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Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History: Electronic Edition.

Johnson, Guion Griffis, 1900- 1989


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           NORTH CAROLINA approached the subject of public education slowly and reluctantly, but, once having adopted it, developed by the close of the ante-bellum period a creditable state system supported by public taxation. Although in colonial North Carolina 1

education was largely associated in the minds of the people with the functions of the church, the idea of education as a public duty was expressed before the middle of the eighteenth century. A bill for the establishment of free schools was introduced in the colonial Assembly as early as 1749 and again in 1752, only to be defeated. In 1754 the Assembly actually appropriated £6,000 for building and endowing a school, but later used the money for military purposes.

           When the time came to frame the State Constitution in 1776, sentiment for free schools was sufficiently strong to write into it a section on education providing "That a school or schools be established by the Legislature, for the convenient instruction of youth, with such Salaries to the Masters, paid by the Public as may enable them to instruct at low prices; and all useful Learning shall be duly encouraged and promoted in one or more Universities."

           But in the crucial periods of the Revolution and of the Confederation, men were more concerned with establishing order out of confusion than they were in the education of youths at the public expense. In 1800 a correspondent of the Raleigh Register wrote regretfully that nine-tenths of the people in North Carolina were buried in "brutish ignorance." 2

Eleven years later Dr. Jeremiah Battle estimated that in Edgecombe County "about two thirds of the people generally 'can read'; & one half of the males 'write' their names: but not more than one third of the women can

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write." The progress of learning, he thought, had been slow "for '25 years back'." 3


           The battle smoke of the Revolution had scarcely cleared when a few public men, zealous for education, began to agitate for free schools. A judge in his charge, such as that of Judge Taylor to the Superior Court at Edenton in 1801, 4

might present the establishment of schools as a duty of first importance for the consideration of the grand jury; a newspaper correspondent, such as "Cervantes" in the Raleigh Register, might plead in behalf of "public seminaries of learning"; 5 a governor in his message to the Legislature, such as Benjamin Williams' in 1802, might recommend "the provision of means for the general diffusion of learning"; but the public in general showed little interest in the subject. Nevertheless, these few advocates kept the question alive. In their eagerness for public education, they exaggerated its benefits and thus gave rise to the legend that education is a guaranty of happiness and goodness.

           Although the agitation for public education was intimately associated with politics, it was never a political issue. 6

Federalists might differ on the subject as much among themselves as they did with Anti-Federalists; and Whigs with other Whigs as much as with Democrats. The subject, however, was closely related to political theory. Out of the crisis of the Revolution new philosophies arose. Some argued that the functions of the government were purely political. It was unwise, therefore, for a State to assume the education of its youth, for the State thus would be encroaching upon the personal liberties of the individual, one of the inalienable rights of man. Moreover, public education was unrepublican, for it taxed all for the benefit of some.

           This was the reason which the Senate Committee on Education in 1829 gave for reporting unfavorably on a "bill for the education of poor children." 7

"It would from the vast expenditure

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required in its practical operation require a proportional imposition of taxes upon the people which at this period they would but little sustain and to which they would never submit without a murmur," wrote Tryam McFarland, chairman of the Committee, "and more than all would from equal contribution of all for the benefit of some be equally irreconcilable with strict justice and the sentiments of the Community at large." 8

           As McFarland stated, many in the State opposed public education, not only because they considered taxation for its support incompatible with their theory of a free government, but also because they had, since colonial times, been opposed to increased taxation on any ground. "Should schools be established by law, in all parts of the State, as in the North," wrote "X" in the Raleigh Register in 1829, "our taxes must be considerably increased, possibly to the amount of one per cent, and six pence on a poll; and I will ask any prudent, sane, saving man if the desires his taxes to be higher? . . . You will doubtless be told that our State is far behind her sister in things of this sort,--and what does this prove? . . . We shall always have reason enough to crow over them, while we have power to say, as I hope we may have, that our taxes are lighter than theirs." 9

           Many who were bitterly opposed to an increase in taxes, would have been glad to see public schools if any other means for their establishment could have been devised. They frequently argued, however, that the whole scheme was impracticable and unfair. For instance, McFarland's committee in 1829 objected to establishing public schools in each county, because such a plan "would fail to assist the children of the poorest classes." "These could not be educated on this system," the committee argued, "because their labor a great portion of their time is indispensible to the support of their parents and themselves." 10

