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“Producing a Reconciliation of Disinterestedness and Commerce”: The Political Rhetoric of Education in the Early Republic

  • Rita Koganzon (a1)

One of the vexing ambiguities in the historiography of the civic republican tradition has been just when and how republicanism ended. The American Revolution itself, according to Gordon Wood and J. G. A. Pocock, was waged for republican principles, but the government established in its wake represented what Wood called “the end of classical politics,” abandoning virtue in the name of commerce and liberal individualism. By the close of the eighteenth century, Pocock writes, “A condition of thought … in which a bourgeois ideology, a civic morality for the market man, was ardently desired but apparently not to be found.” Later historians sought to extend republicanism's life into the nineteenth century, identifying figures and institutions who held fast to the tradition against the prevailing commercial and industrial winds, while others have taken the ambiguity of republicanism's end to suggest that no such coherent worldview existed in the United States, which was from the outset a liberal project employing only an occasional and misleading republican vocabulary. Even Wood, whose Radicalism of the American Revolution specifically set out to narrate the transformation of American political ideology from the Revolution to the ascent of the Jeffersonians, offers a general account of shifting rhetorical emphases—from virtue to equality, the common good to self-interest—but not the contours of this shift in any specific realm of American life.

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1 Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 686–94; Wood, Gordon, The Creation of the American Republic (New York: Norton, 1972), 606–18. See also Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1991).

2 Pocock, , The Machiavellian Moment, 432.

3 For criticisms and rejections of the republican thesis, see Pangle, Thomas, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992). An overview of the debate can be found in Daniel Rodgers, “Republicanism: the Career of a Concept,” The Journal of American History 79 (1992): 1138.

4 Rush, Benjamin, “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, ed. Rudolph, Frederick (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1965), 9. While many of the essays discussed in this study are included in Rudolph's collection, where possible, I cite the original publications. Rush later collected this particular essay with his other education writings in Essays Literary, Moral, and Philosophical Philadelphia: Thomas, and Bradford, Samuel, 1798), but with important excisions, discussed below.

5 Smith, Samuel Harrison, Remarks on Education, Illustrating the Close Connection Between Wisdom and Virtue (Philadelphia: Omrod, John, 1797), 56.

6 Hansen, Allen, Liberalism and American Education in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Octagon Books, 1965), v–vi. Siobahn Moroney has criticized Hansen's and Rudolph's collections for their unrepresentative selection, which she argues was intended to forward “a particular agenda: republican, egalitarian, and nationalistic.” But while Moroney shows that the selections leave out much of the period's nonpamphlet writing, she does not demonstrate that the overlooked writings, leaving aside the substantial literature on religious and female instruction, contain contrary currents of thought. Now that an easily accessible survey of the publications of the period is possible through online databases, Hansen and Rudolph's instinct about the dominant themes of this writing may perhaps be vindicated, as I will try to show in discussing some of pamphlets excluoed from their collections. See Moroney, Siobhan, “Birth of a Canon: The Historiography of Early Republican Educational Thought,” History of Education Quarterly 39 (1999): 686–94.

7 Pocock, , The Machiavellian Moment, 432.

8 For later iterations of republicanism in education see, Baker, Jean, “From Belief into Culture: Republicanism in the Antebellum North,” American Quarterly 37 (1985): 686–94. Debates over civic education invoking the rhetoric of virtue, public spiritedness, and disinterestedness have also preoccupied political theorists over the past twenty years. See, for example, Gutmann, Amy, Democratic Education (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); Galston, William, Liberal Purposes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Macedo, Stephen, Diversity and Distrust (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

9 Pocock, , The Machiavellian Moment, 459.

10 Bailyn, Bernard, Education in the Forming of American Society (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960), 34.

11 The earliest American printing of the Autobiography appears to have been in New York in 1794 by Cambell, Samuel. Franklin, Benjamin, Works of the Late Dr. Benjamin Franklin; Consisting of His Life… (New York: Samuel Cambell, 1794). But Franklin had already published a pamphlet outlining the plan for an academy in Philadelphia (the basis tor the University of Pennsylvania) in 1749 and a plan of curriculum in 1751, discussed below.

