Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Joseph E. Brown, Georgia's secessionist governor, championed public education, 1880

History records abundantly the exertions of liberal reformers in the cause of building public education, especially in the closed societies of the South where schooling was viewed as the private obligation of parents, throughout the South. But the attempts by conservative politicians, because of their rarity, are sometimes more marvelous. This is precisely the case of a speech made by Georgia Senator Joseph E. Brown from the well of the U.S. Senate on December 15, 1880.

Brown was no carpetbagger or scalawag: A native of Pickens County, South Carolina, Brown's family moved to Union County, Georgia, in his youth, though he returned to attend Calhoun Academy in Anderson, South Carolina. Thereafter, he taught school in rural Georgia while involving himself in local politics. An ardent secessionist, Brown was elected governor of Georgia just before the Civil War and remained in that office through the war. Throughout his career in public service, he championed the development of free public education, and he reiterated his rationale while debating a bill to dispose of certain federal lands to benefit public schools for all children.

Following is an abridgement of that speech:

Mr. President, I have listened with a great deal of pleasure to the able and eloquent argument made by the honorable senator from Vermont [Mr. Morrill] in favor of the passage of the bill now before the Senate. We live under a republican form of government. The stability of that government depends, in my opinion, upon the virtue and intelligence of the people of the United States. ...It becomes, therefore, important that we should educate the mass of the American people if we expect to perpetuate American institutions.

The intellect of the people of this country is not confined to the sons of the aristocracy or the wealthy classes. George Washington was a surveyor; Benjamin Franklin was a printer; Roger Sherman, I believe, was a shoemaker; Andrew Jackson was a penniless orphan; Henry Clay was a mill boy; Daniel Webster was the son of poor parentage; Andrew Johnson was a tailor, who when married could neither read nor write; his wife taught him to read; he was self-educated and self-made; General Grant was a tanner; the great commoner, Alexander H. Stephens, was a poor orphan boy; Abraham Lincoln split rails and labored in his youth with his hands for his living; and I believe the President-elect, General Garfield, was born of poor parentage.

Then it is true that in this country as well as every other the intellect of the country in not confined to the sons of the wealthier or the ruling classes; and I maintain that the State has a right to have the intellect of the whole country developed out of the mass of the wealth of the country and brought into action for the protection of society and the building up and development of the country. How can this be done? Only by the education of the children of all classes of society. I have no doubt many a man has lived in the United States, of intellect as grand as those I have mentioned, who has died unknown to fame. Why so? Because no circumstance has led to the first stage of development that has made the person himself conscious of his own powers. That bright boy has never been sent to school; he has never been taught even the first rudiments of a common education; he has been confined to labor in the backwoods, in the factory, in the shop, or in the mines, and while he may have been regarded there as one of the most intellectual of his comrades, there has been no development that showed his powers to either him or them, or that gave the country the benefit of those powers.

Educate the whole mass of the people and you have the benefit of all this power. Let me illustrate. The honorable senator who has just taken his seat was too modest to refer to it because he is from New England, but we find a noted example there. When the Puritans, as we term them, landed in this country and located themselves on the bleak shores of New England, they commenced building up society by the organization of churches and the building of houses of worship, and they located the schoolhouse near the church. They established a system of common schools that was intended to embrace the whole population and to give every child an opportunity to have a common education. They commenced early and laid deep the foundations of their universities and colleges. The result has been that they have endowed and built up colleges of a very high order, where immense numbers of the young men of this country have been educated.

Go out through the mighty West and over the Territories to the Pacific Ocean, and what do you find? Where was the member of Congress or the senator in this hall educated? Usually at a New England college. Where was the minister of religion, or the village doctor, or the lawyer, or the local politician educated? Most of them in the New England colleges. Thus they carried New England ideas with them all through the West, which have controlled in the organization of society and the legislation of States, and in that way New England may be said to have dictated laws to the continent. Her ideas, taught to the youths that have gone out West and scattered all over this broad land, have been carried along and ingrafted upon society, and we are obliged to admit that they have done a great deal in controlling the destinies of the country.

