Education in Antebellum Richmond, Virginia
Though antebellum Richmond was a city torn between industry and agriculture, progress and tradition, and wealth and poverty, within its history lies the backbone of educational development in both the state of Virginia and in the South. Lacking the variety of common school crusades which frequented the antebellum North, the educational systems throughout the South lacked popular support and funding. Without charismatic leadership such as Massachusetts' Horace Mann or the North's public outcry for education, southern eyes instead turned towards Richmond to set an example of the southern educational system. This capitol city of Virginia witnessed every act of state government's intervention into education. As a home to all levels of society from the elite white upper class to the enslaved blacks, Richmond demonstrated each type of educational opportunity popular in the years before the Civil War. For the wealthy, this meant shipping sons and daughters off to English schools, private tutors, or private academies throughout Virginia and Maryland. Less fortunate families had to rely on the system of apprenticeship, sending their children to local farmers, craftsmen, and businessmen to learn a trade. Finally, children of the Richmond's streets, homeless or parent less, could only rely on one of the few church sponsored pauper schools within Richmond.
Before attempting to isolate Richmond's successes and failures regarding the education of its children it is important to note how far the state of Virginia lagged behind its northern counterparts. Marianne Finch, an Englishwoman documenting her travels throughout America in 1853, claimed of the North, " No one can travel in the free states of America without being constantly reminded of the importance attached to the education of the people." This statement, however accurate to the antebellum North demonstrates just how far behind Virginia really was. While northern states were struggling to enact public school mandates in the years after the Revolution, no true and effective public schooling law came into effect in Virginia until 1870. In 1837 there were 200,000 white children between the ages of five and fifteen living in Virginia. 40,000 of them were under the poverty level and only 20,000, or ten percent of Virginia's children received regular schooling. The situation was so poor that David Campbell, living in Richmond and governor at the time, said the number of uneducated children was "really of an appalling magnitude." In 1840 there were 60,000 white illiterates in Virginia. One out of twelve Virginians, compared to one out of 164 in Massachusetts and one out of 300 in New Hampshire, could neither read nor write. By 1850 the proportion of native white Virginians who received schooling was a mere twelve percent, the lowest proportion in the union except for the frontier states of California and Florida. Clearly, education was not foremost in the minds of state leaders, government, or citizens.
The history of Virginia's colonization helps to explain just why Virginians placed so little emphasis upon education. The settlers of Virginia, one historian has written, "had come for gain." Colonial inhabitants of Virginia had no interest in education and instead placed their energies on profit. Due to its "marked differences in climate and possible crops," colonial Virginia was comprised of plantations, spread apart by miles of farmland. The state was mercenary, focusing on a "tobacco culture." Northern colonies such as those in Massachusetts, however, developed a strong sense of community in close knit towns. Bound by location and common beliefs colonies in Massachusetts readily ascertained the importance of education. For example, in 1642 Massachusetts' colonial legislature created a law which directed town officials to determine if parents and masters were fulfilling their educational duties. It stated that all children should be trained "in learning and labor and other employments profitable to the Commonwealth." Virginia never did develop this communal sense of the north, and instead relied heavily on a class system of landownership and slavery. Thus, colonial Virginia lacked any centralized agreement of the importance of education and instead was concerned with selling crops.
As Virginia grew in population it became geographically divided. Nearly all the state buildings, wealth, and industry lay in the east, while the west was rural and agriculturally dependent. Consequently Virginia fractured into eastern and western influences, each with radically different views on education. Eastern counties, aristocratic and wealthy, considered education a private endeavor while in the west education by expensive tutors and private schools was "not available for the masses." Many felt that a "small, smug Richmond clique" was running the state. Indeed, Richmond was a hotbed of politics and decision making. The divisions within its own educational system mirrored the political divisions within the state.
Because of its eastern location, importance, and status as state capitol, Richmond not only fell under the influence of but was a model for state government's educational laws and jurisdiction. It took an expanse of almost one hundred years after the American revolution for Virginia to enact its first real school laws. From as early as 1796 Virginia had an optional school law, yet individual communities took very little initiative in developing public schooling. By 1810 a permanent public school fund was established within the state budget. A law providing for charity school systems enacted in 1818 supplemented the law of 1810. In 1846 an actual school law was created, though it was accepted by only nine counties. It wasn't until 1870 that a public schooling law was actually enforced. Consequently, within the city of antebellum Richmond education was dependent upon family wealth.