           There were others who would go a step further and say that poor children need have no education at all. "Would it not redound as much to the advantage of young persons, and to the honour of the State, if they should pass their days in the cotton

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patch, or at the plow, or in the cornfield, instead of being mewed up in a school house, where they are earning nothing?" asked a correspondent of the Register. "Gentlemen," he continued, "I hope you do not conceive it at all necessary, that everybody should be able to read, write and cipher. If one is to keep a store or a school, or to be a lawyer or physician, such branches may, perhaps, be taught him; though I do not look upon them as by any means indispensable: but if he is to be a plain farmer, or a mechanic, they are of no manner of use, rather a determent." 11 Those in the "lower sphere of life" were better suited to their work when left uneducated, for education made the laborer discontented. 12

           The poorer classes themselves frequently opposed public schools on the ground that education led to aristocracy, and many, rich and poor alike, objected because they did not wish their children to be educated at the public expense. 13

Those who could afford to have their children educated would do so; those who could not would not humble themselves by making their children objects of charity.

           The friends of education had an answer for all these objections. Those who held that public education was an encroachment upon man's personal liberties were confronted with the theory that it is the duty of a republican form of government to educate its voters. Accepting Thomas Jefferson's theory that popular intelligence is the basis of successful popular government, the friends of education argued that the diffusion of knowledge among the masses was one of the foremost duties of the state. "The more ignorant the people are, the more they are subject to be led astray by erroneous opinions, to be deluded by misrepresentations, and imposed upon by artifice," wrote "P. S." from Lincolnton in 1824. The failure of North Carolina to establish public schools had reacted against the State. North Carolina was everywhere held in ill repute. "The character and honor of our state imperiously demand increased intelligence in the mass of our population," he declared. "It is humiliating in the highest degree, to behold the gigantic strides by which our sister states have surpassed us in the

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march of improvement. . . . Our agriculture is nearly what it was in the days of our fathers; enterprise, of every kind, seems to have taken wings, and fled to some congenial abode; our political existence has been but barely acknowledged; and, with very few exceptions, our representation at Washington has been such as to corroborate the degrading opinions entertained of our state. It is now high time to retrieve our lost honor, and establish our character for intelligence, patriotism and enterprize." If the state will improve the intelligence of the "lower classes" by the establishment of public schools, agriculture will prosper; "commerce will wave its flag; talents and ability will mark our representatives; . . . and our state assume that rank to which its resources and its political duration so eminently entitle it." 14

           Not only is education necessary for the success of popular government, but it is necessary for a well ordered social structure. The public school is a training school for life. 15

Ignorance debases man's faculties and hurries him into "gambling and drunkenness and lewd debauchery"; 16 education brings with it an "attendant train of morality, honesty, temperance and happiness." 17 Governor Owen used this argument as one of the main points in his message on education to the Legislature of 1830. "If then it be true," he asked the Legislature, "that the vice, irreligion, and consequent poverty and misery of a large portion of our fellow citizens are to be attributed to their intellectual condition, are these not indispensable considerations to the virtuous legislator?" 18

           Following the argument of Gray's "Elegy," the friends of education warned their adversaries that they might be sending "some mute inglorious Milton" to his grave. "Who of us can tell but that in the bosom of some obscure little cottager there lives a spark which once kindled into a flame, might enlighten and warm the universe?" asked President Caldwell of the State University in his "Letters on Popular Education Addressed to the People of

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North Carolina." 19 Joseph B. Hinton and thirty-seven others from Beaufort County lamented in a petition for free schools the great waste of genius in North Carolina and spoke of "the immensity of talent and usefulness, now dormant, which would anon, blaze in the State" if public schools were only established. 20

           Those who were crusading for public schools sought to meet the opposition of the poor classes by telling them that an education would elevate their social status. "To the poor talented youth . . . who might otherwise be bred up in ignorance and vice," public education would be "a stepping stone to honor and preferment." 21

Education refines the sensibilities and elevates conversation, and "instead of the rawness, the awkwardness and the uncouth manners which give offence, and repress sociability," the poor would be able to "participate in the advantages which result from a refined and reciprocal interchange of the courtesies of life." 22