It was not only so with New England; but there is another very noted example worthy of our attention. I refer to the Kingdom of Prussia. At the time Napoleon the First led his armies over Europe like an avalanche, and swept down kingdoms and empires before him, Prussia was a third-class power, devastated by the ravages of war. At the end of the great struggle, in making preparations to build up society, she early took into account the importance of educating the whole mass of her people. She endowed universities liberally; she established a system of public schools throughout the entire kingdom, and she not only by her legislation from time to time made provision for the education of all her children, but she made their education compulsory. She permits no father who has been the means of bringing offspring into society to say, "I will not permit my child to be educated; I will not send him to school." She says: "The State has an interest in it and it shall be done." The law requires the parent to send the son, and then the State gives him the rudiments of an education. He must have it; the good of society requires it; the law compels it.

How did it work? From a third-rate power Prussia rose rapidly to a second-rate power; and within the last few years the test of strength came between the Kingdom of Prussia and the Empire set up by Napoleon, when his successor, a wise statesman, was upon the throne. What was the result? That little third-rate kingdom, overrun by Napoleon the First, had risen to be a power in Europe, and when the struggle came Prussia swept over France, dethroned the monarch, the successor to Napoleon the First, and dictated terms to France upon her own soil. Why was it so? It may be said she had abler generals; that her armies were better handled. There was another reason; she had a better educated people. Her whole people were educated. Every man felt an individuality in what he was doing, and then she had all the best intellects of the kingdom educated to fill the different places where it was necessary to have ability. A government that educates all her brightest intellect has greatly the advantage of one that educates only that portion of her intellect that is born in the wealthier and higher classes of society.

Under the Prussian system, as I understand it, if a boy shows great brightness and is intellectually adapted with proper training to the position of a professor of chemistry, he is carried through the university, and he is fully developed and educated in that department of science. If another shows great talent for the military, he is passed through the military department; and if he has a master mind, he is made a master of the military profession; and so in each department. Therefore, when Prussia called upon her sons to rally under her banner, she had her ablest intellect cultivated in their respective positions, and they were ready to step forward and fill each place with a first-class man. This was not so with the French. They have colleges and universities of the highest order; they have education of the highest order; but they have not the whole mass educated as they are in Prussia. There may have been some of the ablest generals by nature and some of the most useful men that the army could have required in other positions who were in the ranks, whose power was not known because they had not been developed by education, and therefore the state lost the benefit of their mental powers. I say the state has the right to the aid of all the mental power of its people, and it can have it in no other way than by the education of all the masses of the people of the state. And this should be done by the aid, as far as necessary, of all the wealth of the state.

Take our own country, today. In the backwoods, among the mountains, peradventure away out among the Rocky Mountains, or down in the wiregrass of the South, there is many a bright-eyed boy, who has intellect of the highest order, in one of the humblest cottages or cabins of the land. And there, if neglected, he may stay and work his way through life with no opportunity to show the power he possesses. But send him to the common school and let the rough be knocked off that diamond until it begins to glitter, and you cannot then stop him. He will go forward, and the more the diamond is polished the brighter it will sparkle, till it shines out in all its brilliant splendor and magnificence. But this could not have been done without education enough to show what was in the boy. Therefore, without the education of the mass of the people and of the whole people, you cannot have the benefit of the whole intellect of the country brought to bear in the building up of society and the development of the resources and power of the state.

But there is another good reason, Mr. President, why those who come from my section of the Union should advocate this measure. The honorable senator from Vermont [Mr. Morrill] referred to the fact of the large illiteracy of the people of the United States. He did not carry it out and show to what States or sections this illiteracy applies most. I regret to say it is from my own section. There are several reasons why it is so. Under our old system of society we looked more to the education of the ruling class than we did to the education of the whole mass. In other words, we did not, as they did in New England, furnish the money to establish systems of public schools where all the children could be educated, but we educated our children through the means of private schools, where only the wealthier classes and those who were well-to-do could send their children. Consequently there was a larger number of illiterate persons in our society than there was in the society of New England or any other State that had a properly endowed public school system.

But this was not all. We had there a large slave population, amounting in round numbers to four millions at the time they were emancipated. Under our system as long as we kept and used them as slaves it was regarded unsafe to educate them. Therefore their education was neglected, and it was a very hazardous experiment when they were made citizens without education.

The honorable senator from Rhode Island [General Burnside] referred to the condition of the Scotch people at a time when they were not educated, and told us how degraded they were and how they were looked down upon, and to the elevation that they afterward attained when by a common-school system they were educated up to a high point.

