidents supported a national university one way or another, but the one who worked hardest for it was James Madison. Three times-in 1810, 1815, and 1816-Madison urged a national university in his annual message to Congress. The university formed a part of Madison's legislative program of Republican nationalism, along with internal improvements, a protective tariff, and a second national bank. …

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