Conditions and Limitations of Southern Educational Efforts.

In the discussion of educational interests and educational work in the various parts of the Union, from the colonial period to 1861 and later, a proper account has not usually been taken of the conditions and limitations which controlled educational effort in the various sections. The states at large are, by the facts, divided into three groups, characterized respectively by special conditions and special modes of development.

In the New England states, from colonial times, the population has been generally more densely aggregated than elsewhere. The town or township early became the unit in civil government, and readily afforded pupils and material support for local schools. Homogeneous population and small farms made local taxation for such schools a logical and economic procedure, so that in any township where a school was really desired it could be maintained at the public expense. The only hindrance to such educational development under these conditions would be a lack of proper interest or of proper supervision.

In the newer states northwest of the Ohio and west of the Mississippi at the time of settlement Congress set apart one section of land in every township for the maintenance of elementary schools and a grant of two townships in each for a seminary of learning-more than one-thirty-sixth part of all the lands in each state. Texas made practically the same arrangement with her lands. Material foundation for elementary schools was thus laid in each state before the population came, and as these northwestern states were filled rapidly with a vigorous and homogeneous and prosperous population, public schools of every grade, from the primary to the university, were a natural and comparatively easy development.

In the states from Maryland southward, conditions were different. That there was no lack of interest in education in the earliest times is shown by the fact that efforts were made, from the very first settlement, for founding schools and colleges in the Southern colonies and states bordering on the Atlantic. It was necessary for success that these efforts should be adapted to local conditions and environment. “If the Massachusetts law of 1647, that every township of fifty householders should appoint one ‘to teach all such children as should resort to him to write and read,’ had been enforced in Maryland, it would not have resulted in the establishing of a single school, since no portion of the province was thickly enough settled to have fifty householders in an area equal to a New England township. Annapolis, about 1700, contained about forty dwelling houses, and St. Mary’s was never more than a village. Other towns were such only in name, and their claim to the name lay in the fact that they were ports of entry. Governor Berkeley’s reply to the question of the commissioners of foreign plantations as to what course was taken in Virginia for instructing the people in the Christian religion: The same that is taken in England out of towns, every man according to his ability instructing his children,’ will answer as well for Maryland.”‘

In the Southern colonies the land holdings were generally large. The distribution of population made the New England plan for township support of schools impracticable. The idea that every man according to his ability should provide for the education of his own children was deeply rooted. The employment of private tutors for the training of the children in one or more families, the agency of the church and parish in organizing schools and in looking after the interest of poor children, the organization of local societies for promoting education of poor children as well as others, and the endowment of schools for the training of poor children, mark the direction in which educational effort in the Southern colonies was thus forced by unavoidable circumstances. In colonial days and immediately after the American Revolution, public interest brought about the foundation of many academies, where young men were trained in classical learning, and a number of institutions classed as colleges.

Institutions in Virginia.

In Virginia as early as 1609, was planned and organized the first institution in America aspiring to be a college or university. This was Henrico College on the James River, endowed with 10,000 acres of land, to which Hargrave, an Episcopal clergyman, gave his library, as much as John Harvard later gave to Harvard University. The massacre of 1622 put an end to this enterprise, and to the East India School organized as preparatory to the college. William and Mary College in Virginia, which ranks next in age after Harvard University, still exists. In the state of Virginia, Hampden-Sidney College (1777), Washington and Lee University (1782), the University of Virginia (1825), Randolph-Macon College (1829), Richmond College (1832), Emory and Henry College (1835), Virginia Military Institute (1839), Roanoke College (1843), are institutions which, each in its proper sphere, have afforded opportunities which were not surpassed, in the days before the War of Secession, in any state in the Union. The University of Virginia, from its foundation, has ranked among the foremost institutions in America in scholarship and influence. These higher institutions were supplemented by dozens of private seminaries and academies which gave the necessary preparation to boys intending to enter college, and advanced training to girls and young women.


In Maryland conditions were similar. Saint Johns College and Washington College were combined into one state institution in 1785, as the first University of Maryland. Other institutions, including a college of medicine, of law, of divinity, and of arts and sciences, were organized after 1805 into the second University of Maryland. Besides these, at least ten denominational schools and colleges, which were organized from 1784 to 1843, afforded large means for higher education. These institutions were supplemented by a number of private academies and lower schools maintained by churches, parishes and educational societies, chiefly for poor children.

North Carolina.

In North Carolina, the first settlers, largely Scotch-Irish, along with their churches built schools and academies. These academies were found in almost every community, and afforded excellent opportunities for classical training. In the first constitution for the state, adopted in 1776, provision was made for the founding of a state university, and this institution was incorporated in 1789, and the cornerstone was laid in 1793. It has continued to do a large work and to maintain high standards. A published list of those who studied in the university before 1835, and who afterwards became distinguished shows more than a hundred names in the highest positions in church and state—senators, congressmen, judges, bishops and college professors—in many states. Davidson College (1835), Wake Forest College (1838), Trinity College (1838), besides a number of other colleges for young men and young women, under private or denominational control, afforded facilities for higher training, and their pupils were prepared in elementary schools and academies which were numerous throughout the state. North Carolina, as did the other Southern states, accumulated a fund known as the Literary Fund, derived from various sources, and for use in the training of poor children.