12 Rush met Franklin in London in 1769 and remained close with him until the end of the latter's life. See Rush, Benjamin, A Memorial Containing Travels Through Life or Sundry Incidents in the Life of Dr. Benjamin Rush (Philadelphia, 1905), 33, 49, 83, 111–12; Rush, Benjamin, Letters of Benjamin Rush, ed. L.H. Butterfield, Vol. 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), 563–65. Webster knew Franklin in the late 1780s, calling on him particularly frequently in 1787, the same year he published his essay on education. He was also a friend of Rush. See Webster, Noah, “The Diary of Noah Webster,” in The Autobiographies of Noah Webster, ed. Rollins, Richard (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 1989), 237–49.

13 Letter from Richard Jackson,” 17 June 1755, in Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard Labaree, available online in full at All subsequent Franklin letters and shorter writings cited in this article by title and date may be found in this collection unless otherwise noted. For a discussion of the broad political ramifications of Franklin's conception of “improvement,” see Houston, Alan, Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008). For a fuller discussion of Franklin as a national model, see Forde, Steven, “Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and the Education of America,” The American Political Science Review 86 (1992): 686–94; Lerner, Ralph, “Commerce and Character: The Anglo-American as New-Model Man,” The William and Mary Quarterly 36 (1979): 3–26.

14 Lawrence, D. H., Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 30.

15 Franklin, Benjamin, “Letter to Thomas Hopkinson,” 16 October 1746. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Digital Edition.

16 Letter to Rhoads, Samuel, 22 October 1772; “Last Will and Testament of Benjamin Franklin,” available at

17 Franklin, Benjamin, Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings (New York: Library of America, 2002), 567. While Franklin was personally far more politically and civically active than the Scottish theoreticians, there is reason to believe his thought was influenced by Hume and Smith, both of whom he met in 1759, when he began a personal friendship with Hume. See Wood, Gordon, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin, 2004), 88.

18 Pangle, Lorraine has a more extensive discussion connecting Franklin's mutual benefit associations with Tocqueville's analysis of American individualism and “self-interest rightly understood.” See Pangle, Lorraine, The Political Philosophy of Benjamin Franklin (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 94–8.

19 Franklin, , Autobiography, 621.

20 Ibid., 622.

21 Ibid., 665.

22 Franklin, Benjamin, “Standing Queries for the Junto,” 1732. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Digital Edition.

23 Wood, , The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 19–77.

24 Franklin, , Autobiography, 603–05.

25 Franklin's Outline of the Autobiography, 1771, in The Autobiography and Other Writings (New York: Bantam, , 1982), 215.

26 Thomas Pangle and Lorraine Pangle, The Learning of Liberty (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 686–94. Franklin also left substantial funds in his will to provide for low-interest loans to young tradesmen looking to start businesses in Boston and Philadelphia, a means of rendering them less dependent on personal connections.

27 Franklin, , Autobiography, 664.

28 Ibid., 655.

29 Wood, , The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 43–44.

30 Pangle, , The Political Philosophy of Benjamin Franklin, 16.

31 Ibid., 15–47. See also McCoy, Drew, “Benjamin Franklin's Vision of a Republican Political Economy for America,” William and Mary Quarterly 35 (1978): 686–94.

32 Franklin, , Autobiography, 662.

33 Ibid., 663.

34 Ibid., 677–78. Uncoincidentally, the Autobiography itself is framed as an account of a life “fit to be imitated,” 567.

35 Ibid., 689.

36 Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1963), 232.

37 Jefferson, Thomas, “Letter to William Stephens Smith, 1787”, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson: Correspondence 1786–1787, ed. Ford, Paul (New York: Putnam and Sons, 1904), 362.

