The Founders of the U.S.A. Learned Without Public School

Copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

Benjamin Franklin -- born 1706, Boston, Massachusetts; died 1790

drafter and signer of Declaration of Independence, member Constitutional Convention

Benjamin Franklin described his classroom education in his Autobiography:
My elder Brothers were all put Apprentices to different Trades. I was put to the Grammar School at Eight Years of Age, my Father intending to devote me as the Tithe of his Sons to the Service of the Church. My early Readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read) and the Opinion of all his Friends that I should certainly make a good Scholar, encourag'd him in this Purpose of his. My Uncle Benjamin too approv'd of it, and propos'd to give me all his Shorthand Volumes of Sermons I suppose as a Stock to set up with, if I would learn his Character. I continu'd however at the Grammar School not quite one Year, tho' in that time I had risen gradually from the Middle of the Class of that Year to be the Head of it, and farther was removed into the next Class above it, in order to go with that into the third at the end of the Year. But my Father in the mean time, from a View of the Expence of a College Education which, having so large a Family, he could not well afford, and the mean Living many so educated were afterwards able to obtain, Reasons that he gave to his Friends in my Hearing, altered his first Intention, took me from the Grammar School, and sent me to a School for Writing & Arithmetic kept by a then famous Man, Mr Geo. Brownell, very successful in his Profession generally, and that by mild encouraging Methods. Under him I acquired fair Writing pretty soon, but I fail'd in the Arithmetic, & made no Progress in it. --At Ten Years old, I was taken home to assist my Father in his Business, which was that of a Tallow Chandler and Sope-Boiler.
That's it, two years of school, from age eight to age ten, enough to make America's elder statesman of the revolution, scientist, author, businessman, and diplomat. Well, not exactly, as Franklin actually spends a lot of space in his autobiography telling about what books he read as a child. Much of that reading would look pretty advanced by today's meager standards. Francis Bacon (born 1561; died 1626) said it first, "Reading maketh a full man," and that doesn't have to occur within school walls. Franklin's reading mostly occurred in the real world outside school.

I looked up two editions of Franklin's autobiography to and a recent biography to check this. I also read some of Lawrence Cremin's masterwork, American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607-1783 (1970) for background information. The passage quoted makes clear that Franklin could read before he ever went to school, and that he went to no more than two years of school total. Each school was specialized in what occupation it prepared students for. The first school was a "grammar" school, meaning it was a prep school for a college. The occupation for which college prepared one was the preaching ministry of the church--being a pastor. Franklin's father originally wanted to send Franklin through enough years of grammar school to be ready for the entrance requirements of a college, then send him to college. Franklin's father saw that would be too expensive, given the number of other children he had, and pastors didn't always make much money, despite their high education. Then, he tried to send Benjamin to a different kind of school, a math and writing school that presumably would train someone for that day's equivalent of head office work. But Benjamin found he had trouble "getting" some of the math, so he tubed out of that. By the age of ten, Benjamin Franklin left classroom schooling, never to return.

The reference to "classes" in the Benjamin Franklin autobiography excerpt probably refers to groups of students in the same physical classrooms, in which students at a particular subject matter level would meet with the same teacher, regardless of how much the students' ages differed. There's no reason in principle why a school couldn't be organized that way today, but age segregation of schoolchildren became the routine after Franklin's lifetime.

George Washington -- born 1732; died 1799

chairman of the Constitutional Convention, first president of the United States

George Washington, by contrast to Benjamin Franklin, went to one-room "Latin schools," which were tutorial sessions with a single teacher, again with a heterogenous age mix. Like Franklin, he learned to read at home before attending any school. Washington got in only two years of Latin school because his father died and the family couldn't afford to keep sending him.

Thomas Jefferson -- born 1743, Goochland, Virginia; died 1826

author and signer of Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States

Jefferson got more schooling than the other three presidents depicted on Mount Rushmore combined, first at home with a hired tutor in Tuckahoe, where Jefferson's father moved when Jefferson was two to be guardian for his wife's late cousin's son. At age nine Thomas Jefferson was placed as a boarding student in the one-room "Latin school" kept by the Reverend William Douglas, minister of St. James Parish. Thomas Jefferson's later letters reveal Jefferson didn't think his teacher really knew the subject matter very well. Thomas Jefferson's studies with that teacher ended at the age of fourteen, when his father died. Thomas Jefferson then was sent to the five-student school kept by the Reverend James Maury, whose son was one of the other students in the school. Jefferson spent many hours walking in the woods or practicing the violin while studying there. Jefferson then again stopped attending school briefly before traveling to Williamsburg to attend the College of William and Mary. William Small was Thomas Jefferson's favorite member of the college's seven-man faculty. Jefferson was remembered in later years by his classmates for his diligence in independently reading books until late at night. After two years, Jefferson completed his studies at William and Mary and then studied law by working with a Williamsburg lawyer from 1762 to 1766.

