Select Page

22 AHMP Conservative Opposition to Establishing a Department of Education

22 AHMP: Conservative Opposition to Establishing a Department of Education

What were the thoughts of Founding Fathers with respect to the subject of education? How was race used as a motivating factor for the establishment of the Department of Education? What 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.

Let’s begin by hearing quotes from Locke and Montesquieu about education. You will recall that they were philosophers who the Framers often referred to in in their writings, as well as relied upon while creating our Founding Documents.

John Locke wrote about education: “That the Difference to be found in the Manners and Abilities of Men is owing more to their Education than to any Thing else, we have reason to conclude, that great Care is to be had of the forming Children’s Minds, and giving them that Seasoning early, which shall influence their Lives always after:”

In Book Number 4 of his Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu noted that “The laws of education are the first impressions we receive; and as they prepare us for civil life, every private family ought to be governed by the plan of that great household which comprehends them all… It is in a republican government that the whole power of education is required… This virtue may be defined as the love of the laws and of our country. As such love requires a constant preference of public to private interest, it is the source of all private virtues; for they are nothing more than this very preference itself. This love is peculiar to democracies. In these alone the government is entrusted to private citizens. Now a government is like everything else: to preserve it we must love it. Has it ever been known that kings were not fond of monarchy, or that despotic princes hated arbitrary power? Everything therefore depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education: but the surest way of instilling it into children is for parents to set them an example.”

Next, let’s consider statements made by a few of the Founding Fathers themselves:

In 1749, Benjamin Franklin quoted philosophers such as Milton, Locke, and Octavo, in his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania. He began his proposal by saying: “The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with proper Revenues, such Seminaries of Learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with Men qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.”

Specifically with respect to the subject of History, Franklin thought that “History will also give Occasion to expatiate on the Advantage of Civil Orders and Constitutions, how Men and their Properties are protected by joining in Societies and establishing Government; their Industry encouraged and rewarded, Arts invented, and Life made more comfortable: The Advantages of Liberty, Mischiefs of Licentiousness, Benefits arising from good Laws and a due Execution of Justice, &c. Thus may the first Principles of sound Politicks be fix’d in the Minds of Youth.”

John Adams said felt so strongly that education was needed to insure the people’s liberty that in 1765 he said, “And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know.”

As Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison of his thoughts about the document which had been crafted at the Federal Convention, he commented that after the Constitution was ratified: “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.”

Consistent with the views of John Locke, George Washington wrote to George Chapman on December 15, 1784: “the best means of forming a manly, virtuous and happy people, will be found in the right education of youth.” Similarly, in his first State of the Union Address he said that “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness. In one, in which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the community, as in our’s, it is proportionately essential. To the security of a free Constitution it contributes in various ways: By convincing those who are entrusted with the publick administration, that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people: And by teaching the people themselves to know, and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience, and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last, and uniting a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws…You will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”

In his work “On the Education of Youth in America” Noah Webster wrote: In our American republics, where [government] is in the hands of the people, knowlege should be universally diffused by means of public schools.

Samuel Adams wrote to James Warren in October of 1780: “If you are of my Mind, and I think you are, the Necessity of supporting the Education of our Country must be strongly impressd on your Mind… If Virtue & Knowledge are diffusd among the People, they will never be enslavd. This will be their great Security. Virtue & Knowledge will forever be an even Balance for Powers & Riches. ”

John Jay wrote to Benjamin Rush on March 21, 1785: “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic, and as the weak and the wicked are generally in alliance, as much care should be taken to diminish the number of the former as the latter. Education is the way to do this, and nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of it at a cheap and easy rate.”

Finally, I must add in one more thought from Thomas Jefferson. In his letter to William Jarvis in 1820, he wrote: “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!

Now that you have heard from many Founding Fathers who 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.  Of course, Mr. Garfield, later became the 20th President. During his tenure in the Executive Branch, he advocated that the Federal Government fund a national system of education which would be open to male children regardless of their race. Needless to say, he clearly supported the creation of the Department of Education.

On June 5th, Mr. Garfield read the terms of the legislation as it had been recently amended: “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 Commissionor of Education, and his staff, which totaled $13,000, as well as the creation of offices to house the new department. The Commissioner was required to produce an annual report to Congress, much like the President’s State of the Union address, which included “the results of his investigations and labors, together with a statement of such facts and recommendations as will in his judgment subserve the purpose for which this department is established.” It specifically required that the first report include information concerning management of, and funds arising from, several land grants which had been made by Congress for the purpose of promoting education.

