Jeffersonian Education

Home-educated Thomas Jefferson left a distinct mark upon the history of education in the United States. His views are often misconstrued or selectively quoted, often in an attempt to suggest that Jefferson and other Founders supported compulsory attendance and the system of government schools established by Know-Nothings in Massachussetts (and the United States) from 1852 onward. It is therefore important to understand what Jefferson actually advocated with regard to families, parental liberty, and education, as well as what ideas he rejected.

First, Jefferson explained his core pedagogical precept: "Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do." Thomas Jefferson, Notes On the State of Virginia, chapter 18. Consequently, in both education and politics, Jefferson believed it was critical to acknowledge the imitative psychology of the individual and the herd-like tendency of groups.

Second, there is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson highly valued education and an educated citizenry. He believed that an educated citizenry was essential to the long-term survival of democracy, and believed strongly that the ladder of opportunity should be available to a person of any economic class who sought self-betterment:

I think by far the most important bill in our whole [Virginia] code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness... The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.


Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Memorial Edition 1904)(hereinafter "ME") 5:396. Accordingly, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and participated in the establishment of tax-supported elementary schools in Virginia. However, it is crucial to understand that the concept of a public school as advocated by Jefferson (and other civic-oriented Founders such as Benjamin Franklin) had additional distinctive features, as discussed below.

Third, Jefferson believed that tax-subsidized elementary schools should be wholly governed by parents of the local neighborhood who had children attending as students, not by any "general authority of the government" at a municipal, state, or federal level:

But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the Governor and Council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further and amend the bill so as to commit to the Governor and Council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants' stores.


Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Cabell, Feb. 2, 1816, reprinted in Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1955), page 98; and ME 14:420-21. Without the preeminence of local parents and a market-responsive educational structure, Jefferson observed, a government-subsidized education system was doomed to failure.

Fourth, Jefferson believed that no government at any level, and no group of parents governing a local school, should compel education or school attendance upon any child over the objection of the child's parents:

Is it a right or a duty in society to take care of their infant members in opposition to the will of the parent? How far does this right and duty extend? --to guard the life of the infant, his property, his instruction, his morals? The Roman father was supreme in all these: we draw a line, but where? --public sentiment does not seem to have traced it precisely. . . It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation and education of the infant against the will of the father. . . What is proposed. . . is to remove the objection of expense, by offering education gratis, and to strengthen parental excitement by the disfranchisement of his child while uneducated.


Thomas Jefferson: Note to Elementary School Act, 1817, ME 17:423. It should be understood that in citing Roman law, Jefferson neglected to mention that Rome utilized a legal caste system. Rome accorded parental liberty only to Roman citizens (an elite group), to a lesser degree to non-citizens, and not at all to Roman slaves. Jefferson was discussing Roman law as applied to Roman fathers who were citizens of Rome, since that was the group analogous to white inhabitants of the United States. People of African descent, who were slaves, and American Indians, who were effectively "non-citizens," would not be entitled to receive equal parental liberty in the United States until the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Nonetheless, Jefferson believed in using peer pressure, rather than legal force, to encourage citizen families and children to educate themselves. He believed that society has the right to "disavow" people who refuse to take any opportunity (independently or in a subsidized school) to become functionally literate, and to thereby use cultural pressure to "strengthen the motives to receive [instruction] when offered" to those lacking a basic education. Id. At the same time, Puritan-style suppression of alternative education and parental liberty was wholly unacceptable to Jefferson:

The first settlers in this country were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they shewed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government. The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect. Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693, . . . had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers . . . had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets. If no capital execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or spirit of the legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself; but to historical circumstances which have not been handed down to us. . . .

By our own [Virginia] act of assembly of 1705, c.30 . . . . A father's right to the custody of his own children being founded on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery . . . . The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. . . . The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. . . . Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now. . . . Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: who will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and of stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter.


Thomas Jefferson, Notes On the State of Virginia, chapter 17. Rendered in the language of the United States Constitution, Amendment X, Jefferson believed that the upbringing of children is in the first instance a "power[] . . . reserved . . . to the people" instead of a "power[] . . . reserved to the States" or a power expressly granted to the federal government. Jefferson understood that children are not a creature of the state.

Fifth, it is clear that Jefferson (and John Adams, with whom Jefferson reached a consensus on the topic by a series of letters) believed that law and education should protect families and the parent-child bond, and that the Platonic approach should be rejected. In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson observed:

I amused myself with reading seriously Plato's republic. . . . While wading thro' the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down so often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? . . . Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and dreams of Plato. . . . But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason . . . he is one of the race of genuine Sophists, who has escaped . . . by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies onto the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind, is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen thro' a mist, can be defined neither in form or dimension. . . . It is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women, and children, pell mell together, like beasts of the field or forest. . . . [I]n truth [Plato's] dialogues are libels on Socrates.

. . . When sobered by experience, I hope that our successors will turn their attention to the advantage of education on the broad scale, and not of the petty academies . . . which are starting up in every neighborhood . . .

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams (July 5, 1814), in 2 The Adams-Jefferson Letters, at 432-34 (Lestor J. Cappon ed., 1959)(hereinafter "Letters").