38 Bailyn, , Education in the Forming of American Society, 36.

39 Franklin, , Autobiography, 567.

40 Robert Middlekauff argues that Franklin's suggestions were rejected, especially in New England, because he did not “employ the republican vocabulary” or “address republican problems.” However, I will try to show that his themes were eagerly picked up by subsequent writers on education, and corresponded very closely to the dilemmas of the 1780s and 1990s. This is particularly the case with the Autobiography, which Franklin put together during precisely this era. Middlekauff, , Ancients and Axioms: Secondary Education in Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963), 126.

41 Franklin lamented the limited extent to which his own ideas for practical education were implemented in the Academy in “Tract Relative to the English School in Philadelphia,” 21 May 1790. Much earlier, Franklin had written a satiric attack on Harvard College's elitism and useless curriculum in his first Silence Dogood essay, and its democratic themes are echoed in his later writings and in those of the early national educational thinkers. See “Silence Dogood, No. 1,” 2 April 1722. Franklin was also interested in the education of women, a topic which received much popular attention in the early national period, but which is too broad to cover in this study. For more on this topic, see Mulford, Carla, “Benjamin Franklin, Traditions of Liberalism, and Women's Learning in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” in The Good Education of Youth: Worlds of Learning in the Age of Franklin, ed. Pollack, John (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2009), 686–94.

42 Bearing in mind Moroney's criticism that the essays that have formed the “canon” of early educational writings were selected on the basis of their support for universal public schooling, it is nonetheless important to point out that many essays that never made it into this canon voice the same position, whereas none that I could find oppose it.

43 Rush, , “Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools” in Essays Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, 4. For a brief overview of Rush's shifting politics, see Jensen, Merrill, “Review: Letters of Benjamin Rush edited by Butterfield, L.H.,” The American Historical Review 57 (1952): 686–94.

44 Rush, , Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools, 3–4; A Plan for a Federal University, in Letters of Benjamin Rush, 491–95.

45 Rush, , Plan for a Federal University, 491–95.

46 Jefferson, Thomas, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford, Paul, vol. 2 (New York: Putnam and Sons, 1893), 686–94.

47 Smith, , Remarks on Education, 70–72.

48 Wood, , The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 56.

49 Coram, Robert, Political Inquiries (Wilmington, DE: Andrews and Brynberg, 1791), 97.

50 Locke, John, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1996), 46. See also Rousseau's discussion of the dangers of peer influence in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. Bloom, Allan (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 330–46.

51 Smith, , Remarks on Education, 39.

52 Knox, Samuel, An Essay on the Best System of Liberal Education (Baltimore: 1799), 1819.

53 Ibid., 65.

54 The problem of tracing European influences is a somewhat vexed one. There is no doubt that Locke's writings on psychology and education were widely read in America and are cited explicitly by Franklin, Rush, Webster, Knox, and Smith, while Rousseau's educational writings were in more limited circulation (although Franklin had read Entile, as evidenced in his “Letter to George Whatley,” 23 May 1785). Milton, John, who did advocate public but highly religious schooling was also occasionally cited. For a discussion of Locke's and Milton's influences, see Pangle, , The Learning of Liberty, 43–72, 76; Jacqueline Reinier, “Rearing the Republican Child: Attitudes and Practices in Post-Revolutionary Philadelphia,” The William and Mary Quarterly 39 (1982): 686–94. Although other European writers on education like William Godwin had been published in the United States by the late 1790s, there is little record of their influence on this generation of American educational writers. Rush says of Godwin only that “On the subject of religion, he writes like a madman.” See Letters of Benjamin Rush, 784.

55 Rush, , “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education,” 10.

56 Webster, , “On the Education of Youth,” in A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings (Boston: 1790), 26.

57 Knox, , An Essay on the Best System of Liberal Education, 63.

58 Ibid.

59 The potential threat of antagonistic frontiersmen to the union was made abundantly clear by such shocking events as the Whiskey Rebellion. Franklin had much longer experience of such dangers, having served in the colonial Pennsylvania legislature during the frontier unrest of the 1760s and the Paxton Boys’ riot See Edmund Morgan, Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 686–94.

60 Ely, John, A Plan to Render our Militia Formidable Shewing that the Most Effectual Way to Preserve Peace in the United States Will Be to Let Military Knowledge Form a Part of the Education of Boys (Philadelphia: 1800), 7.