           As the years passed by and still North Carolina did not adopt a system of public schools, the claims for education became more extravagant. Education was the "breath of life." Only facilitate the spread of "useful learning" and you will animate "The People . . . our husbandmen, our mechanics, and our militia," wrote an advocate from Edgecombe County in 1824. "You will infuse into this great body a SOUL." 23

Only adopt public education and it "will work a vast revolution in the intellectual, moral and physical conditions of North Carolina." It will "resuscitate the sinking energies of the State, and ultimately elevate her to that proud and eminent station among the members of this Confederacy to which she is justly entitled." 24 It will bring a millennium in which there is no poverty, no evil, and no strife. "Our wildernesses and solitary places will then blossom like the rose." 25 In time, education

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was to become in this State, as in all others of the Union, the greatest dogma of salvation next to Christianity.


           Since colonial times, a few children in North Carolina had received a little schooling free. The apprenticeship system of binding out poor orphans was a practice which the settlers brought with them from England. As early as February, 1695, the General Court for Albemarle County bound "Wm ye son of Timothy Pead . . . Decd being left destitute" to "Thomas Harvey esqr and Sarah his wife until he be at ye age of twenty one years and the said Thomas Harvey to teach him to read." 26

In 1715 the Colony passed its first law regulating the system of apprenticeship, and this law, with a few subsequent alterations, was the basis of the antebellum practice. 27

           Other poor children on rare occasions also received a little free schooling. The teacher might offer to give his services without cost to a "select number" of poor children, or some prosperous planter or merchant might contribute funds for this purpose. In 1744 James Winwright of Carteret County left a small legacy for the establishment of a free school in Beaufort, and in 1769 James Innes left £100 sterling and other property "For the Use of a Free School for the benefite of the Youth of North Carolina." Out of this legacy the trustees established Innes Academy in Wilmington. In 1766 the General Assembly incorporated the "Society for promoting and establishing a Public School in Newbern," which it had previously aided in 1764 by a grant of certain town lots. The act of incorporation allowed the trustees funds arising from a tax of one penny a gallon on all spirituous liquors brought into the Neuse River for seven years. These funds were to be applied in part to the free education of at least ten poor children annually. In 1813 an act to establish free schools in Wayne County, the funds for which were to be raised by lottery, actually passed the Legislature, but the school was never established. The following year Alexander Dixon of Duplin County left $12,000 for a charity school in the county, from which the county is still receiving interest.

           Early in the ante-bellum period, groups of women in various towns in the State began to organize societies for the education of

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"poor female children." 28 The first of these societies was the Newbern Female Charitable Society incorporated in 1812. Later there followed the Female Orphan Asylum Society of Fayetteville, the Raleigh Female Benevolent Society, the Wilmington Female Benevolent Society, the Ladies of the Congregation of St. John's Church, Fayetteville, and others. The societies usually rented a house which they turned over to a woman teacher. Since most of the girls were illegitimate children born of mothers who haunted the village brothels, the societies frequently converted the school building into an orphanage. Here the teacher was also housemother and counselor. The children were taught an elementary education, "neatness, correct deportment," and "those useful branches of home industry." At one time the Raleigh school had as many as thirty or forty pupils. 29

           The men's clubs also occasionally contributed to the education of the poor. The theatrical societies occasionally gave the proceeds from one of their performances for this purpose. On July 24, 1800, Mr. and Mrs. Hardinge, assisted by some gentlemen of the town, gave a performance at the theater in Fayetteville "for the benevolent and humane purpose of extending to poor children, and such as are deserted by their parents, the benefits of Education." 30

Almost every incorporated academy gave instruction free to a few poor children. Sometimes their charters made this requirement of them in consideration of the privileges granted.

           About 1814 the Joseph Lancaster system of teaching was hailed in the State as a means of educating the poor. It was thought that by this system one teacher could instruct great numbers in half the time ordinarily required. In 1814 Governor David Stone established a Lancaster school where those who were unable to pay tuition were taught "without reward." 31

A few other Lancaster schools opened in the State, but they did not achieve the marvelous results their friends expected.


           North Carolina still retained its reputation for ignorance and unprogressiveness as the nineteenth century wore on. In 1824 an

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Edgecombe correspondent of the Raleigh Register wrote regretfully, "It is a melancholy fact, that many of our farmers of wealth and character, nay, even many of our instructors and clergy, are notoriously deficient in Orthography, and Reading and Writing, and the commonest rules of vulgar Arithmetick." 32 In 1829 President Joseph Caldwell of the University of North Carolina declared that the State was three centuries behind in public improvements and education. 33 Several years later, the Reverend A. J. Leavenworth, a Presbyterian minister of Charlotte, estimated that "we have probably 120 thousand children between the ages of 5 and 15 years, who are destitute of a common school education." In some parts of the State, many large families might be found, "not one of whom, parents or children, can read their alphabet; and in others, whole neighborhoods of forty and fifty families exist, among whom but few individuals can read their Bible." 34 So many in the State were without education that politicians often found it profitable to declare on the stump that they had never spent a penny on an education and to call those who had been to school the "ruffled-shirted gentry." 35

           So far, the opponents of education had won. The same forces which had retarded the progress of the State in its program for internal improvements and in the agitation for constitutional reform were now preventing the adoption of a public school system: the low per capita wealth, a narrow theory of the functions of state government, the dread of taxation, and sectional jealousies. 36

           But the friends of education were not content to let the subject rest. The Journal of the House of Commons for 1802 records that "Mr. Calvin Jones moved for leave and presented a bill to establish schools; which was read the first time and rejected." 37

From 1802 until the establishment of public schools in 1839 scarcely a year passed without some mention of the subject in the Legislature. Every governor except two from 1802 until 1838 recommended the establishment of public schools. In 1805 the Joint Committee replied to Governor Turner's message on education that the "Committee have duly considered" the subject "and

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are of opinion that although the situation of the State requires legislative aid; yet for the want of sufficient funds, your committee are of opinion, that an interference at this time would be inexpedient." 38 Invariably legislators expressed sympathy for the cause of education, but invariably pleaded insufficient funds as the reason for ignoring it.

           By 1815, however, the cause had gained sufficient friends to enable both the House and Senate to appoint special committees on education, the first in the history of the State. The following year Governor Miller's recommendations on education to the Legislature were referred to a committee of which Archibald D. Murphey, senator from Orange County, was chairman, and he prepared a report, expressing vigorously the Jeffersonian theory of public education and recommending that the speakers of the two houses appoint a committee to digest "a judicious system of public education" based upon the principles which his report outlined. 39

Although others had expressed these views earlier than he, it was left to Murphey to popularize them and to win for himself the title of "father of the common schools" in North Carolina.

           Born near Milton about 1777, Archibald DeBow Murphey, 40

son of Colonel Archibald Murphey, of local fame in the Revolution, was easily the most distinguished socially-minded statesman in ante-bellum North Carolina even when compared with such distinguished men as William Gaston, Joseph Caldwell, Charles Fisher, John M. Morehead, Edward B. Dudley, and William A. Graham. He was graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1799, and, after having taught there two years, was admitted to the bar and shortly afterward began practice in Hillsboro. From 1812 to 1818 he represented Orange County in the Senate. In these few years he constantly astonished conservative senators with his revolutionary views. He outlined a program of internal improvements which would tie the various sections of the State together by a system of navigable rivers and macadamized roads obtained through taxation. He drew up a system of public schools

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whereby every county in the State would have adequate schools maintained by public taxation. He favored amending the State Constitution to make it conform to "the first Principles of a Republican System of Government." 41 He did not live to see any of these measures adopted, but he set in motion forces which were later to jar the State out of its lethargy.

           In 1817 John M. Walker of Warren County presented a report 42

on teacher-training as a member of the Joint Committee appointed by Murphey's resolution of the previous year, and Murphey himself presented his famous report on education as a member of the Senate Committee on Education. This report crystallized the thinking on public education and was the basis of the act of 1839 which established the public school system in the State. It called for the creation of a school fund, the appointment of a state school board, the organization of schools, and the establishment of "an asylum for the deaf and dumb." Murphey based the school system upon primary schools, academies, and the University of North Carolina. He outlined "the course of studies to be prescribed" for each of these three divisions in the system. He went a step further and gave his views on teaching methods and discipline. His plan called for the free education of poor children in the primary schools and the maintenance, as well as education, of a select number in the academies and the University. 43