In 1838 North Carolina established a system of public education under which it was proposed to have the state divided into 1,250 school districts, to have a normal department for the training of teachers as at the university, and to use the income of the Literary Fund and local taxation for the maintenance of these schools. “The scheme provided only for common schools, and left academies to succeed these at no long interval, and colleges and universities in due time to crown the whole.” Before this system was put in operation “in 1840 there were two colleges (including the university), 141 academies and grammar schools, 632 primary and common (county) schools, making a total of 775 educational institutions. The number of students in attendance was as follows: At colleges, 158; at academies, 4,398; at other schools, 14,937; making a total of 19,483.”* From the amounts expended and the length of the term of the public schools in 1840, North Carolina compared favorably with many of the New England and northwestern states, and the public school system continued to increase in efficiency up to the outbreak of the war. Conditions in North Carolina as to population and public sentiment were more favorable to the development of a public school system than in other Southern states,

South Carolina.

In South Carolina, from the earliest colonial times, there was no lack of wholesome and vigorous interest in education. The first white settlers were generally well-to-do planters. In the colonial days these men not infrequently sent their sons to the English universities for training. They kept in closer touch with the mother country than the residents of other colonies, and many of the men who became prominent in the affairs of the colony, and of the state in its earlier days, were educated in England. A published statement of the names of Americans who were admitted to the London bar in the Eighteenth century, to 1785, shows a total of 114, and that forty-four of these were from South Carolina. The influence of these men and their families upon education in the colony was strongly felt. The act for the organization of South Carolina College was passed in 1801. Probably no institution in America has exerted a finer influence. In 1862 its requirements for admission were fully as high as those in Harvard and Yale, and apparently in excess of those required in Columbia University at that time. Thomas Jefferson chose it for his grandsons to attend in preference to any other college in America. While the number of students was never very large, the total number of graduates from 1806 to 1861 being 1,740, there is probably no college in America which has trained a larger proportion of men who became distinguished in the affairs of the state and the nation. Among these were twenty-two governors of states, fourteen United States senators, eight lieutenant-governors, thirty-nine United States and Confederate States representatives, thirty-three judges and chancellors, fifteen presidents of colleges, thirty-nine professors in colleges, besides many others who became distinguished in church and state. The results of the training given in other state universities in the Southern states, from Maryland to Mississippi, in the years preceding 1861, were similar, if not so striking as in this older institution, and these results emphatically refute the statement that in this earlier period persons desiring higher education necessarily sought it outside these states. Academies and schools endowed by individuals or by charitable societies or by religious denominations were common throughout the state of South Carolina from the days of the Revolution. Higher institutions came into existence early. Besides the College of South Carolina were the College of Charleston (1785), Erskine College (1825), Furman University (1825), Wofford College (1851), and numerous academies and schools. No classical academy in the country has a more honored history than Willington Academy under the famous teacher, Moses Waddel, from 1804 to 1819. The beginnings of a public school system were made in 1811, although free schools were established in Charleston in 1710.


In Georgia, as early as 1764, the Rev. George Whitefield urged the establishment of Bethesda College. Failing in this he urged the establishment of Bethesda Academy, which after a few years was destroyed by a hurricane and fire. Academies in Richmond county, at Sunbury, and other places, were established before 1810, and under the management of churches and benevolent societies, afforded excellent opportunity for classical training. Previous to 1821 funds had been accumulated for the support of free schools throughout the state, and in 1821 the General Assembly provided for the division of $500,000 equally between the academies and free schools. These funds were used for the maintenance of “poor scholars” in these schools. The University of Georgia was organized by an act of the Assembly passed Jan. 27, 1785, 40,000 acres of wild land in the northern part of the state being appropriated for its support. Franklin College, a department of the university, at Athens, was opened in 1801. It has from that time exerted a splendid influence upon education in the state. Denominational colleges and private institutions for young men and for young women were numerous. Mercer University (1831), Oglethorpe University (1835), Emory College (1836), with about fifteen colleges and institutes for young women, afforded excellent opportunity for classical training

The influence of leading citizens in the five states above mentioned, during the colonial period and later, served to set a high estimate upon education, and as an incentive to every parent to seek its advantages for his children. In all the agencies thus existing opportunity was afforded for poor boys to secure advancement, and probably no poor boy desiring an education necessarily failed for lack of opportunity.