For the wealthy elite of Richmond, education was a matter of preference. Sons of Richmond's businessmen and landowners faced many options. Many families still held onto their English ties and believed the best education was one found in England. Many families sent their sons oversees to English academies. The Richmond based Fitzhugh family sent their eleven year old son in 1798 to George Mason in Bristol with a letter saying, "Sir by this comes a large and dear consignment from me, the consignment of a son to your care and conduct." Many of English schools even advertised in Richmond's newspapers. One such school ran by Reverend B. Booth advertised an education for young boys at the price of twenty one pounds per year at "the seat of the late Lady Mollineux's at Woolton, five miles from Liverpool." Perfect as the English education seemed to be by the nineteenth century the popularity of oversees education was in decline. This was an era of corruption in England and children returned with poor health and bad manners. In as early as 1770 Virginian Landon Carter claimed, "I believe everybody begins to laugh at English education; the general importers of it nowadays bring back only a stiff priggishness with as little good manners as possible."
The wealthy who desired an education in the states could choose between boarding schools throughout Virginia and Maryland, several of Richmond's own academies, and private tutors. Boarding schools such as the grammar school attached to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg offered the appeal of an away from home education yet was close enough to Richmond for families to keep an eye on their sons. Another school was the Somerset Academy on the Eastern Shore. Here it was advertised:
The scholars are taught the rudiments of English
grammar, the art of spelling, and some portion of
time is spent every week to perfect them in writing.
They are instructed in the Latin and Greek
languages, and may be taught the various branches
of the arts and sciences.
Schools based in Richmond such as the William Burns Private Academy offered education in English, French, Latin, and the sciences. For a tuition of twenty dollars for ten months and fifty-five dollars room and board a boy could receive top quality education. Other schools such as the Northumberland Academy and the Union School offered similar conditions. Schools advertised in the daily newspapers, offering their services to the Richmond elite. Some schools used the papers to advertise for teachers: "A teacher wanted...a person of correct moral habits, well qualified to teach the English and Latin languages."
A few private academies in Richmond even catered to the young girls of the Richmond elite. Girls could receive an education at one of the few female seminaries in Richmond "in which discipline and laborious application" was maintained. These schools were, though, severely critiqued in their attempts to educate woman who would possibly later forget their duties as mothers and wives in pursuit of new learned goals. Newspaper such as the Richmond Enquirer often featured editorials and commentaries raging against feminine education. On January 2, 1834 an editorial claimed, "The wider range of both intellect and accomplishment, which is now prescribed, seems to exclude some of those practical and homebred virtues on which the true influence of the woman depends."
Private tutors were another educational outlet, for both boys and girls, utilized by Richmond's upper class. Tutors were taken into a family as teacher, friend, and role model for the children. A tutor "should be a gentleman, for he would take dinner with the family and participate in family activities as a social equal." Richard Corbin, a planter outside of Richmond in 1766, was in so need of a tutor for his children that he wrote to his friends in England:
I am greatly in want of a tutor for my children...I
must earnestly in treat you therefore to procure me
an honest man well skilled in the languages, writes a
good hand, and is thoroughly acquainted with
arithmetic and accounts.
Tutors, though often the most expensive form of education, were the most desirable. For the lower class, though, a private tutor was impossible. These families had to rely on the tradition of apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship in Richmond was limited. Apprenticeships were an outlet for mostly boys, free black or poor white, to learn a trade under the hand of an experienced worker, usually for a term of at least two years. Newspapers such as the Richmond Enquirer ran want advertisements such as "The subscribers are in want of four or five boys as apprentices to learn the blacksmith's business." To be an apprentice, was essentially, to become an indentured servant of a particular position in another man's home and business. The master could force any job upon his apprentice and was permitted to punish him accordingly. To the master, an apprentice was equal to one of his own children. He was responsible for clothes, food, and housing for his charge. By the nineteenth century teaching reading and writing had also become required from the master as a part of an apprenticeship.
Children were contracted to be an apprentice at any age. The average age of an apprentice was fourteen. The boy would typically for seven years and become free at the age of twenty-one. Though apprentices almost always came from lower class backgrounds, no social stigma marked their later professions. Though the apprentice was a virtual slave, society accepted apprenticeship as a decent method of education.
For children without family ties, money, or an option of apprenticeship little remained in the way of an education. Few 'wage' jobs were to be found for the children of Richmond's streets, for they were in competition with older, stronger free blacks and immigrants. The only jobs a child could find were gotten day by day and paid very little. Children worked as newspaper sellers, peddlers, bootblacks, market stand sellers, messengers, and errand children. Therefore, Richmond's parent less children had to rely on the few options given to them by scattered pauper schools. Pauper schools were set up in churches and private homes to educate the indigent children of the city. Sometimes a "public spirited citizen" would bequest money towards these such schools in his/her will to help lessen the heavy burden of so many poverty stricken children in Richmond. But it was the church who felt this burden most of all and the church towards which children of the street could turn. The Englishwoman Marianne Finch describes the dismal scene:
The Church, like a ray of sunshine in a storm,
rendered more distinct the clouds of doom that hung
over the landscapes; but at the same time brightened
the hope of their dispersion.
Even religious interaction though, was not enough to combat the ignorance of a political system that largely ignored the problems of its indigent children.
One example of education's low priority in Virginia was the school plan of 1818, created in Richmond under Governor Preston. This extremely ineffective plan, which allotted a fraction of government funds towards public education, failed before it was even enacted. Little funding and a lack of school houses were only part of the reason. The state felt that poor families would face embarrassment at "exposing their poverty to the world" and wouldn't want to send their children to school. Even the governor claimed:
The truth is that the pauper children do not partake
of the bounty in any considerable proportion at all.
The poor little girls without fly-flap bonnets and the
little shoeless boys do not go to school, because the
shame of poverty keeps them away from that
charity which points its finger at their indigence.
No attention was paid to the fact that pauper children were in fact children, children with the same needs as their wealthy counterparts. Yet, their state and their government dismissed pauper children as indigent objects.
It wasn't until the 1850s that the state truly assessed its public education. The Literary Fund, Virginia's one successful state outlet for "the purposes of education in primary and free schools" appropriated $75,000 in 1853 to fund instruction for Virginia's large but worthy class of pauper children. The city of Richmond hosted the Virginia Educational Convention in 1856 and 1857 to discuss what public schools the state did have. Many officials felt, "The feature of charity to paupers in a system of public instruction ought to be abolished as odious to the people and degrading to the pupils." The group viewed the system of charity within the schools unconstitutional and morally invalid, claiming:
Is it right to take the property of the many and
bestow it exclusively on the few?...Now is it right to
exclude from all the benefits of the literary fund all
the children of this glorious old commonwealth,
except those who put in the plea of rags and dirt?
The Richmond convention attacked both the state's past budgetary resolutions and its limited reforms. Between the years of 1852 and 1856 the convention discovered that only sixty percent of the allotted state school funds actually reached their destination. Of an average annual sum of $159,000 during these years the average balance left over in the superintendent's's hands was $52,000. It is obvious that in the years before the Civil War, what little public schooling Virginia possessed was meager and any hope for a quick solution was pushed off by the onset of war.
In present day America, a society of foster care programs, mandatory public schooling, and extensive welfare it is hard to see just why children in Richmond were so ignored during the nineteenth century. James Kincaid offers one explanation:
The point in cultural history when childhood and
adulthood become separate and opposing worlds is
clearly the late eighteenth century.
Before this time, society viewed children as simply small adults, requiring no special significance merely due to age. The field of education in the United States only began to see a "new conception of the child as a slowly developing personality" in the mid-eighteen hundreds, and this came even later to Virginia and the South. It was during this time that subjects and methods began to be suited towards age and teaching became directed education, not mere recitation. The concept of the "science of teaching" and the trend of child observation and questioning, that today is taken for granted, was either foreign or brand new to antebellum Richmond.
The city did, however, exemplify the southern attempts at education in the years before the civil war. It was a city of all classes, home to the wealthiest elite and most poverty stricken poor. Richmond itself mirrored the internal war between the state of Virginia. Just as the state was torn between wealthy eastern influences and a subordinate west, so was Richmond torn between the ease of education for those with money and the dire situation of its poor and homeless children. When critiquing the society of antebellum Richmond, many aspects can measure the extent of its greatness, yet none is more revealing than its attempts at education. Children are mirrors which reflect the views and attitudes of the world around them. A society which places emphasis on the education of its children will in turn create a generation of responsible and productive adults. Conversely, a society which ignores the plight of its younger generation will face severe consequences. Richmond fell in between these two extremes.
The city's emphasis on education by no means matched that of northern cities. Two periods, 1818 and the 1850s, attempted to reverse Virginia's little interest in education through private academies, apprenticeships, and pauper schools, the city of Richmond made her own attempts at educating future generations.