           The Legislature ordered Murphey's report printed, but promptly killed his bill to carry the report into effect. The following year William Martin of Pasquotank presented a bill "to establish and regulate schools in the several counties of this State," and in 1819 the Education Committee started a movement which was later to culminate in the creation of the Literary Fund. The Senate Education Committee, of which Emanuel Shober of Stokes County was chairman, recommended the creation of a "School Fund" which might be raised "either by drawing it from the lands lately acquired from the Cherokee Indians or by appropriating a part of the stock holden by the state in the bank." 44

But it was not until 1825 that the school fund was actually created. In this year the friends of education were able for the first time to push a

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bill through the Legislature. The bill, drawn by Bartlett Yancey, speaker of the Senate, and introduced by Charles A. Hill, created a fund, known as the Literary Fund, from special sources 45 which was to be used to establish common schools when it had grown sufficiently large. For the management of the fund, the bill created a board composed of the governor, the chief justice, the speakers of the two Houses of the Legislature, and the State treasurer.

           The Literary Fund grew slowly. In 1827 it amounted to little more than $36,000. By 1836 it had grown to $243,162, all of which the Board had invested in bank stock except $3,845 in cash. During these years the fund had suffered losses through dishonesty, bad investments, and misappropriations. Unwilling to use the money for schools because of the insufficiency of the fund, the Legislature did not hesitate to apply it to other purposes, including the payment of their own salaries. The Legislature was always conscientious about repaying the amount borrowed as soon as the taxes "afforded the means," but never conscientious to the extent of paying interest on the loans. 46

           Nevertheless, the cause in behalf of public education was growing in popular favor. Newspapers offered their space to all who would write on the subject. No Fourth of July speech was complete without reference to "a system of general instruction" as one of "the cardinal objects of North Carolina." 47

In 1830 a writer in the Raleigh Register proposed a state teacher's association and

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in 1831 a convention of teachers met in Chapel Hill to organize the North Carolina Institute of Education. 48 In 1832 Joseph Caldwell of the University of North Carolina addressed his Letters on Education to the people of the State. 49

           In the Legislature the friends of education would not let the subject rest. Not a session passed without their introducing a bill, making a report, or inquiring into the state of the Literary Fund. Beginning in 1829, Tryam McFarland introduced a bill for three successive years calling for the education of poor children. In 1829 Charles R. Kinney submitted a plan for primary schools to Governor Owen which the governor in turn submitted to the Legislature. In 1834 Hugh McQueen, senator from Chatham County, introduced a bill calling for the collection of educational statistics and the increase of the Literary Fund through certain taxes. In 1836-1837, the first session of the Legislature after the change in representation 50

by the Constitutional Convention of 1835, the friends of education won their first real victory since 1825. In this year the Legislature passed a bill vesting certain swamp lands in the literary board and appropriating $200,000 for their drainage and improvement; it instructed the literary board "to digest a plan for Common Schools, suited to the conditions and resources of this State, and report the same to the next General Assembly"; and it greatly increased the Literary Fund by the addition of a large portion of the surplus revenue received from the Federal Government.

           It is doubtful whether the Legislature would have adopted a system of public schools for another decade had not Congress in 1836 voted to distribute the surplus revenue in the United States Treasury among the States on the basis of their representation in Congress. North Carolina received $1,433,757.39 of this fund. The distribution which the Legislature of 1836-1837 made of the money received was a victory for education and a tribute to North Carolina statesmanship. All but $100,000, which was used for contingent expenses, went eventually to the Literary Fund; 51


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that in 1840 the fund for popular education amounted to more than two million dollars.

           The plan for a system of public schools which the Literary Board submitted to the Legislature of 1838-1839 followed closely Murphey's plan of 1817. Governor Dudley approved the bill in his message to the Legislature and William W. Cherry, senator from Bertie, and Frederick J. Hill, representative from Brunswick, introduced bills in their respective houses to carry the plan into effect. The bill which finally passed the Legislature January 7, 1839, provided for the division of the State into school districts, the establishment of a primary school in each district through county taxes supplemented by appropriations from the Literary Fund, and the creation of county and district school boards to put the schools into operation. 52

But schools were to be established only in those counties which approved the bill by a vote to be cast in August, 1839. Those who had supported the cause of education from the beginning conducted a feverish campaign during the summer, but the people as a whole were only mildly interested. The vote for schools carried in all but seven of the sixty-eight counties, and the public school system went into operation the following year. These counties, Edgecombe, Wayne, Columbus, Rowan, Lincoln, Yancey, and Davidson, later voted in favor of public schools.


