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A Progressive School Reform Movement Sweeps Maine

A Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast, Feb. 26, 1870. image/courtesy Library of Congress

In the 1830s and ’40s, a reform movement emerged in New England to ensure that all children — regardless of wealth, religion or status — could access a quality education. But the roots of public education in Maine stretch back even further, to the 1600s. The Puritan colonizers of New England highly valued literacy and believed everyone should be able to read and make their own interpretations of the Bible, rather than have a church dictate it. In an 1839 petition to the Maine Legislature, members of the Portland School Committee noted that their Puritan ancestors developed their universal public education system after experiencing religious discrimination back in England.

“Excluded from the high seminaries of England, our Puritan fathers keenly felt the injustices of those laws which debarred any part of the community from the light of knowledge on account of their religious belief,” the committee wrote. “Enlightened by the intolerance of which they had been the subjects, they established at an early period the college at Cambridge; and still further resolved that the blessings of education should be given to the whole people without exclusion; and to our parent state, Massachusetts, belongs the honor of first establishing, by law, common schools.”

In 1635, Puritans established the first public school in Boston. In the 1640s, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first laws establishing a compulsory public school system to ensure their children would learn to “read the English tongue” and understand Puritan laws. Under an 1847 law, town selectmen were required to hire one teacher for every 50 students, paid at the expense of local taxpayers. The purpose of these laws, wrote Kermit S. Nickerson in his 1970 book, 150 Years of Public Education in Maine, was to “thwart Satan’s desire to keep men from knowledge of the Scripture and to prevent learning from being buried in the graves of their forefathers.” Nickerson noted that the laws laid the groundwork for what became known as the “common school.” 

When the Bay Colony purchased the District of Maine in 1677 for £1,250, Maine became subject to Massachusetts’ education laws. The Puritans taught their strict Calvinist Christian doctrine in these proto-public schools and the church handled most of the administration and funding of local education. A 1671 law dictated that teachers were required to be of sound moral character and should not be hired if they “manifested themselves unsound in the faith or scandalous in their lives.”

Despite earlier reform efforts, there was still a wide geographic and wealth disparity in educational opportunities in Maine by the 1830s. School reformers took inspiration from Massachusetts Secretary of Education Horace Mann, who established the first state board of education. Mann promoted the idea of a free, non-sectarian, publicly controlled and tax-funded elementary education provided by well trained, professional teachers.

In making his case to business elites, Mann argued that capitalists would reap great returns on their tax investments by having a more educated, morally virtuous, patriotic and skilled workforce. Proponents also claimed more education would alleviate poverty by giving more children the tools to be successful in life.

Working-class voices in Maine contended that free public education was critical to tackling “the unequal distribution of knowledge” and fostering a more engaged citizenry in the young democratic republic, according to Maine labor historian Charlie Scontras. One Portland mechanic, writing under the pseudonym COSMOPOLITE, wrote in a letter to the Eastern Argus, dated March 29, 1831:

“There should be no PRIVILEGED class —let the favors be equally enjoyed and the burdens equally borne. There should not even be an aristocracy of intellect; and every one who really desires ‘the greatest good of the greatest number,’ should rejoice in all judicious efforts to place all classes as nearly as possible upon an equality in point of intelligence. … We should encourage in all the nobler inspirations of the mind — that all classes may stand a chance of winning the honors which the social compact has to impart; affording the noblest illustration of the genius of our institutions and developing the beauty of the republican principle.”

While wealthier parents could afford to send their children to better funded private academies, poorer kids in rural areas had fewer options. By 1828, there were 28 academies in Maine, funded with private donations and revenue from the sale of public lands. They offered a far better education than the over 230 free public schools in Maine, but the tuition was too expensive for most families. 

Without a proper education, labor groups argued, the children of urban workers and hard-scrabble farmers, whom they called the “bones and sinews” of American society, were less able to become informed and active citizens in the republic. That made them more vulnerable to exploitation by a parasitic moneyed class of businessmen and bankers.

