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Education Is Vital to Freedom

This June 13, 1874 opinion piece from Harper's Weekly magazine complains that some blacks elected to public office in the South are illiterate and opposed to education. The piece calls for compulsory, free public education so that all citizens will be better prepared to participate in the political process and improve the quality of American government.

Signs of the Times
The House of Representatives has passed a very brief and significant bill, prohibiting any person who can not read or write from sitting upon a jury in any United States court. In [New York] state Governor Dix has signed the Compulsory Education Bill. New Jersey has passed a similar law, and in several states like bills passed one House during the last winter. And Senator Stewart, of Nevada, has proposed an amendment to the Constitution of the United States in these words:

"Article 16. If any State shall fail to maintain a common-school system, under which all persons between the ages of five and eighteen years, not incapacitated for the same, shall receive, free of charge, such elementary education as Congress may prescribe, the Congress shall have power to establish therein such a system, and cause the same to be maintained at the expense of the State."

These events are all signs that a truth which has been hitherto treated as rhetorical and ceremonial is coming to be regarded as very vital to the existence of freedom and good government in this country. The Rev. James Freeman Clarke, of Boston, a singularly candid and judicious man, has lately spent some time in the Southern states, and he said to his congregation upon his return: "There are now about twenty white men in the South Carolina Legislature. The remainder are colored men, most of whom can not read or write. I saw one colored man, who is now a candidate for the next legislature, who not only can not read and write, but who maintains it as a proposition that no one who can write ought to be allowed in the legislature. This man is also trustee and superintendent of schools in a certain district of the state."

This is no reason for refusing to sustain the Civil Rights Bill, but it is the best reason in the world for considering ignorance in its relations to government. Let us not, however, suppose ignorance to be confined to South Carolina. We have known a justice not a hundred miles from New York who was elected by the vote of a great party, and who could with difficulty write his name. But all generalization upon such data is very rash. There are plenty of colored men in South Carolina and elsewhere who see and deplore the consequences of ignorance, and who are quite ready to unite in any effort to remove and obviate them. Mr. Clarke gladly testifies that there are large numbers of such men, thrifty, industrious, decorous, and honest; as, for instance, on the island of St. Helena, where there are six thousand black men, and among them not a single pauper or beggar; and he believes, what will be heartily wished by every intelligent man, that within five or six years the sensible, good people of both races will be working harmoniously together.

But for the future of the country every where nothing is more indispensable than the requirement of education. If it could be made a condition of the electoral franchise, so much the better; and we know colored citizens even in South Carolina who are of that opinion. However, one thing is practicable, and that is for every state to adopt substantially the system that is to be tried in New York after the 1st of next January, and for every citizen to reflect whether an amendment of the general scope of that proposed by Senator Stewart is not desirable. The menacing evil of the country being corruption in various forms, the practical methods of withstanding it are a reform of the civil service, which, under the old system, furnishes the machinery and means of corruption, and education, which gives every body the chance, at least, of knowing what he is doing. Laws like the new one of New York are in operation in Michigan and New Hampshire, in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The principle is well known in many European countries, and the statistics of the condition of those countries are most encouraging. We shall recur to the details of the New York law, which, if it is honestly enforced, and modified as experience may wisely suggest, can not fail to be of the greatest service.

Excerpt from Harper's Weekly, June 13, 1874 issue, p. 490

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