Founders’ Education: Excerpt

Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic: Scholasticism in the Colonial Colleges by James J. Walsh; Fordham University Press, 1935.

Excerpts from Chapter One: The Education of the Fathers

In his introduction to the revised edition of Sanderson’s Biographies of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Robert T. Conard said: “It may be doubted whether any popular body has comprised so large a proportion of highly educated members [as the Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence]. The number of those who had regularly graduated in the colleges of Europe or America was twenty-seven or nearly one-half the whole number, fifty-five. [There were] Twenty other members whose education though not regularly collegiate was either academic or by dint of unaided energy as in the case of Franklin was equal or superior to the ordinary course of the universities. Nine of the members only of that august body can be set down as of ordinary and plain education, though in that number are included men of extensive reading, enlightened views and enlarged sagacity.”

He adds: “There is no movement on record in which so large an amount of political science, observation, wisdom and experience was brought to bear as in the American Revolution.”

These facts are all the more noteworthy because there were almost no free schools in those days and of course nothing like compulsory education.

In spite of that fact all the signers of the Declaration were men of well developed mentality.

This is strikingly exemplified in the lives of all the signers….

Most of the signers were members of what are called the learned professions. Twenty-four, or nearly one-half the whole number, were lawyers; there were thirteen planters or farmers, but in those days dwellers on plantations and farms almost as a rule found opportunities for cultivating their minds as well as the soil and many of them were deeply interested in having their sons receive a good education. Besides, there were nine merchants, five physicians, two mechanics, one clergyman, one mariner and one surveyor…. 
It is a never ending source of surprise to note how many of the signers had the full benefit of the college education of that day which required a preparatory school training of some four or five years in the classics and then four years of college work….

When as students they came up from the Latin schools to college or from their private tutors they were expected to be able to talk Latin. Indeed their collegiate exercises in logic the first year and in metaphysics and ethics but also in natural philosophy in the concluding years were conducted in Latin….

They were expected to be able to read at least the New Testament in Greek and it must not be forgotten that when the Massachusetts Bay Psalm Book was printed (1638) it was translated from the original Hebrew by clergymen in the colonies who had been educated in the English and Scotch colleges after the same method and in accordance with the curriculum that was introduced into the colonial colleges.

The first signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock, is a typical example of the sort of man to be found among these signers. The president of the Congress received his preliminary education under the care of his uncle, a rich Boston merchant, who was also, strange as it may seem in colonial America some two hundred years ago, a distinguished patron of science and literature.

His uncle saw to it that his nephew, John, received a good preparatory education and then sent him to Harvard where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree. This meant that he had successfully pursued the course known as the seven liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium, which constituted the college curriculum of those days as it had been pursued in the English universities as an inheritance from the medieval universities.

What is true for John Hancock is quite as true for the other signers from Massachusetts.

Samuel Adams made his preparatory studies at the well known Latin grammar school of Mr. Lovell and received the degree of A.B. from Harvard in 1740. Not satisfied with this collegiate distinction, he pursued his studies further and three years later was granted the degree of Master of Arts. His cousin, John Adams, made his preparatory studies at Braintree and received the Bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1755. Both of these men continued to be students all their lives.

Robert Treat Paine, like Samuel Adams, and a number of the other men who reached prominence in Massachusetts about this time, was prepared at the Lovell School for Harvard which he entered at the age of fourteen and from which he was graduated with the degree of A.B. four years later.

Elbridge Gerry who was to be so prominent in political life and later to be vice president of the United States, received his degree of A.B. from Harvard in 1762.

All of the Massachusetts signers, then, were college men, but all of them were men who did not think that their studies begun in college were ended when they took their degrees. All of them continued their interest in their classical studies and reviewed their philosophy during the subsequent years. A Latin quotation would never go over their heads and their philosophy of life was always molded by their knowledge of the significant events that had occurred in the past and the works of the classical writers who had contemplated the human scene and made reflections on human life that threw interesting side lights on existence at all times.