In a fiery letter to the Mechanics Free Press published Dec. 31, 1831, a Brunswick mechanic complained that the education system favored the rich, making a mockery of the nation’s founding principles — that “all men are born free and equal.” This monopoly of knowledge made workers act obsequiously before the wealthy, “whom fortune or dishonesty has placed above us in point of wealth or learning.” The letter continued: 

“We are apt to think we are dependent upon them for our support without once dreaming that the contrary is the fact; and unless this delusion can speedily be done away, little hope can be entertained for us working men however much may be projected or desired. Let the children of the rich and learned be culled out of our primary schools, and placed in private ones above the means of the working classes, as has been the case for years past, and at the same time let them be taught to regard the children of the working classes as their inferiors while the children of the working classes are suffered, permitted or instructed … to look up to those who are favored with better opportunities as their superiors and let them all grow up to manhood with these notions about them, and it will require no gift of prophecy to foretell that twenty or fifty years will find us precisely in the situation we are now. Nothing but equal and universal education can, in my opinion, cure the evils above described.”

Beginning in the late 1820s, Maine artisans and tradesmen launched their own educational institutions, like the Mechanics’ Institute of Portland, which offered classes, debates and lectures for masters and apprentices. In 1820, the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association established its Apprentices Library, which still exists today in downtown Portland. Portland mechanics also encouraged women to be educated, but as Scontras notes, that effort was not about fostering equality or independence for women. Instead, he wrote, mechanics believed educating women would in turn improve the educations of their children and elevate the social status of their mechanic husbands. As one Portland mechanic wrote, the admission of women would “make them better wives and mothers, and more fitting associates of our mechanics.”

The lack of state assistance for public schools likely reflected Mainers’ “strong prejudice” against centralization, wrote Nickerson. It wasn’t until the late 1820s that the state set up its first state education fund to disburse money to local schools. This fund was expanded in the following decades as state lawmakers sought to further standardize education while consolidating the hundreds of individual districts in an effort to make the system more efficient, effective and equitable. 

In 1846, state lawmakers voted to create the first, albeit short-lived, state board of education (it was abolished in 1852). One of its first acts was to establish “Teachers Institutes” to train and professionalize educators. Between the 1860s and 1870s, the institutes were replaced by “normal schools” in Farmington, Castine, Gorham and Madawaska. 

Education reformers like Mann advocated for more female common school teachers, because he believed women were morally superior to men. School districts also paid women far less than men.  The first report of the Board of Education to the Maine Legislature in 1847 found that female teachers’ average weekly wage $1.52 per week, while male teachers’ was $4.17. To this day, nearly 80 percent of public school teachers are female, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and teachers are paid far less than their college-educated counterparts in other fields.

The 1847 Board of Education report also found that half the state’s school-age children were not enrolled in school, an indication that they were likely employed as workers. That same year, the Maine Legislature passed the first child labor law that banned kids ages 12 to 15 from working in the cotton and wool factories if they had not attended school for three months during the preceding year. A year later, the Legislature passed a law prohibiting children from working more than 10 hours a day, but it provided a massive loophole for kids to work longer if their contracts allowed it.

Reformers also stressed that public schools should serve to Americanize and mold children into good, white, Protestant citizens. According to Amherst College professor Hilary Moss’ book, Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America, school reformers of that era wanted common schools to “provide children from disparate social, religious, and economic backgrounds with a common set of values and experiences.” That collective experience and shared understanding, she writes, would in turn “inspire students to shed their diverse, if not divergent, personal loyalties for a national identity.”

These arguments intensified as Maine began receiving a surge of Catholic refugees from famines in Ireland between the 1830s and ’50s. But while future generations of Irish and, later, French Canadian workers would eventually assimilate, due to the color of their skin, Black Mainers didn’t have that privilege. Mann may have considered education to be the “great equalizer,” but African Americans were not figured into that equation. That’s because the vast majority of white society did not consider African Americans capable of becoming educated, informed and engaged citizens. 

Next month: the Black-led movement for equal education in Maine. 

Andy O’Brien can be reached at 

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