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The Transformation of Massachusetts Education, 1670–1780

  • Jon Teaford (a1)


In March 1711, Cotton Mather declared that, “A lively Discourse about the Benefit and Importance of Education, should be given to the Countrey.” “The Countrey,” he asserted, “is perishing for want of it; they are sinking apace into Barbarism and all Wickedness.” Mather was convinced that formal education was being neglected in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, and for two centuries after Mather's death historians accepted his verdict. As early as 1835, Lemuel Shattuck described the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as a “dark age” of learning. Later historians used similar phrases. By the close of the nineteenth century, Edward Eggleston wrote the epitaph for early eighteenth-century education, “a period of darkness and decline.”



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1. Mather, Cotton, Diary (New York: 1957), II, 51.

2. As quoted in Lincoln, William, History of Worcester, Massachusetts (Worcester, 1862), p. 248.

3. Eggleston, Edward, The Transit of Civilization (New York, 1901), p. 235. Similar views are expressed by Martin, George H., Evolution of the Massachusetts Public School System (Ney York, 1902), p. 69; and Walter Small, Early New England Schools (Boston, 1914), p. 57.

4. Shipton, Clifford K., “Secondary Education in the Puritan Colonies,New England Quarterly, VII (1934), 661.

5. Middlekauff, Robert, Ancients and Axioms: Secondary Education in Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven, 1963), pp. 89.

6. Ibid., p. 195.

7. Ibid., pp. 114–15.

8. Brinsley, John, A Consolation for Our Grammar Schooles (New York, 1943), p. 52.

9. Mulcaster, Richard, The First Part of the Elementarie (London, 1582), p. 55.

10. Brinsley, John, Ludus Literarius (Liverpool, 1917), p. 13.

11. Ibid.

12. There is evidence that early American schoolmasters shared Brinsley's attitude toward elementary instruction in English reading and writing. Both Ezekial Cheever, New Haven's first schoolmaster, and his successor, Bowers, complained of having to devote too much time to instructing abecedarians. See Eliot Morison, Samuel, Puritan Pronaos (New York, 1936), p. 97.

13. Records of Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston, 1854), II, 6.

14. Records of Massachusetts, II, 203.

15. According to Samuel Eliot Morison: Boston (1636), Charlestown (1636), Salem (1637), Dorchester (1639), Cambridge (1642), Roxbury (1646), Watertown (1651), Ipswich (1651), Morison, Pronaos, pp. 96–97.

16. Middlekauff, , p. 33.

17. Massachusetts Acts and Resolves, (Boston, 1869), VII, 593.

18. Shipton, , “Secondary Education,N.E.Q., VII (1934), 653; Middlekauff, p. 35.

19. Chelmsford (1721, 1724, 1726, 1742), Billerica (1721, 1724, 1727), Weston (1737), Stoneham (1737), Littleton (1748), Groton (1748), Stow (1749, 1758), Westford (1750), Framingham (1750), Hopkinston (1757), Sherburn (1761), Newton (1762).

20. Computed from the figures recorded in Sibley's Harvard Graduates, volumes VI, VII, and VIII.

21. Boston News-Letter, Sept. 30, 1726, quoted by Vera Butler, Education as Revealed by New England Newspapers Prior to 1850 (Philadelphia, 1940), p. 271.

22. Bailyn, Bernard, Education in the Forming of American Society (Chapel Hill, 1960), pp. 8182.

23. Most frontier towns, however, did not have 100 families and therefore were not required to maintain a grammar school. In 1765, only one of the six towns of Berkshire County had over 100 families.

24. Rank of the towns according to wealth computed on the basis of the provincial tax assessments recorded in the Massachusetts Acts and Resolves.

25. Acts and Resolves, II, 1028.

26. Ibid., III, 584.

27. The information on Framingham gathered from Hamilton Hurd, D., ed., History of Middlesex County (Philadelphia, 1890), pp. 616–35.

28. Middlekauff, , pp. 3536.

29. Based on the census figures found in Collections of American Statistical Association (Boston, 1847), I, 148–56.

30. Middlekauff, , p. 40.

31. Small, New England Schools, pp. 30–31.

32. Ibid.

33. Newton, , Sherburn, , Medford, , Stow, , Holliston, , Tewksbury, , Pepperell, , and Acton. This is a tentative estimate based on town and county histories and town records. Not enough information was obtainable on Reading, Hopkinton, or Groton to know whether they maintained grammar schools or not.