61 Ibid. For a later expression of the same concern, see Abraham Lincoln's famous “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions” (1838) in The Language of Liberty, ed. Fornieri, Joseph (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2003), 2433.

62 Ely, , A Plan to Render our Militia Formidable, 10–12.

63 Ibid., 4, 12.

64 For the role of the militia in the thought of neo-Harringtonians, see Pocock's discussion of Fletcher, Andrew, Davenant, Charles, and Defoe, Daniel in Pocock, J.G.A., The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 686–94.

65 The beginnings of this transformation of martial virtue into social virtue can be seen in Franklin's famous list of cardinal virtues, in which such traits as “frugality,” “sincerity,” and “industry” appear, while traditional virtues like courage are absent. See Franklin, , Autobiography, 644–45.

66 See Rush's “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education” for the connection between Spartan military discipline and American school regimens, 15–16. See also Ely, , A Plan to Render our Militia Formidable, 10.

67 Rush, , Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, 17–18.

68 Middlekauff, , Ancients and Axioms, 178–80.

69 Coram, , Political Inquiries, 94.

70 Webster, , On the Education of Youth in America, 15.

71 Education: The practice of employing low and vicious characters in schools reprobated,” The American Magazine vol. 4 (New York: 1788): 686–94. No author is named, but Noah Webster was the magazine's editor and wrote many unsigned pieces on education for it. His authorship would be a safe conjecture.

72 Webster, , On the Education of Youth in America, 15.

73 Education: The practice of employing low and vicious…, 211.

74 Rush, , Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, 21. This passage is missing from the later edition.

75 This shift reflects the influence of seventeenth century educational theorists on ideas about psychology. For a fuller discussion, see Aries, Philippe, Centuries of Childhood, trans. ed. Baldick, Robert (New York: Vintage, 1965). It is exemplified in Webster's suggestion that, “The tender shrub is easily bent to any figure, but the tree which has acquired its full growth resists all impressions,” 15.

76 Education: The practice of employing low and vicious…, 211.

77 Webster, , “On the Education of Youth in America”, 15–17; Rush, , “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education“, 16. The idea of substituted wills is explicitly Lockean, and although this section is also missing from the 1798 printing of Rush's essay, the later book includes a new essay specifically on punishment in schools in which Rush recommends Lockean discipline through shame and praise rather than corporal punishment. It is possible that he removed this passage because of its ambiguous attitude toward physical discipline, but his basic position did not change. See Rush, , “Thoughts Upon Amusements and Punishments which are Proper for Schools,” Essays Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, 57–74.

78 Hansen argues mat the prevalent view of school authority in this period dictated that “the teacher must follow the pupil and not the pupil follow the teacher,” but this assertion has little basis in even the evidence he provides, and it appears that he is confusing changes in pedagogy (i.e., that children should be dealt with gently and encouragingly rather than cruelly) with the ongoing belief that teachers should possess authority over their pupils, 17.

79 Arendt, Hannah, “The Crisis in Education,” in Between the Past and Future (New York: Viking, 1961), 686–94.

80 Hansen, , Liberalism and American Education, 15.

81 Self-discipline is one of the major themes of the Autobiography, where the destructive potential of childhood is suggested in an anecdote about Franklin's “early projecting spirit,” which manifested itself in an attempt to build a wharf with his friends by stealing stones set aside for the construction of a house. See Autobiography, 574.

82 For example, see Webster's explanation of the stages of knowledge in On the Education of Youth, 9–10.

83 Middlekauff, , Ancients and Axioms, 120–23. Middlekauff's sole defender of the “ancient” learning is an anonymous letter writer to the New Haven Gazette. Few of the prominent men of the period seemed willing to take that position, with the exception of John Adams, who wrote to Rush in response to his essay against Greek and Latin that, “I should as soon think of closing all my window shutters, to enable me to see as of banishing the classics to improve republican ideas.” Quoted in Lawrence Cremin, American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876 (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 126.