In Tennessee, formed out of lands ceded to Congress by North Carolina, the spirit which existed in North Carolina largely controlled educational effort. The University of Nashville (1806 and 1826), and East Tennessee College, now the University of Tennessee (1806), received large grants of lands from Congress and have continued to exert a wide and wholesome influence on education from their inception. The Southwestern Baptist University (1846), Cumberland University (1842), Greeneville College (1794), Maryville College (1819), represent denominational effort for higher education before the war. Tennessee received from Congress a part of the public domain within her borders for education. These lands could not be located in each township before settlement, and thus the basic support for common schools in each township was not available. Such schools were not founded in each township, and elementary training was left to private and church and local enterprises. Under these influences many schools of elementary and academic grade were founded and prospered.


Kentucky was not so fortunate in the matter of land grants for schools and colleges, but the early interest of her people in Transylvania University (the first college west of the Alleghanies), in Center College, and in many private and denominational schools, early drew many people from the pioneer settlements of the southwest. Educational sentiment largely followed that in the parent state, Virginia.

Before the separate organization of Kentucky, Virginia gave 8,000 acres of land for an academy, and 20,000 acres for Transylvania University. The legislature of Kentucky early gave 6,000 acres or more of land to each of about forty county academies. As the basis and beginning of an educational system these did not realize expectations. A general public school system provided for under the law of 1838 did not affect all the counties before 1853.

As elsewhere in the South, denominational and private enterprises developed many good academies, and the two colleges above named exerted a wide and wholesome influence, extending far beyond the limits of the state.

Other States.

In Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana, the development of education was under special conditions. These states were settled in the first half of the Nineteenth century, chiefly by immigrants from the Southern states lying east of them. These immigrants were generally owners of property, bringing with them slaves and taking up large tracts of land for the cultivation of cotton. They came in communities, often bringing their minister and establishing churches and schools where they located. Deep interest in education of all grades was manifested from the first. These states were formed out of the public domain, and to each of them Congress gave one thirty-sixth part of the public domain for school purposes. In 1802, when Alabama and Mississippi constituted the Mississippi Territory, Jefferson College, near Natchez, was founded. It still exists. The state universities were established in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and many private academies and denominational schools and colleges were developed. The large holdings of land by individuals caused a sparse distribution of the white population in rural communities and was a serious obstacle to the development of elementary public schools. But most of the white settlers were people of means, or speedily acquired means in the new states, and under the incentive of the spirit which pervaded all the Southern states, and which made it a disgrace for any father not to give his children the means of education, private schools flourished and in these, through the use of the Literary Funds in the states, opportunity was afforded for elementary instruction of poor children. In all this it should be remembered that nearly half the population of the Southern states consisted of negro slaves, for whom religious opportunities, but not schools, were afforded. While educational opportunity was available for most of the white children it was not generally offered through any completely organized system in these states. Therefore a mere statistical comparison of the recorded number of schools, of the public funds for education, and of the pupils enrolled in the South, with corresponding figures in the eastern and northwestern states, must be unfair to the Southern states.

Educational and Intellectual Development a Factor in Development of Nation.

It cannot be denied that during the first half century of the Republic Southern intellect and Southern statesmanship were dominant in public affairs. The men who wielded this influence were trained in the schools and in the social life of the South. That there was opportunity for intellectual development is shown by the educational facilities above stated. But not alone in schools are men trained for leadership. Every well ordered plantation home was a school for practical training.

Agriculture, the raising of cotton, grain, tobacco and rice, by the use of negro slave-labor, was the common profession of the more vigorous white men. This calling demanded certain material opportunities, and certain masterful traits of character that were cultivated and transmitted from father to son.

When the lands in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia became exhausted, as soon they did under severe and uneconomical methods, the more vigorous planters, with their negro laborers, sought fresh and fertile lands newly vacated by the Indians in the states south and west. Negro labor then as now was concentrated on the best agricultural lands in these states. The poorer whites were largely left in the worn out sections of the Atlantic slope, or were stranded in the coves of the Appalachian Mountains, or settled on the more undesirable and cheaper lands in the regions further south.

This distribution and segregation of population, due mainly to economic causes, left certain classes of whites at a disadvantage as to schools and educational opportunity in the Southern states as in other states. In towns, in rural communities which were prosperous, children of the poor, under the provisions existing, shared in the school privileges which were maintained by those who had means.

Out of the diverse and varied opportunities and means for the training of the youth of the Southern states before the war were developed a people who were foremost in the American Revolution, who were pioneers in seizing the opportunities for the enlargement of the nation in the west and southwest, who subdued the wilderness from the Atlantic to the Ohio and Mississippi and beyond, who were leaders in the councils of the nation, and who, in the defense of their rights under the constitution, showed in the conflict of 1861-65 a heroism, endurance and military skill that remains the wonder of the ages, and is an exhibition of the character and achievement of a people only rivaled by the fortitude and heroic endeavor with which the survivors and their descendants undertook to repair the ravages and consequences of that conflict. These results were potential in, and were made possible by, the education and the intellectual and religious life of the Southern people before the war.

The essay was originally printed in The South in the Building of the Nation series, Vol. X, 1909.

Robert Burwell Fulton

Robert Burwell Fulton (1849-1919) was an American university administrator. He served as the seventh Chancellor of the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi from 1892 to 1906.

Leave a Reply