I have given you a reason why there is such a vast preponderance of illiteracy now in our section. It is not only due to the fact that we did not have the common-school systems in the Southern States prior to emancipation, but that the four millions of freedmen were a added to our population as citizens there, without education. Then we must appeal to you not only now but in future to be liberal toward the South in aiding in the education of these people. I know there have been complaints that they may have been cheated in some instances at the ballot-box. Ignorance may be cheated anywhere. Doubtless, Senators, you have seen the more ignorant class cheated in your own States. If you would guard against this effectually in the future, educate them; teach them to know their rights and, knowing them, they will maintain them.

It is necessary to educate them, furthermore, for the reason that they do not now understand, as ignorance does not anywhere understand, the theory and form and spirit of our Government. Education will enable them to understand it. We must give it to them. We must teach them what is the nature of the government, what are the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and now that we all agree that it is to be perpetual in future, we must teach them to love the Union and to be ready to stand by and defend it, and I believe the senators from New England will agree with me when I say we must teach them also that the Union is a union of States, and that we must not destroy the States. When the States are destroyed there is no longer the Union of our fathers. As the Union is to be indissoluble, the States which form the Union, and without which it cannot be maintained, must forever remain indestructible, and they must continue in the exercise of all the reserved rights which they now possess under the Constitution as it stands, with the amendments adopted by the States.

Therefore, it is necessary to teach all citizens, white and colored, and to teach their children, the importance of maintaining republican institutions in the purity in which they originally came from the hands of the framers of our Constitution, and to maintain the ballot-box in its purity also. I announced in my own State to the electors who were to vote on my case the next day, that I was for a free ballot and a fair count. ... Let it be so everywhere. Let us educate our people, white and colored, up to the point where they understand the proper use of the ballot; then let it be free to all, and let the ballots be fairly counted when deposited. ... Whenever the whole mass of the people are educated there is no danger in doing this. Until they are educated there will be impositions practiced upon ignorance in every section of this country, and probably in every State in the Union.

I know some objection has been raised on the constitutional question. It has been said that the States alone can take charge of this matter; that the Federal Government has nothing to do with the education of the people. Well, under the strictest rules of construction of the old State-rights school prior to the war possibly that was so; but we do not live under the Constitution that we lived under then. The amendments made at the termination of the struggle have very greatly enlarged the powers of this government.

But I believe there is another provision of the Constitution that may have some bearing here. "The United States shall guaranty to every State in this Union a republican form of government" is the language of the Constitution. If I be right in the position I took in the commencement of this argument, that this government cannot be perpetuated as a republic without the education of the whole mass of the people, then to appropriate money for the education of the masses of the people would be a better mode of guarantying a republican form of government than to undertake to make a guaranty by the use of the army and the sword.

I do not think really there is any constitutional difficulty in the way of making this disposition of the public lands lor this very important purpose, and it seems to me there is no other possible disposition that can be made of this fund in the future which can result in anything like the benefit to the Government and the people of the United States that must result from the appropriation of it to the purposes of education.

We will in this way establish new guaranties for the perpetuation of the Union, the maintenance of the rights of the States, and the future peace and prosperity of the whole country. Let us give to the whole mass of our people, in all sections of the Union, the benefit of at least a common-school education; and let us provide, as in the Prussian system, for a higher development of the brightest intellects that may be found in the public schools by such legislation and appropriations as will enable them to prosecute their studies till they have made themselves masters of the particular art or calling for which nature seems to have fitted them.

It may be objected that it costs large sums of money to educate our whole people. I admit it; but it is an investment that pays back a heavy rate of interest. Who is most likely to make money, an educated enlightened people, or an ignorant, degraded people? Contrast the financial condition of New England with that of Mexico, and tell me which accumulates fastest, an educated, scientific people, or a people who do not enjoy the benefits of education or science. The surest way to make money is to invest large sums of money in the education of our people and the development of the whole intellect of the country.

Then let us lay the foundation of a system which shall be improved and built up, until the whole mass of the American people have the benefits that will soon result from it. This is the surest way to maintain and perpetuate our republican system of government, to develop the vast resources of our country, to encourage and protect the accumulation of wealth and to transmit the blessings of good government to remotest generations.

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