What was true in this regard in Massachusetts was almost as true in Virginia. George Wythe, the first of the Virginia signers, had no college experience but he was fortunate in a mother who was herself learned in Latin and who pursued her studies with her son, encouraging him in Greek, as well as in Latin, so that she made of him one of the leading classical scholars in the country.

 We know the scholarliness of George Wythe because he had among his law students three of the most distinguished men of that time: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and Henry Clay. We have no greater intellectual trio in our history than these and since they agreed in proclaiming the scholarship of their preceptor there can be no doubt at all of the fact.

Virginians usually obtained their preliminary education from private tutors in their homes….

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration as well as one of its signers, is one of the world’s greatest thinkers in the realm of politics. In our own day Mr. John W. Davis, the well known American lawyer, at the unveiling of a bust of Jefferson in Richmond, Va., September 22, 1931, hailed him as “first among American political philosophers, the great apostle of freedom, the foremost liberal in the modern world.” 
Under private teaching and through the influence of his father, Jefferson received an excellent preparatory education and entered the College of William and Mary at sixteen. He had been so well trained that two years later he was given the degree of Bachelor of Arts at eighteen….

The next of the Virginia signers, Benjamin Harrison, was the father and great grandfather of presidents of the United States. He was governor of Virginia just after the Revolution. He entered as a student at William and Mary but owing to friction with the faculty did not take his degree there though he continued all his life to be interested in the studies begun there….

The next of the Virginia signers is another example of what might be secured by private education at this time in Virginia. This was Francis Lightfoot Lee who was trained in classical knowledge and received his taste for literature which remained with him all his life from the Reverend Mr. Craig, a Scotch clergyman….

The more one knows of the lives of these men, the more one realizes how successful their college educations were in arousing them to such interest in culture as made their education a living force during all their subsequent lives. Their education was not taken up with the idea that it would help them to get on in the world but that it would broaden and deepen their intellectual lives and give them a real interest for ever afterwards in the things of the mind.

We have been accustomed to think of these gentlemen of leisure of the South as fox hunting squires mainly occupied with the country life of their day and inclined to indulge their appetite for strong drink and gambling to an unfortunate degree, but the fathers of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were all intent on seeing that their sons secured a real education that would be a support to them in all their subsequent lives with such cultivation of taste and judgment as made life really worth while.

South Carolina is not always thought of as one of the important centers of culture and intellectual life in this country, but such it was in the period before the Revolution. It is not surprising to find, then, that the signers of the Declaration of Independence from South Carolina are typical illustrations of the sort of scholarly men who risked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor by signing the Declaration of Independence and then devoting themselves to the task of securing freedom from the mother country and making the united colonies a government of the people, by the people and for the people so far as that was possible….

Pennsylvania had the largest number of signers, nine, as it had the largest population of the colonies, and practically all of them were distinguished intellectually. 
Benjamin Franklin was probably the most progressive thinker in this country, looked up to by the English before the Revolution and by the French during it as a distinguished scientific investigator. His formal education was limited enough but he had an introduction to Latin for a year at the age of eight at the Boston Latin School.

He tells us in his Autobiography that after this year of Latin he neglected the language entirely. It is a striking tribute to the thoroughness of the teaching that years afterwards when he had attained an acquaintance with French, Italian and Spanish, he was surprised to find on looking over a Latin Testament that he understood  more of that language than he had imagined he would. 
This encouraged him to apply himself again to the study of it and almost needless to say with his mental energy and persistence he met with success. How utterly lost a single year of Latin study at the age of eight would be thirty years later by our modes of education, I need scarcely say.

Franklin had to get to work as a boy because the large family had to be supported–he was one of fifteen children–but in spite of this educational handicap he succeeded in making himself a leader not only in the political but also in the intellectual life of the country. 
He probably must be considered one of the most all around men of his day in scholarly attainments and intellectual power. His foundation of the American Philosophical Society meant a distinct step forward for scientific culture in this country. He must also be considered the founder of the University of Pennsylvania, a distinguished philosopher, statesman, diplomatist and author.

Robert Morris, another of the Pennsylvania signers, is better known for his financial ability than for his scholarship. He received his early education in England and was looked upon by those who knew him best as a man of parts. His political career stamps him as one of our greatest citizens. He established the Bank of North America, was superintendent of finance, and a member of the Constitutional Convention, besides being United States Senator from Pennsylvania (1789-95)….

