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Conservative Opposition to Establishing a Department of Education

Which conservative principles served as the basis for objections to the collection of statistics regarding education and predicted what the Department of Education has grown into today? What was the surprising twist in the debate over establishing a new department in the Federal Government. We will learn the answers to these questions in this edition.

After taking the summer months off to spend time with my family, I thought I would begin with a podcast or two about what is, and is not, taught about the Founding and our Founding Documents in classrooms across this great nation. While researching that material, I came across a debate which embodies the struggle between those who seek to retain the limited nature of the Federal Government, and those who believe that an expanded centralized government is beneficial for all citizens. That debate has raged on since the Federal Convention, but this story took place after the Civil War. There is even an interesting twist to this story that I’ll tell you about at the end of the podcast.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison: “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” In 1820, Jefferson wrote to William Jarvis that “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, (A)nd 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.” I have to add that I whole heartedly agree with Mr. Jefferson’s sentiments. Hence, this podcast, as well as my blog, website, and publications!

In the full length edition of this podcast, I included quotes from other Founding Fathers which all placed great import on educating the populace. While many of the Founding Fathers  placed great import on the need for an educated citizenry, please consider that there is no mention of the subject of education in the United States Constitution. Consequently, it is clear that public education is a matter that the Framers chose to leave up to the States. You may have heard that the Department of Education was created in 1866 for the purpose of collecting statistics. What you probably have not heard is that it was created in the face of vigorous objections by those who sought to retain the limited nature of the Federal Government that was set into place by the Founders. On Tuesday, June 5, 1866, a debate occurred in the House of Representatives that I believe you will find to be most interesting.

It began with statements about the pending legislation by Representative James A Garfield of Ohio who the Chair of the Select Committee on Education: “there shall be established, the city of Washington, a Department of Education, for the purpose of collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several States and Territories, and of diffusing such information respecting the organization and of management schools and school systems and methods of teaching as shall aid the people of the United States in the establishment and maintenance of efficient school systems, and otherwise promote the cause of education throughout the country.” The remainder of the legislation authorized salaries for the Commissioner of Education, and his staff, which totaled $13,000, as well as the creation of offices to house the new department.

The floor was then given to Ignatius L. Donnelly. Mr. Donnelly seems to have been quite a character. He was known as an amateur scientist, a populist writer, and for his theories about a lost continent of Atlantis.

Mr. Donnelly began his remarks by contending that the southern states, whose attempt to cede from, the Union resulted in the Civil War, “could not be trusted to uphold the national Government. Nay, more, that they have sought, through unparalled sacrifices, to overthrow it.”  He made multiple disparaging remarks about the South and believed that the disinterest in educating the populace, as evidenced by the minimal amount spent toward that goal in many Southern states, led to the acceptance of slavery.

He argued passage of the bill would form a public sentiment “which will arouse to increased activity the friends of education everywhere, and ignorance will fly before it. It will press forward in its work from the bright villages of the North down to the lowly huts of the poor white and the poorer freedman in the South;”

After Mr. Donnelly concluded remarks filled with grandiose promises about improvements to public education simply by the creation of another federal department, another representative took the floor. His name was Andrew Jackson Rogers, and he represented the Fourth District of New Jersey. I think you will find Mr. Roger’s concerns to be consistent with those who seek to downsize the Federal Government in its current form. A complete recitation of his remarks were included in the full length version of this podcast. In this edition, we will, as they say, hit the high points. Mr. Rogers began his remarks as follows:

“Mr. Speaker, I do not intend to occupy the time of the House but a very short time in making a few suggestions I intend to present against the passage of this bill. In fact, I did not know until the honorable gentlemen who preceded me began to speak out of bill of this character was before the House. I have reason to believe that from the experience he had in this House and in this country no more Federal bureaus would be attempted to be established for the purpose of carrying out any particular ideas of philanthropy of any set of man whatever. I think, sir, the finances of the country are now sufficiently burdened and that we should allow the States, as they have been in the habit of doing, the entire control looking after the education of their children.