Jefferson, after retiring from his rather trouble-plagued presidency, spent years planning a system of publicly subsidized schools in Virginia. He wrote extensively to other planners of that project, and many of his letters from that period survive and have been reprinted. He was convinced from his extensive observations of society in America and in Europe that parental control was vital for schools:

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 The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Memorial Edition 1904), volume 14, pages 420-21.
In other words, it is as ridiculous to have governments, especially governments of broad territorial units, operate schools as it is to have governments operate grocery stores or farms. But of course socialist countries around the world have tried the experiment of governments running farms and stores, always with disastrous results, and almost every country in the world today has government-operated schools. Perhaps it is time to listen again to Jefferson's advice. Jefferson was quite consistent on this point of preferring private operation of schools, however much those schools were publicly funded and open to all members of the public. In a state of the Union address during his second term as president, Jefferson noted:
It [should not] be proposed to take ordinary branches [of education] out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal. Thomas Jefferson, sixth annual message to Congress (1806), reprinted in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Memorial Edition 1907), volume 14, page 384.
Jefferson most definitely supported public funding of schools, but made clear he opposed compulsory attendance.
Is it a right or a duty in society to take care of their infant members in opposition to the will of the parent? . . . 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 here is to remove the objection of expense, by offering education gratis . . . Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Cabell, September 9, 1817, reprinted in Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Memorial Edition 1904) volume 17, page 423.

Alexander Hamilton -- born 1755, ; died 1804

member Constitutional Convention, first secretary of the treasury

Alexander Hamilton is one of the more striking examples of a largely self-educated American founder who nonetheless was admired for his learning. Hamilton was the illegitimate child of James Hamilton, and was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. Hamilton's father abandoned his family in 1765, when they were living on the island of St. Croix in the Danish West Indies. Alexander Hamilton had to go to work as a clerk for merchants based in St. Croix. He learned from his employers (who had an economic incentive to increase his skills, after all) and later friends impressed by his diligence paid privately to send him to the mainland British colonies to study. There, in what later became the United States, Hamilton studied in a private college preparatory school in New Jersey and a privately operated college, King's College (now known as Columbia University). His studies were never finished because he joined in the Revolutionary War. He later commanded revolutionary armed forces, practiced law, advised the new United States government on government finance. Hamilton's writing style was considered so fine that he was part of the Committee of Style in the Constitutional Convention. He later used his writing to urge ratification of the Constitution in a series essays now called The Federalist (with some essays contributed by John Jay, and many by James Madison). Hamilton was usually one of George Washington's closest advisors and eventually served as secretary of the treasury, which is why his portrait is on every United States ten-dollar bill.

Abraham Lincoln -- born 1809, near Hodgenville (Hardin County), Kentucky; died 1865, Washington, D.C.

United States representative, sixteenth president of the United States

Everyone knows that Abraham Lincoln went to very little school and self-educated by reading many books borrowed from neighbors. Lincoln described his family background in an autobiographical sketch prepared for the 1860 presidential campaign, which I have in a 1922 edition of his writings published by Scott Foresman and Company, Selections from the Writings of Abraham Lincoln, a book originally belonging to my paternal grandmother.
Thomas, the youngest son [of the future president's paternal grandfather], and father of the present subject, by the very early death of his father, and very narrow circumstances of his mother, even in childhood was a wandering laboring-boy, and grew up literally without education. He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly write his own name. . . . The present subject has no brother or sister of the whole or half blood. He had a sister, older than himself, who was grown and married, but died many years ago, leaving no child; also a brother, younger than himself, who died in infancy. Before leaving Kentucky, he and his sister were sent, for short periods, to A B C schools, the first kept by Zachariah Riney, and the second by Caleb Hazel. . . . From [Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln's father] removed to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in the autumn of 1816, Abraham then being in his eighth year. This removal was partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Kentucky. He settled in an unbroken forest, and the clearing away of surplus wood was the great task ahead. Abraham, though very young, was large of his age, and had an ax put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument-- less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons. . . . In the autumn of 1818 his mother died; and a year afterwards his father married Mrs. Sally Johnston, at Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a widow with three children of her first marriage. She proved a good and kindly mother to Abraham, and is still living in Coles County, Illinois. There were no children of this second marriage. His father's residence continued at the same place in Indiana till 1830. While here Abraham went to A B C schools by littles, kept successively by Andrew Crawford, ------ Sweeney, and Azel W. Dorsey. He does not remember any other. The family of Mr. Dorsey now resides in Schuyler County, Illinois. Abraham now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student, and never inside a college or academy building till since he had a law license. What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and separated from his father, he studied English grammar-- imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and to write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.
He studied law in his spare time from age twenty-two to twenty-eight, after being elected to the Illinois Legislature and encouraged to study law by a lawyer elected the same year.

Lawrence Cremin's history American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607-1783 (1970) makes clear that most colonial inhabitants read extensively, and learned to read from their own family members or neighbors. Children knew how to read before they entered school, and school was vocational training that a lot of people happily did without. The enormous sales figures for Thomas Paine's book Common Sense show that most colonial inhabitants were politically aware and inclined to spend money on books related to politics. The comparable sales figures for H. Ross Perot's and Albert Gore's books during the 1992 presidential campaign suggest a decline in political interest among the current public-school-educated generation.

Theodore Roosevelt (b. 1858 d. 1919)

president of the United States, winner of the 1906 Nobel Prize for world peace

Theodore Roosevelt was homeschooled. He later attended Harvard, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

The greatest Americans of earlier days found schooling like today's high school entirely unnecessary --although some were nearly finished with college by the end of their teenage years. What does this suggest about the actual necessity of high school today?

[Last revision 9 March 2013]

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A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.
John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)
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