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Useful Knowledge? Concepts, Values, and Access in American Education, 1776–1840

  • James D. Watkinson (a1)


The Husbandman is in honor there, and ever the Mechanic, because their employments are useful. The people have a saying, that God Almighty himself is a mechanic….

—Benjamin Franklin, 1788

People must be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow, continued Sleary…. They can't be alwayth a working, nor yet they can't be alwayth a learning.

—Mr. Sleary in Hard Times Charles Dickens, 1854

From 1776 until the 1840s, America experienced a boom in the founding of societies dedicated to the spread of “useful knowledge.” Nearly one hundred such societies were founded, mainly in cities in the northeastern United States. Concomitantly, there was an increase in the number of publications devoted to the dissemination of useful knowledge. Accompanying this rapid growth of learned societies and journals were changing conceptions of what constituted useful knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, how and to whom that useful knowledge should be conveyed.



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1 For the largest, most comprehensive list of societies and publications in America prior to 1831, see Rink, Evald Technical Americana: A Checklist of Technical Publications Printed before 1831 (Millwood, N.Y., 1981).

2 American Philosophical Society: Early Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Published in American Magazine during 1769 (Philadelphia, 1969).

3 Meriwether, Colyer Our Colonial Curriculum, 1607–1776 (Washington, D.C., 1907; Folcroft, Penn., 1976); “The University of Virginia: Proceedings and Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Presented 8th December 1818,” North American Review 10 (1822). Proceedings of the Agricultural Society of Albemarle [Virginia], Rare Books Collection, Alderman Library, University of Virginia (hereafter UVA). The North American Review was quite critical of Jefferson's choices and especially his assertion that the languages could be learned in a matter of weeks.

4 For a more thorough treatment of the phenomenon, readers should consult George H. Daniels, who has written extensively on the professionalization of the scientific field. See especially his Science in American Society: A Social History (New York, 1971), 12, and “The Process of Professionalization in American Science,” Isis 58 (Summer 1967): 151–66.

5 Oleson, AlexandraTo Build a New Intellectual Order,” and Walter Muir Whitehall, “Early Learned Societies in Boston and Vicinity,“ in The Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early American Republic: American Scientific and Learned Societies from Colonial Times to the Civil War, ed. Oleson, Alexandra and Brown, Sanford C. (Baltimore, 1976), xx, 156.

6 Hobbins, James M.Shaping a Provincial Learned Society: The Early History of the Albany Institute,“ in ibid. A recent study that sheds more light on the elite's monopoly on useful knowledge in early America is Brown, Richard D. Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700–1865 (New York, 1989).

7 “Early Transactions of the American Philosophical Society,” in Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 77 (Philadelphia, 1969). This volume was a commemorative issue containing all of the Society's earliest Transactions.

8 The American Magazine (Dec. 1792); The Columbian Museum, passim. It should be noted that Webster was also a fervent cultural nationalist. In May 1788, he roundly proclaimed the need for an explicitly American education, much as he would for an American language, stating: “Our honor as an independent nation is concerned in the establishment of literary institutes, adequate to all our own purposes, without sending our youth abroad, or depending on other nations for books and instructors. It is very little to the reputation of America to have it said abroad, that after the heroic achievements of the late war, these independent people are obliged to send to Europe for men and books to teach their children ABC.” “Importance of Female Education—and of educating young men in their native country,” The American Magazine (May 1788), 370.

9 The Christian's, Scholar's, and Farmer's Magazine 1 (Apr./May 1789): 5152. The magazine is actually something of an enigma. Though it decries the lack of democracy in education, the frontispiece proudly proclaims it to be published “by a number of gentlemen.” And as vociferous as it is in its condemnation of the requirements of Latin and Greek in the curriculum for the ministry, the frontispiece sports quotations from Horace and Ovid in the original. Presumably the editors felt it needed the “gentleman's” imprimatur. Still, this rather schizophrenic beginning is startling in light of the radical, egalitarian, and evangelical material that follows.

10 Ibid. (Aug./Sep. 1789): 304–5.

11 Memoirs of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, vols. 1, 3, and 10, index and passim.

12 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 2 (Sep. 1838). For instance, see new candidates elected to the APS, p. 11, and paper by Professor Charles Bonnycastle of the University of Virginia on his early experiments in sonar, pp. 39–42.

13 This movement was paralleled by the beginning of specialization in publication. The journals aiming to be devoted exclusively to science stopped printing articles on agriculture, unless it was experimental agriculture or botany. Medical journals, such as The Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences (1820–27), also began to appear. With professionalization and specialization, the language of technology became increasingly more complex, an additional method of ensuring a carefully controlled membership in an emerging elite.