To establish here at the head of our Federal affairs in Washington a bureau for the purpose of getting the principles by which the children of different States shall be educated would be something never before attempted in the history of this nation. It was never thought of before. I say here to-day, without fear of successful contradiction, that at no time in the history of Government, from the time of its first organization down to the present power, was there ever for an attempt to establish a bureau or an institution any kin at the head of federal affairs for the purpose of using intelligence throughout the State of this Federal Union…

I am content, sir, to leave this matter of education where our fathers left it, where the history of the country has left it, to the school systems of the different towns, cities, and States. Let them carry out and regulate the system of education without interference, directly or indirectly, on the part of a bureau spoken like a different established as an agent of the Federal Government…

Although the bill does not propose to go into the States and interfere with the regulation of the school systems there, yet it proposes to collect such statistics which will give control and power over the school systems of the States. How is it proposed to carry on the object in view?  To establish a bureau here which will cost this Government more than $100,000 a year to get it in running order.  The officers and clerks will cost some $15,000 a year. Hard to build from one end of the Union to another and to involve this Government in the expense of collecting information…

“this bill does not propose to educate, but simply to establish a bureau for the purpose of keeping a set of men at the capital – a Commissioner with a salary of $5000, a chief clerk with a salary of $2000, another with $1,800, another with $1,600, another with $1,400, and another at $1,200; and all this expense is to be borne by the Government, which is now weighted down by heavy taxation. Sir, when gentlemen on the other side stand up and talk about the finances of the country being in such a deplorable condition, when they are unwilling to vote to the soldier who has defended the Government the bounty to which he is justly entitled, they have no right at such a time to come and ask us to establish an institution of this character, one never talked, thought, or dreamed of before at any time in the history of the country…

The gentleman talks about educating the people of the South, as though they were a set of men who had no education, learning, or intelligence. Sir, when he defames them by saying this he defames his country. I am here to say that they have intelligence in the South, and that the intelligent classes there are those who are responsible for bringing this rebellion upon the country, and not the uneducated classes who were dragged into the movement… Now, here is a proposition which is a mere scheme of philanthropy, got up for the purpose of educating the children of the whole country, and the result will be that in a short time this bureau will need more clerks and expenses for stationary, &c., and I will guarantee you that in the very first year the expense of the bureau will not fall short of $100,000: and it will run on until it costs $500,000 a year. I want you to remember that there are thirty-five million people in this country, located from Maine to Texas, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and all of these people are to come under the jurisdiction and control of this Education Bureau. And where will it end? It will not stop until we run up a bill of expenses that will materially injure the finances of the Government…

Why, sir, there are to be public buildings put up here in Washington, and new bureaus to be established here, and the head of this bureau must hold a seat in the Cabinet of the President of the United States; for it will not do to have a great educational bureau here, one to diffuse so much knowledge, such a grand scheme for concentrating the intelligence and enlightenment of the whole world in the United States, without making it a part of the executive government of the country…

Sir, it is hardly necessary for me to stand here and show what are the constitutional objections to this bill. No man can find anywhere in the letter select or spirit of the Constitution one word that will authorize the Congress  of the United States to establish an Educational Bureau. If Congress has the right to establish Educational Bureau here in this city for the purpose of collecting statistics and controlling the schools of the country, then, by the same parity of reason, a fortiori, Congress has the right to establish a bureau to supervise the education of all the children that are to be found in the thirty millions of the population of this country. You will not stop at simply establishing a bureau for the purpose of paying officers to collect and diffuse statistics in reference to education. The head of the bureau is to receive $5000 year. What is he to do for that large salary, which is $2000 more than a member of Congress receives? He is to sit here at his desk in Washington for the purpose of collecting statistics, and the poor men of this country are to pay him $5000 for it. And what is the necessity for such an officer? All the States have a system of statistical accounts of their educational systems. You cannot find a State in the South or in any other part of the country that does not keep a statistical account of the operation of their schools…

I hope, sir, that this bill will not be passed, at least until members have given it a full investigation; and I trust that their party feelings and party prejudices will not induce them to pass a bill establishing a bureau such as one never before heard of in the history of the country, and which is but one more step to centralization.”

I might add that Mr. Rogers thoughts echoed those of James Madison, who obviously was a supporter of a well-functioning and clearly defined Federal Government. Madison wrote To Edmund Pendleton in 1792 that “If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision of the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, everything, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress…. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America.”


So what was that interesting twist which I referred to at the beginning of the podcast?  You might be surprised to know that the elected official who was crying out against expanding the Federal Government and warning of enchroachments into rights clearly belonging to the States was not a Republican. It was Democratic Congressman Andrew Jackson Rogers who was arguing with Republican Congressmen Garfield, Donnelly, and Grinnell, The Republicans, by the way, had control of more than 75 percent of the 54 seats in the House of Representatives at the time when they chose to expand the size and scope of the Federal Government.

Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, informed, and engaged in the political process. Visit my website,, with more than 500 pages of information, documents, and products designed to motivate the modern patriot.














Congressional Globe Debates and Proceedings, 1833 – 1873: