Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,288

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,288


This is the grave of Horace Mann.

Born in Franklin, Massachusetts in 1796, Mann grew up poor. His father was unlearned and Mann had to work as a child, rarely attending school. But the boy was obsessed with learning and made it happen. As it turned out, Franklin, Massachusetts had the first real public library in America (or so it claimed; we all know that Benjamin Franklin created the first lending library, but in terms of real public libraries, this might well be true). So Mann took advantage of this in whatever time he had and taught himself. In 1816, he manged to enroll at Brown University, thrived there, and graduated in 1819 as valedictorian.

Over the next few years, Mann engaged in both teaching and studying for the law. In 1823, he was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts. He also showed an aptitude for both reform and politics. He was one of the first major Americans to espouse widespread social reform tendencies, in some ways serving as an inspiration to the movements that would come out of the Second Great Awakening. He was elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1827 and came out strong against both alcohol and state-sponsored lotteries, while being an advocate for public education. He also was responsible for bringing a mental asylum to Worcester. While the asylums of this time were truly horrible, they were seen as reforms at the time and need to be considered that way. He stayed in the state legislature until 1833, when he decided to move to Boston. But he was already well known enough throughout the state that voters in his district in that city sent him to the state senate in 1835. He soon became majority leader and worked hard to build canals and other forms of modern transportation.

In 1837, Massachusetts created a Board of Education, the first in the country I think. Mann became its superintendent and this really was his lifelong work. He became the biggest promoter of public education in the nation. Massachusetts would soon lead the nation in this category and Mann became an inspiration for those promoting the idea across the nation. As with nearly every reform, then and now, this did not really catch on much in the South, but it spread like wildfire in the North. Central to this was getting rid of corporal punishment in the schools, which bad teachers used for discipline and which many teachers thus supported strongly. Mann was far from popular here. He wanted trained teachers, using modern pedagogy, to educate every child with a secular education. That latter part made him extremely unpopular with Catholics, who feared (rightfully so given the rampant anti-Catholic prejudice of the age) that in fact these public schools would basically promote Protestantism under the guise of non-sectarianism. Mann was pretty open about this–the Bible was to be taught and not strictly as literature. The “values” of Protestant Christianity were seen as common values to be shared by all. He could not really get past his own biases to see the problems here.

Mann also promoted for teachers to be women. Now, the nation was entering the Victorian era and the sharpening of gender norms was quite real. Women were seen by Victorians to be the civilizing force of society and based on these stereotypes, Mann pushed to replace men with women. But there was another reason that teaching became a feminized profession–you could pay them less than men, even if they were better trained. Moreover, since all this was imbued with gender ideology, you could also control these teacher-workers, firing them for offenses such as getting married or being seen with a man.

Mann was no dilettante either. He engaged in experimentation on how to teach children to read, something that is still debated heavily today. He was very serious about education, which is most of the reason he is remembered, mostly for good reasons, today.

In 1848, John Quincy Adams died. The former president had become a legend in the House of Representatives, taking up the cause of anti-slavery when it was quite unpopular, including in most of the North. So the people of Boston were not going to elect anyone to replace Adams. Nope, they elected Horace Mann. And Mann built upon Adams’ legacy as a staunch opponent of slavery on the House floor. He started representing escaped slaves in court. He gave anti-slavery speeches that infuriated his opponents. He attacked Daniel Webster for his support of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and in doing so, called his fall equal to that of “Lucifer descending from Heaven.” Those old political speeches could be long-winded and filled with what are today obscure references, but they could also have some great one-liners.

In 1852, Mann decided to run for governor of Massachusetts. He did not win that race. Being popular in abolitionist Boston was not the same as being popular in Massachusetts, especially as a Free Soiler. So he took the position as the president of Antioch College in Ohio, the experimental anti-racist school in Yellow Springs. It was a new college and the fourth to admit Black students along with whites. Mann helped make that happen. He also hired a woman as professor with equal pay to men. That it was his niece did make it pretty much nepotism, but she was also qualified.

Mann’s time at Antioch was not easy. The college was a reformist school yes, but here’s the thing about reformers–they back bite like no one else. Think of all the sectarian left over the twentieth century. Well, it was the same in the mid-19th century, except instead of different shades of Marxists, they were different shades of Protestants. And they fought ALL THE TIME. Mann got completely caught up in this nonsense while at Antioch. He was all about being non-sectarian, but then he joined a Unitarian church out there and all the other groups were like SECTARIAN!!!!! Some pulled out their money over this, which placed the college on very sketchy financial footing. Moreover, while the college promised gender equality to students, those women who were really committed to gender equality found all sorts of restrictions on their behavior, which made sense to Mann as he was a Victorian all the way, but very much made the female students furious.

Whether all of this contributed to Mann’s death or not is a matter of speculation. Some have said it did. On the other hand, when he died in 1859, shortly after giving the graduating class their commencement address, it was of typhoid. But among those who blamed all the sectarian nonsense was his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lamented “what seems the fatal waste of labor and life at Antioch.”

Horace Mann is buried in North Burial Ground, Providence, Rhode Island. In case you are wondering why, he was initially buried in Yellow Springs, but was moved to Providence to be with his first wife, who died young and was the daughter of the president of Brown. What his second wife, who was with him at Antioch thought, I do not know, but I do know that she also blamed the sectarian nonsense for his death.

If you would like this series to visit other American educational reformers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Wirt, not the 19th century Anti-Mason Party presidential candidate but rather the creator of the Gary Plan in the US Steel town of Gary, Indiana, is in Bluffton, Indiana, and Abraham Flexner, author of A Modern School, the 1916 book that urged schools to stop teaching the classics and instead teach stuff that actually mattered to students, is in Louisville, Kentucky. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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