14 The Franklin Journal and American Mechanics Magazine 8 (1830): 130. Also see, “Preface,” American Journal of Science 16 (July 1829): iv–vi.

15 For changes and comparisons of the membership makeup of the societies over time see, for instance, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1816 and 1838.

16 Claxton, Timothy Memoirs of a Mechanic, microfiche edition, # S-72, Library, Alderman UVA. Most of the book was also serialized in the pages of The Young Mechanic.

17 Ibid., 59.

18 Ibid., 61.

19 Ibid., 87.

20 Ibid., 127.

21 Ibid., 87.

22 Ibid., 88–89.

23 The Young Mechanic 1 (1832): 12.

24 The Young Mechanic 1 (1832).

25 Holbrook, JosiahProspectus of the Family LyceumFamily Lyceum 1 (28 July 1832): 1.

26 Family Lyceum 1 (13 Oct. 1832). Holbrook may well have been an enthusiastic supporter of the democratization of education, however his motives appear less than pure. All of the plans for lyceums and all of the equipment necessary to stock his ideal lyceum were sold, almost exclusively, by Holbrook. Nearly every issue of the Family Lyceum offered to sell “apparatus designed for intellectual, social, and moral improvement…. The price of a set for a lyceum is about $75; a set for a school $10; and those for families, from $5 to $10.” Family Lyceum Extra 1 (Aug. 1833): 3. In addition, he sold the plans for the lyceum buildings and had a stake in the lyceum teachers’ seminaries. The floorplans appear throughout the publication, the first appearing in October 1832.

27 “Boston Lyceum Exercises for the Summer of 1833,” in Family Lyceum (18 May 1833).

28 Bestor, Arthur E.Education and Reform at New Harmony: Correspondence of William Maclure and Marie Duclos Fretageot,“ Indiana Historical Society Publications, vol. 15, no. 3 (Indianapolis, 1948), 293.

29 Ibid., 310.

30 Maclure, William Opinions on Various Subjects Dedicated to the Industrious Workers (New Harmony, Ind., 1831), 3344. That Maclure was too radical even for some societies dedicated to spreading useful knowledge is indicated by the note on the flyleaf of the edition of Opinions held in the Rare Books department of the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. It reads: “This work was presented by the author to the Baltimore Lyceum June 7, 1836—The Lyceum unanimously resolved that the Book be not accepted on account of its injurious tendency. D.P. Barnard, Sec'y pro tem.

31 Ibid., 97.

32 Ibid., 48–59.

33 Ibid., 150, 48.

34 Ibid., 150–51.

35 For instance, see Mechanics’ Magazine 1 (Jan. 1833): iv–v.

36 The Workingman's Advocate (29 Oct. 1829), 1.

37 Ibid. (14 Nov. 1829).

38 Connecticut Sentinel, quoted in The Workingman's Advocate (29 Nov. 1829). Other journals cited by The Workingman's Advocate on the issue of free public schools include The Delaware Free Press, the Washington Chronicle, the Boston Evening Gazette, the Illinois Gazette, and the Mechanics’ Free Press, of Philadelphia, to name but a few.

39 This phenomenon opened the lecture field to many who were neither professionals nor specialists of any stripe. Phrenology, perhaps the most infamous of the pseudo-sciences, was a big draw on the lecture circuit. It was easily grasped by both “scientist” and layman, which explains part of its attractiveness. For instance, Brown, John Jr., son of the rabid abolitionist, often gave lectures on phrenology, though he had little more than a high-school education upon graduation from the Grand River Institute. On Brown, see Robert E. McGlone, “Rescripting a Troubled Past: John Brown's Family and the Harpers Ferry Conspiracy,” Journal of American History 75 (Mar. 1989): 11791200.

40 For what is still the most comprehensive monograph on the entire lyceum movement, see Carl Bode, The American Lyceum: Town Meeting of the American Mind (New York, 1956).

41 For syllabi of lyceums conducted in Salem, Concord, and other Massachusetts towns, see Cameron, Kenneth W. ed., The Massachusetts Lyceum during the American Renaissance: Materials for the Study of the Oral Tradition in American Letters: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Other New England Lecturers (Hartford, Conn., 1969), Salem material from ch. 2.

He wishes to thank Joseph F. Kett and Dorothy R. Ross for their comments and suggestions.


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