84 Coram, , Political Inquiries, 101.

85 Webster, , On the Education of Youth, 4.

86 Hansen, , Liberalism and American Education, 52. For other instances of opposition to Greek and Latin, see Citizen of Philadelphia, “An enquiry into the utility of the knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages,” The American Museum June (1789): 686–94; Philanthropos, “Mr. Wheeler, If You Think the following Sentiments Worthy of Notice….” United States Chronicle, 19 October 1786, 1; “Thoughts on Education,” The Independent Gazetteer, 20 December 1786.

87 Rush, , Observations upon the Study of the Greek and Latin Languages, in Essays Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, 25, 43.

88 See Jefferson, , “Letter to Peter Carr, 1814,” in Writings, ed. Peterson, Merrill (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1347–53.

89 Franklin, , Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth, 13 September 1749.

90 Rush, , Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, 18.

91 Rush, , Observations upon the Study of the Greek and Latin Languages, 41.

92 Thoughts on Education,” The Independent Gazetteer, 20 December 1786.

93 Franklin, , Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth.

94 Ibid.

95 Rush is the only one of the major essayists who favors an explicitly Christian education, and even he concedes that his is the minority position: “I am aware that I dissent…” and even offers to incorporate Buddhist and Islamic teachings into his curriculum if Christianity should prove too sectarian. See Rush, Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, 10–11. What he hoped to oppose by introducing explicit theology was the soft course of moral philosophy, which he claimed was “an anti-Christian mode of teaching morals.” Rush, , Observations Upon the Study of the Latin and Greek Languages, 49.

96 Rush, , Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, 19, Webster, , On the Education of Youth, 23.

97 Hansen, , Liberalism and American Education, 56.

98 Edmund Burke discusses this problem in the French National Assembly in 1789, which he complained had been usurped by “a handful of country clowns… some of whom are said not to be able to read and write, and by not a greater number of traders, who… had never known anything beyond their counting-house.” The problem with such petty professionals, Burke reasoned, was that they were not even taken seriously by their own countrymen, and “the degree of estimation in which any profession is held becomes the standard of the estimation in which the professors hold themselves.” Men thrust into positions of political power who were “not taught habitually to respect themselves” could be easily flattered and bought off, to the great detriment of the state with whose safety they had been entrusted. See Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Pocock, J.G.A (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987), 38.

99 Middlekauff, , Ancients and Axioms, 121.

100 Rush, , Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, 19.

101 Webster, , On the Education of Youth, 3.

102 Ibid., 23.

103 Rush, , Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, 9.

104 Ibid., 14.

105 Franklin, , Autobiography, 643.

106 While Franklin values self-discipline and self-restraint, he opposes asceticism and stringent perfectionism. See, for example, his essay, “Self-Denial Not the Essence of Virtue,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, 18 February 1734/1735.

107 Rush, , Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education, 14–15.

108 This is not to say that Franklin was a stranger to military affairs—he helped to provision the British in the French and Indian War, and organized and trained with the Pennsylvania militia. However, he was never a soldier.

109 Pangle, , The Learning of Liberty, 283.

110 Hansen, , Liberalism and American Education, 45.

111 Ibid., 44–45.

112 Nancy Beadie offers a useful discussion of the logistical obstacles to funding a system of public schools in New York in Education and the Creation of Capital in the Early American Republic (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 686–94.

113 See Wood, , The Creation of the American Republic, particularly “Vices of the System,” 393–495.

114 As cited in Wood, , The Creation of the American Republic, 426.

115 Webster, , On the Education of Youth, 22.

116 Pocock also points to the lingering desire for a militia that was no longer practicable as an impetus for the Second Amendment. See Pocock, , The Machiavellian Moment, 528. This fear is remarkably similar to the worry expressed by contemporary liberal theorists like Stephen Macedo that experiencing “the great goods of the liberal order” from childhood on will be insufficient to persuade Americans to be good liberals as adults. See Macedo, Diversity and Distrust, 215–16.

She would like to thank William Selinger, Christopher Barker, and the Political Theory Workshop at Harvard for their helpful suggestions.

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History of Education Quarterly
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