34. Based on the census of 1776. The census of 1776 did not count the number of families. The average number of people per family in Middlesex County in 1765 had been 5.66. Therefore I have assumed that towns having over 566 inhabitants in 1776 had 100 families or more. According to my survey the delinquent towns were: Tewksbury, Holliston, Medford, Acton, Shirley, Townsend, Stow, Dunstable, and Dracut. Not enough information was obtainable on Groton, Reading, Hopkinton, and Wilmington.

35. Acts and Resolves, XVIII, 196.

36. For example, Braintree dismissed its grammar school master on April 24, 1775, and Topsfield did likewise on May 9, 1775. Leominster maintained a grammar school from 1765 to 1775, but in the latter year, the townspeople cut the school appropriation from 40 pounds to 12 pounds and voted to eliminate all classical instruction. Neither Braintree, Topsfield, nor Leominster were reprimanded by the court or Provincial Congress for their neglect of grammar schooling.

37. Boston Town Records, (Boston, 1881), VII, 36.

38. Ibid., VII, 171.

39. Ibid., VII, 240.

40. See, for example, Boston Town Records, VII, 164; and Boston Town Records, XII, 108.

41. Middlekauff, Robert believes that the writing schools were designed to teach young children prior to their entry into grammar school. He writes, “Boston's citizens took satisfaction in their hierarchy of schools. It was one in which the functions and the constituencies of two kinds of schools remained distinct. At the first level, in the writing schools, young boys learned to read, write, and cypher; at the next, in the grammar schools, their older brothers, themselves graduates of the writing schools, studied Latin and Greek.” (Middlekauff, p. 54).

42. Based on the list of students found in C. Colesworthy's, D. John Tileston's School (Boston, 1887), pp. 4955, and on the birth records as found in volume 24 of A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston (Boston, 1894).

43. Boston Selectmen's Records (Boston, 1881), VII, 288. Also the following entry appears in the Boston Town Records for May 8, 1741: “We have made enquiry into the Circumstances of the North Writing School, which consists of about Two Hundred and Eighty Scholars, A Master and Usher…. We don't find that any Children of the Town have been refused, that could Read in the Psalter….” (Boston Records, XII, 279).

44. Eliot Morison, Samuel, Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis (Boston, 1913), p. 6.

45. Brinsley, p. 27.

46. Ibid., p. 32.

47. Boston News-Letter, March 21, 1709, quoted by Butler, Education as Revealed by Newspapers, p. 218.

48. At least 113 advertisements announcing the opening of new private schools appeared in Boston newspapers from 1700 to 1775.

49. Boston News-Letter, Jan. 17, 1734, quoted by Robert Seybolt, The Private Schools of Colonial Boston (Cambridge, 1935), p. 16.

50. Papers relating to the History of the (Episcopal) Church in Massachusetts (n.p., 1873), p. 230, quoted by Shipton, “Secondary Education,” N.E.Q., VII (1934) 660.

51. Attendance figures for 1765–1767 found in Robert Seybolt's Public Schools in Colonial Boston (Cambridge, 1935), p. 64.

52. Hurd, Middlesex County, pp. 259–60. There are numerous examples of rural towns providing instruction in writing and arithmetic beyond the dame school level. On March 2, 1713, the townspeople of Framingham voted, “Lieutenant Drury and Ebenr Harrington to be school masters to instruct the youth of Framingham in writing; and the selectmen are appointed to settle school dames in each quarter of the town, which masters and mistresses are to continue until August next.” (Hurd, Middlesex County, pp. 635–36). In the town of Leominster in the years 1751 and 1752, the people voted to choose a committee of three “to provid sum meat persons for winter and summer schooling, six weeks for a writing-school and the rest to be laide out for school dames.” (Hurd, History of Worcester County [Philadelphia: 1889], p. 1216). In the year 1756, Leominster appropriated funds “to be expended for paying a master to keep a writing-school three months during the winter and the balance for hiring school dames as the selectmen should direct” (Hurd, Worcester County, p. 1216). The town of Bedford in 1758 a “writing school” in the center of town four months and a “women's teaching-school” six months in the quarters of the town (Hurd, Middlesex County, p. 824). At the time of his death in 1771, Captain Ephraim Brigham left Marlborough a permanent fund of 111 pounds, the interest of which was to be “annually expended in hiring some suitable person to keep a school in the middle of the town, to teach young people the arts of writing and cyphering” (Small, p. 236).

53. See, for example, advertisements in the following issues: Essex Gazette, July 21, 1772; Feb. 15, 1774; Oct. 25, 1774; and Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Oct. 25, 1776.

54. Lincoln, Worcester, p. 249.

44. Ibid., pp. 249–50.

56. Ibid., p. 250. (I thank Professor Richard D. Brown for calling my attention to this item.)

The Transformation of Massachusetts Education, 1670–1780

  • Jon Teaford (a1)


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