In reciprocal letters to Jefferson, John Adams expressed similar dislike for Platonic concepts. Adams said the "philosophy" of Plato was "absurd," Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (June 28, 1812), in Letters, at 308, berated Plato's concept of "a Community of Wives, a confusion of Families, a total extinction of all Relations of Father, Son and Brother," Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (September 15, 1813), in Letters, at 377, and observed that "Plato calls ['Love'] a demon," Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (October 10, 1817), in Letters, at 522.

In his most telling observations, Adams described his meticulous study of Plato's writings, expressed delight at knowing that Jefferson shared the same "Astonishment," "disappointment," and "disgust" with Plato, and then concluded as follows:

Some Parts of [his writings] . . . are entertaining . . . but his Laws and his Republick from which I expected the most, disappointed me most. I could scarcely exclude the suspicion that he intended the latter as a bitter Satyr upon all Republican Government . . . . Nothing can be conceived more destructive of human happiness; more infallibly contrived to transform Men and Women into Brutes, Yahoos, or Daemons than a Community of Wives and Property . . .

After all; as long as marriage exists, Knowledge, Property and Influence will accumulate in Families.

Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (July 16, 1814), in Letters, at 437.

Sixth, Thomas Jefferson advocated family autonomy and privacy. During the Founder's era, one of the primary organizational resources sovereigns had to invade family autonomy was a standing army, as well as government inspectors. Families who were forced to shelter and feed soldiers in their home could be controlled and harassed. The threat of being targeted and subjected to this indignity would, of course, deter many people from challenging the sovereign or orthodox ideology.

The Declaration of Independence was the product of a committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, John Adams, and Roger Sherman. Thus, the Declaration, which was authored by Thomas Jefferson in collaboration with Constitutional signatories such as Benjamin Franklin and Roger Sherman, contains vociferous complaints about Great Britain's King George, who created "a Multitude of new Offices" and sent "[s]warms of officers" to "harass" the people in the Thirteen Colonies. THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE paras. 2, 12-13, 15-16, 26 (U.S. 1776). Complaint was also made about "[s]tanding [a]rmies" that quartered troops in civilian homes, and the promulgation of regulations which had "destroyed the [l]ives of [the] [p]eople." See Id., at paras. 13, 15-16.

As a result of these experience, the Founders and Framers pointedly devoted an entire constitutional amendment solely to protecting the sanctity of the home. Their response to systemic state infringement upon family autonomy is embodied in U.S. CONST. amend. III, which provides that "No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law." The use of standing armies was carefully restricted and placed under direct control of congress. See U.S. CONST. art. I, 10, cl. 3. The Writ of Habeas Corpus, which at the time was the primary legal tool for safeguarding family autonomy, was also protected. U.S. CONST. art. I, 9. Thomas Jefferson and the Framers were opposed to any government intrustion or monitoring pertaining to private homes or families.

In summary, Thomas Jefferson's concept of education did advocate a system of tax-subsidized schools to provide a ladder of opportunity for people of all economic classes. However, Jefferson's support was sustained only if such schools actually operated in a manner somewhat akin to the modern public library and voluntary community education programs. Jefferson believed tax-subsidized schools should be controlled by the local parents of the children attending each particular school, not by federal, state, municipal, or special governmental authorities. Schools were to be a resource to be made available on a wholly voluntary basis-compulsory education, compulsory attendence, legal coercion, and abrogation of parental custody or control of a child were utterly unacceptable to Jefferson. Any attempt to standardize education or obtain a uniformity of worldview in the population was also viewed to be inappropriate. Finally, Jefferson believed that education and law should operate through families and parent-child relationships, and not in subversion of them.

Jefferson's system provides an explanation for how the Founders and Framers proposed to reconcile several important policy considerations. On the one hand, a ladder of opportunity must be available to facilitate the basic literacy needed for effective citizenship and to facilitate the education and economic mobility of families with limited means. On the other hand, it would be dangerous, oppressive, and counterproductive to allow an education system designed to allow a removed elite class to impose standardized or unwelcome forms of education upon the rest of society (i.e. what would be described today as cultural genocide or political repression). Jefferson was aware that the English Poor Laws and many other schemes had actually exploited the poor in the guise of helping them. The dignity and self-determination of under-privileged families is genuinely preserved only by empowering those families to be market consumers of education, rather than de facto inmates or experimental objects subject to the control of the elite.

Jefferson reconciled these concerns by proposing a system that structurally prevented the federal government from oppressing states, the states from oppressing demographic minorities localized in particular neighborhoods, and the local neighborhood majorities from oppressing isolated local families in the neighborhoods who wished to pursue unique educational objectives (including students who, like Jefferson himself, were home-educated). His approach was to provide a basic level of educational opportunity, rely upon cultural forces to encourage utlization of those resources, and use market forces to achieve long-term continuous improvement. With respect to ensuring adequate education, few parents are immune to both the bonds of affection toward their children and to the scorn and social derision of their neighbors.

Thomas Jefferson's views about education have not been commonly understood, much less implemented. His vision for American education was so radically different than the government school system today that it is an intellectual dishonesty to suggest that there is a philosophical or historical kinship between the two. To the contrary, Jefferson and many of the most influential Framers vehemently criticized the cultural, political, and educational practices of the Massachusetts community. The opinions Jefferson expressed suggest that he would have strongly opposed the federalized, centralized, standardized, unionized, regulatory, compulsory, institutionalized, under-performing, Massachusetts-oriented system of government education used in the United States today.

See also Northwest Ordinance; Benjamin Franklin--Practical Wise Man; Madisonian Explanation of Education History.





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