James Smith, another of the signers from Pennsylvania, had the precious advantage of being placed under the tutelage of Rev. Dr. Francis Allison, afterwards the Vice Provost of the Academy and College of Philadelphia, and a distinguished teacher. Smith made his living during his adolescent years as a surveyor but continued to study Latin and Greek and devoted himself to law and settled down as a successful lawyer in Lancaster, Pa. Another Pennsylvania signer, George Taylor, was born in Ireland, the son of a clergyman who in those days when it was considered essential for a physician to have a thorough intellectual training before taking up the study of medicine, devoted himself to tutoring his son so as to prepare him for his medical studies. Instead of studying medicine, however, the boy came to America where he took up business as a profession with great success. The studies of his early years, however, proved an incentive all during his life to keep in touch with culture and so he was an important factor in the intellectual life of the time….

John Morton, George Clymer and George Ross, did not have the advantage of collegiate training. John Morton was educated by his stepfather, well known for his knowledge of mathematics and surveying at that time. 
Clymer was educated by his uncle who had a reputation for scholarship, and George Ross, the son of a pastor of the Anglican Church at Newcastle, Delaware, received his instruction in the classics from his father. After this he entered the office of his brother in Philadelphia and was admitted to the bar.

The little colony of Delaware was represented in the colonial congress by men who were worthy colleagues of the other signers so far as intellectual training went. 
George Read received his classical training from Dr. Francis Allison in his grammar school at New London, Pa., and so also did Thomas McKean. Both of them went on from their classical education to the study of law and both of them were successful lawyers….

At least one of the two representatives from Rhode Island, William Ellery, was prepared for college by his father who had been elected to the office of lieutenant governor of the colony, and entered Harvard in 1743. He received his degree of A.B. there four years later.

Of the four Connecticut signers, two were college graduates, Oliver Wolcott of Yale, and William Williams of Harvard. Mr. Williams had been prepared for college by his father, a minister of the Gospel, and was successful in his college career. Samuel Huntington attended one of the many preparatory schools in Connecticut and came to be considered an excellent Latin scholar. He went on to study law and became a successful lawyer.

Roger Sherman, like Benjamin Franklin, had to carve out his own education for himself. He came to be looked upon as one of the leaders of thought in this country and his missing the opportunity for regular college work did not prove a handicap.

The Maryland signers were all of them classically educated. The first of the signers was Samuel Chase of the Eastern Shore. He was the son of an Anglican clergyman who had a wide reputation for scholarship.  He gave his son a classical education and then secured an opportunity for him to study law at Annapolis. All during his life Chase continued to be a widely read, deeply thoughtful man, so that it is not surprising to find him at the end of his life occupying a place on the bench of the United States Supreme Court.

William Paca, the next of the Maryland signers, after preliminary training at home was sent to the College of Philadelphia and put in special charge of Dr. William Smith, the Provost of that institution. Smith was undoubtedly the most serious student of education that we had in this country at that time. Paca received the degree of Bachelor of Arts in June, 1759, and as a favorite pupil of Dr. Smith was considered a typical scholarly product of the university….

Thomas Stone, the third of the Maryland signers, rode daily ten miles back and forth to a school in Maryland at which he obtained a thorough knowledge of Latin and Greek. The classics were the favorite set of preparatory studies for law and he devoted himself to that profession.

The third New Jersey signer was Francis Hopkinson who had been educated by his bluestocking mother to the point where he was accepted as a matriculant at the College of Philadelphia and received his degree there. He became very prominent in the civic life of the time and must be considered one of the founders of the Republic. Their two co-signers from New Jersey, John Hart and Abraham Clark, were not college graduates but just men of common sense whose intelligence and initiative had appealed to their neighbors as making them worthy to be sent as representatives to the Continental Congress.

Georgia was the farthest away of the colonies from the center of the movement for independence. The colony’s representatives among the signers measure up in education and intellectual influence to those from the other colonies….

