Revolutionary Visions: Disruption and Renewal
“The business of education has aquired a new complexion by the independence of our country.” — Benjamin Rush, 1786
he American Revolution in Pennsylvania was highly divisive. The state’s new constitution, adopted in the 1770s, was the most radical in the colonies, allowing the vote to all taxpayers, including blacks, but also imposing an oath of loyalty to the state constitution, which applied equally to teachers. Quakers who refused to take the oath were deported to Virginia, and some teachers were fined for non-compliance. Schools in Philadelphia were closed temporarily by public order in 1776, and the city was occupied by British troops in 1777-78. Just before their arrival, students at the Quaker Latin School began circulating a newspaper of their own composition, in manuscript. The June 18, 1777 issue of the “Students Gazette” on display here is highly topical, beginning, “As it is the Duty of every Freeman to support the Government he lives under if not inconsistent with his Freedom….” Later issues refer to the “State” of “New Latonia” which the students have declared and which they try to defend against their rivals at the Quaker English School.
The emergence of a republic after the Revolution renewed earlier debates about how a new nation’s youth should be educated. Within the classroom, old methods acquired new veneers. Post-revolutionary printings of the standard New England Primer, like the one here from Germantown, were often decorated with a portrait of George Washington, and references to “kings” were deleted. Its contents and methodology, however, remained unchanged. To replace denominationally specific school prayers, some authors proposed texts like the Federal Catechism, a series of “federal prayers,” with examples such as, “Bless the Congress of these United States, and all our rulers.” Even schoolhouses were named to suit the new republic. Shown here is a nineteenth-century slate from the “Federal School” (1797), still standing in Haverford.
cientist, doctor, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush threw himself into the cause of reforming education after the Revolution. In his utopian Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools, Rush proposed a state-wide educational system: free schools in each town or district to teach basic skills, including both English and German; four “colleges” in the state for young men to learn mathematics and sciences; and one university for philosophy and professional training, located in Philadelphia. He envisioned a unified curriculum for these institutions. Rush, like Thomas Jefferson, thought of schooling as a system to be shaped by government, in order to produce a new generation of republican citizens, and he presumed the elimination of independent local schools throughout the state.
Although Rush’s Plan was not adopted, he did assist in the creation of two new colleges in Pennsylvania: Dickinson College and Franklin College. Dickinson, which opened in 1783 on lands donated by Jonathan Dickinson, built upon a Presbyterian Academy founded ten years earlier. Rush, raised a Presbyterian, sought to transform it into a leading academic institution, but in doing so he came into conflict with other Presbyterians like John Ewing, the new Provost of the University of the State of Pennsylvania. Educational politics in the new republic were not as free from old sectarian divisions as Rush had hoped. Rival groups did come together more successfully to found Franklin College, located in Lancaster, in 1787. Lutheran and Reformed German clergy sought to establish a college for Pennsylvania’s Germans, with a bilingual curriculum. They turned to Rush to generate crucial support in the Pennsylvania Assembly and also hit upon the shrewd public relations gesture of naming the school for Franklin, then the President of Pennsylvania (an ironic gesture too, given Franklin’s anti-German remarks years earlier). Shown here are Isaac Wayne’s certificate from Dickinson’s Belles Lettres Society, a literary club within the college begun in 1786; and an English translation of a sermon delivered at the opening of Franklin College.
o educational institution in the colonies was as torn by the Revolution as the College of Philadelphia. In 1779, the radical Pennsylvania Assembly declared that the College had violated the provisions of its charter by showing partiality to Anglicans and allegiance to the British Crown. William Smith, publicly accused of being a Tory, and the other Trustees and faculty were stripped of their positions, with College professor and Presbyterian John Ewing placed in charge as the new provost. The school’s name was changed to the University of the State of Pennsylvania, a title suggestive of the Assembly’s hope that the institution would represent the state’s democratic aspirations. The new Trustees included alumnus Francis Hopkinson, two German Lutherans, one Roman Catholic, and the Reverend William White, the city’s leading Episcopal clergyman.
Ten years later, in 1789, a more conservative state Assembly declared their predecessors’ act unconstitutional and restored the original College Trustees and faculty to their positions. Ewing gave the Provost’s house back to Smith—but he and the other new faculty continued to teach down the street, in their University. The two institutions continued side by side, struggling financially, until 1791, when they merged to become the University of Pennsylvania. Hopkinson, in the TITLE shown here, managed to poke fun at both schools.
The sectarian and political tensions that led to the controversies at Penn also helped spawn new institutions. Some of the Anglican members of the College who had been forced out in 1779 formed a new academy of their own, the Protestant Episcopal Academy. It opened in 1785, and among its trustees were both William White and Hopkinson.
ranklin spent most of the Revolutionary years in France, serving as the representative of the Continental Congress and attempting to negotiate and maintain the colonies’ alliance with the French. He took with him his two grandsons, Temple Franklin and Benjamin Franklin Bache, and he sent Bache to a school in Passy, near Paris, and then to an academy in Geneva. In the letter shown here, Franklin praises Bache’s improvement in drawing and writing.