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 went on to disparage the institution of slavery and contended that differences in opinion regarding the necessity to educate the populace carried over to the differing perspectives between the states regarding slavery as well. He reported that as early as 1642 Massachusetts Bay Colony required the leaders of townships to assure that every child would be educated. Conversely, Virginia Governor Berkeley stated in 1671 that he hoped there would be no free schools or newspapers for one hundred years. Donnelly detailed the drastically different amount of funding allotted for public education which were more than ten times in free states than those in the South. He also noted that the preponderance of those unable to read over the age of twenty were found in southern states. He again revealed his disdain for the South by stating that education was necessary “for the white man of the South, that he may so wisely and liberally judge as to love the great nation which lifts him up, and the flag which is the symbol of the noblest and broadest liberality in all the World. Education for the black man, that the new powers conferred upon him may not be merely brute forces reacting against himself, but may be wisely directed to his own advantage and the glory of his country.”

And listen to what Mr. Donnelly thought would happen if the bill to create a Department of Education was passed: “Pass this bill and you give education a mouthpiece and a rallying point. While it will have no power to enter into the States and interfere with their systems, it will be able to collect facts and report the same to Congress, to be thence spread over the entire country. It will throw a flood of light upon the dark places of the land. It will 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; down to the bayous of Louisiana, down to the everglades of Florida, down to the very shores of the Gulf. And in tis track what a glorious assemblage shall pour forward; the newspapers, the public libraries, the multiplying railroads, the improved machinery for agriculture, the increased comforts for the home, with liberality, generosity, mercy, justice, and religion. Pass this bill and after-generations will bless your work. No man can sum up all its consequences.”

After Mr. Donnelly concluded remarks filled with grandious 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. Rogers worked as a clerk in a store and a hotel as a child, and became a practicing attorney in 1852. He eventually went on to serve as the police commissioner in Denver Colorado. 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. 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 say, sir, in the first place, there is no authority under the Constitution of the United States to authorize Congress to interfere with the education of children of different states in any manner directly or indirectly. This bill is one similar in purport and affect, so far as power under the Constitution of the United States is concerned, to the Freedmen’s Bureau bill.  It proposes to put under the supervision of a bureau established at Washington all schools and educational institutions of the different States of the Union by collecting such facts and statistics as will want them by amendments hereafter to the law now attempted to be passed to control and regulate the education system of the whole country.

I say that this country will compare favorably in respect to education with any other country of parts of the earth. Go back to the most glorious days of Rome and Greece or of English history, and you will find nowhere the population of the character and magnitude of this where education has been more universally diffused or a people more intelligent.

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…

This bill does not seem to be so broad in its terms as speech of the gentleman from Minnesota  [Mr. Donnelly] would indicate. 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.

Now, sir, I say when he refused to give the soldiers of this country their due, when you are not willing in this House to meet as we ought to have done the bounty bill and pay to our soldiers the bounty without regard to what they may have received from township, county, or State, it is a poor time, in the present deplorable condition of our finances, to inflict upon the country a centralization of power and influence at the capital of this Government, to interfere with the domain of States with regard to education, and at an expense of $100,000 a year.”

A lively exchange then ensued between Rogers and Representative Josiah Grinnell from Iowa. Grinnell, a Congregational Minister and a former “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, had hidden John Brown after his anti-slavery raids into both Missouri and Kansas.

Grinnell questioned whether Rogers had opposed appropriations made for collecting agricultural statistics. Rogers responded that the Agricultural Bureau had been established near the time of the Founding. He said, “It is necessary for the diffusion of knowledge of a national character over the country, and has no analogy to this interferences with the simple rights of the States in regard to the education of their own people.”  Grinnell asked Rogers if he thought it was just as important to demonstrate the success of the American system of education to other countries, just as Rogers had argued was one of the benefits of collecting agricultural statistics. Rogers answer could have been made by anyone warning of the evils of expanding a bureaucratic staff and the inevitable deluge of associated regulations in today’s Federal Government:

“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. When we reach such a state of finances that we can establish such an educational institution, then it will be time enough to do it. But let us first pay off the bond-folders who are holding $3,500,000,000 exempt from taxation, or put the bonds in such a shape that they may be taxed. Let us clear ourselves of debt and establish a financial system on a solid basis before we inflict upon this country another bureau not quite so great in magnitude as the Freedmen’s Bureau, but one of the same kind and character, according to the speech made by the gentleman who preceeded me.

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. It was such men as Yancey, Slidell, and those that were at the head of affairs who drove the people into rebellion, and not the deluded masses.”