George Walton, as we have said, the third of the Georgia signers, had no opportunity for schooling but succeeded nevertheless in making of himself an educated man and became a lawyer of distinction.

The first of the North Carolina signers, William Hooper, was born in Boston and like his Massachusetts brethren in the Continental Congress had received his early education in the Lovell School and then entered Harvard where he received the Bachelor’s degree in 1760.

John Penn was afforded no opportunity for schooling by his father but came under the patronage of Edmond Pendleton, a well known, scholarly kinsman of his, and secured an education for himself. He, like many of the others, took up the study of law after a reading course taken in Pendleton’s library which broadened his mind, and he became a successful lawyer.

Joseph Hewes was one of the signers with but very little education, chosen by his neighbors for his common sense….

The first of the New Hampshire signers, Josiah Bartlett, had made sufficient advance in knowledge of the classics that he was allowed to take up the study of medicine at the age of sixteen. William Whipple of Kittery, Maine, received his education so far as it went in the public schools of that time. Matthew Thornton, the third of the New Hampshire signers, an Irishman by birth, received a classical education at Worcester, Mass., and then devoted himself to the practice of medicine in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

Of the four signers from New York–the smallness of the number of her representatives showing the comparative unimportance of the colony at that time, fifth in population among the colonists–two were  college graduates, Philip Livingston and Lewis Morris, having received their degrees from Yale. A third of the signers, Francis Lewis, was trained by a maternal uncle, the dean of St. Paul’s, London, who sent him after a time to the well known Westminster School where he received a good education in the classics. Mr. Lewis knew both the Welsh or Cymric language and the Irish or Gaelic and was probably the only one of the signers who understood these Celtic tongues. He was looked upon as one of the well educated men of the period.

If we are to attribute the successful efforts of these men as leaders of the colonists in securing independence and stable government for the colonies to their education and what it meant for them, and this seems a reasonable inference, it cannot but be extremely interesting to bring out what was the manner of education which these men received in the academies, Latin schools, preparatory schools and colleges, during the twenty-five years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Revolution.

They began their serious study rather early, for we hear of their taking up work in the Latin schools at the age of eight or nine and spending five or six years or more in the acquisition of Latin and of a certain amount of Greek.

By the age of fourteen or fifteen when as a rule they entered college–not a few of them were younger–they were capable of talking Latin, though such attainment may seem almost impossible to teachers in our time, and they were able to read the New Testament in Greek. These constituted the principal requirements for admission to college in those days….

What is most important to realize is that these intellectual leaders among the colonists had been educated according to a university or academic tradition that had been in existence for more than a thousand  years and that had been thoroughly formulated for over six hundred years before their time….

We are very much disturbed about our education at the present time and have come to recognize that there is something sadly lacking in it. It would seem well worth while to look thoroughly into the education which accomplished so much for the Fathers of the country. A system that had been in existence for over a thousand years including some periods of human culture when men had accomplished marvelous results in artistic, intellectual and social endeavor, deserves such study as would enable us to appreciate what its fundamental elements were and what the secret of its influence over men’s minds actually was….

The most surprising thing, then, about these Founding Fathers is the modesty with which they approached their great task and the scholarly humility with which they contemplated their frankly acknowledged experiment in charter making, and yet it has proved to be one of the greatest documents of human history.

Men who looked at their work thus impersonally and objectively were scholars in the best sense of that term. 
They knew how little they knew about human beings and possible future developments of humanity and its needs in this young growing country. That is after all the highest mark of a scholar, that he appreciates how little he knows.

From this standpoint the Founding Fathers must be considered as really educated men. They had learned to think and not merely to remember. They were occupied with finding a solution of human problems, but not absorbed in the idea that all wisdom was born with them and might die with them, and that no one else could possibly solve the problems presented to them better than they could….

You can read this entire chapter or the entire book at (though there is a charge).


2 Responses to Founders’ Education: Excerpt



    • tdbwd says:

      To me their greatest contribution to education is the example they set. Even those who were educated in schools or by tutors were also self-educated in many significant disciplines. Many of them taught themselves numerous foreign languages. Maybe the most important thing to keep in mind is that all this excellent education was taking place in a day of almost no public schooling.

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