Grinnell then questioned whether Rogers thought that education might promote disloyalty? Rogers responded:

“It does not. I submit to gentlemen upon both sides of the House that there is no reason or necessity for this bill at all, because the education of the people will be attended to, and it always has been attended to. We have enough to do to pay our debts and to keep the affairs of this nation in the proper equilibrium. And when you undertake to establish a bureau here for the purpose of diffusing education you add just so much to the expenses of the nation. The bond-holders, the men who have an interest in the perpetuity of the Union and in the payment of the debt, the men who have large amounts of money invested in Government funds, ought to be paid every dollar. The main argument made against the Pacific railroad bill, the argument which induced the House to vote against the bill, for gentlemen upon both sides agreed that it was a great enterprise, and would add to the greatness and glory and grandeur of the country, was that it added to the expense; that it would lead to a depression of the finances, and that the financial condition of the country would not bear up under such a proposition. That bill would not have cost the Government a cent.

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.

Yes, sir; and here we have also the Freedmen’s Bureau; and it appears that this is but a twin sister of it, according to the argument made by the learned gentleman who preceded me.

We hear talk here about educating the people of the South. You had better first get the people of the South back into the Union. Let us reunite the bonds which have been broken asunder; let us restore the Union before you undertake to establish an Educational Bureau.

The gentleman from Minnesota seems all at once to be inspired by a very kindly feeling toward the southern people; the ignorant masses down there must be educated. How? This is a proposition to interfere with their internal domestic affairs with regard to the education of their own children. The only effect of this bill will be to create a prejudice in the South by undertaking to regulate their educational systems through the agency of officers in Washington. We are to have a centralized power here to tell the people of the South and the people of all the States of this Union what their system of education shall be. I do not know how the people of New England will like it. The people of New England have given their children a very elegant education. They vote millions and millions of dollars every year for educational purposes in New England and New York and Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But this bill proposes that this bureau shall collect statistics and give directions to the people of New England and New York and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, telling them in what manner they shall educate their children.

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.

Now, as was said yesterday most appropriately by the eloquent and learned gentleman from Vermont [Mr. Woodbridge[ in his speech again the bill in relation to pay for the Army, to which I listened with the most intense interest, because it was an able and eloquent speech, we should stand by principles and axioms which have been established for years and years past; that old percepts and principles should not be laid aside for the purpose of establishing new and untried ones.

Now, the educational system in this country will stand the test of comparison with the educational systems of favored countries. And an honorable gentlemen who stands up before the Speaker of this House and undertakes to make out that this country is groveling in low ignorance does not understand this country; for there are many men who have only been educated in common schools, who have never been in a college, unless they went in at one door and were kicked out at the other, have shown themselves as much fitted for their duties by their intelligence as men who come out of these colleges with their sheep-skin roles and high-sounding degrees. It is a reflection and a disgrace upon the men in our Army who I am sure were not so well educated as gentlemen would like, but whose brawny arms drove back the hoards of the rebellion. They have shown by their acts that they were men of understanding and judgment and discretion. And why should we now undertake to interfere with the education of their children, and compel them to pay their share of the tax for that purpose? It is a step toward taking away from them rights to which they alone are entitled.

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.

And no one ever before thought of attempting to interfere with the action of the States in this respect. And I hope there are enough of good men in this House to prevent the passage of this bill. I think the House will understand that this is not a political question; it is a near while the scheme by an honest conviction.  If we are to go for a system of charity, giving away the public moneys of the country, let us take hold of the matter most thoroughly, and educate all the poor children of the country at the expense of the government.

Are the people of this country prepared for the passage of an act of Congress which will establish here a bureau that will cost this Government at least $100,000 a year? Why, sir, it appears as if we took no consideration or account of the expenses to which we are seeing this government. Why, sir, the Secretary of the Treasury has stated within a few days that the financial condition of this country is in the most delicate position in which it has been during the war or since. Sir, in view of the numerous failures of large banking houses in England, in view of the general financial depression and panic extending from one end of Europe to the other, I implore this House to exercise at vigilant care with reference to our national finances, so that we may emerge from this conflict with our financial credit untarnished, as well as our national integrity vindicated, so that we may proclaim to the world the ability of the United States of America, not only to put down the armies of treason, but to pay the expense of the war. And to do this we must not be burdened by such legislation as this, founded perhaps upon charitable views, but calculated to inflict great damage upon the finances of the country.

If this bureau is not to have extensive ramifications throughout the country; if it is not to involve an expenditure of thousands upon thousands of dollars for the collection of statistics, then it is simply for the payment of eight or ten clerks to do nothing, $15,000 or $20,000 annually.

I think the honorable gentlemen from Ohio [Mr. Schenck] who introduced the bill to reduce the pay of the Army will hardly vote for this bill, which will add to the expenses of the Federal Government something like $100,000 a year at the lowest estimate it can hardly be expected that anyone who would support a bill to reduce the pay of officers of the regular Army can subscribe to the principles embodied in this bill.

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.