           The act of 1839 outlined a public school system in broad details. It did not fix responsibility for the operation of the system; it did not even make the erection of school houses or the support of the schools by county taxation mandatory. It did not require the local school committees to make reports on the number and progress of the schools within their districts. The school system thus established was a bitter disappointment to those who had expected so much of it.

           When the act passed, its friends hoped that every district in the State, out of public spirit, would at once erect a schoolhouse "sufficient to accommodate at least fifty scholars," as the bill suggested. 53

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But schoolhouses which had to be built by private subscription of money and labor were built slowly. In 1840 there were only 632 primary schools of any kind in the State. 54 Lacking public schoolhouses, the district committees might use their allotment from the State fund in various ways. They might honestly spend it on schools, distributing it, perhaps, as the Lincolnton Committee did, among the academies and private schools in the community. W. H. Abernethy of Lincolnton wrote to Calvin H. Wiley in 1856:

           Being less honest than the Lincolnton Committee, the officers might decide to use the fund for private purposes. In 1850 Governor Manly thought that it might "be safely stated that thousands of dollars remain from year to year in the hands of the [county] Superintendents; and if a rigid settlement were enforced, the public would be astonished at the aggregate sum thus withheld from its legitimate destination." 56

The act of 1852 which created the office of state superintendent also gave the superintendent authority "to see that moneys distributed for the purposes of education are not misapplied." 57 In 1854 Wiley obtained a more definite law on this subject whereby misapplication of educational funds was made a misdemeanor; county superintendents, district committeemen, and clerks of county courts might be fined $50 for neglect of duty; and chairmen of county boards of superintendents might be fined $500, to be recovered by the state superintendent

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in Wake County Superior Court, for failure to make a report on the disbursement of educational funds. 58

           While the counties were eager to accept the $40 for each school district due them from the Literary Fund by the act of 1839, they were not always willing to raise by taxation the $20 per district required by law. In 1840 the Legislature modified the school tax law so that county courts were merely "authorized and empowered" to levy a tax which should "not exceed one half of the estimated amount to be received" from the Literary Fund. Four years later the Legislature permitted county courts "in their discretion" to levy a school tax. 59

As early as 1848 Governor Graham had suggested that the counties be required to raise a sum equal to one half the amount received from the Literary Fund, and William B. Shepard introduced a bill in the Senate authorizing the Literary Board to withhold the State fund from counties which did not submit yearly a statement showing that they had raised a sum equal at least to a third of the amount due them from the Literary Fund, 60 but the bill failed to pass, and no other Legislature sought to remedy this defect during the ante-bellum period. 61

           There was no way to penalize a county for resolving, as the Cumberland County Court did in 1855, that "the school tax is for the present dispensed with." 62

The Edgecombe County Court, although the county had voted for schools under the act of 1841, did not consider levying a school tax until 1853. In that year the Court decided to take a vote at the next election of congressmen "whether [a] county tax should be levied to aid the present fund received semi-annually from the State," but, it was not until 1855 that the county collected its first school tax. 63 In those counties which actually levied a tax, the tax itself frequently varied from year to year. For instance, the tax in Pasquotank County in 1851

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was 34¼ cents on the $100 valuation of property and 31¼ cents on the poll, but in 1852 the tax dropped to 5 cents on property and 10 cents on the poll. In Orange County the school tax varied over a period of five years from 6 cents to 7½ cents on property and from 8 cents to 22¾ cents on the poll. 64

           The chief reason for the fluctuation of the county school taxes and for the failure of some counties to levy a tax was that the county superintendents frequently found that the funds which they had on hand were sufficient to meet their school requirements. It did not occur to some county officials that they might use the surplus to improve the schoolhouses and equipment or to lengthen the school term. Even had some counties desired to lengthen the school term to six months instead of three they probably could not have found children to attend or teachers to conduct the schools, for, at least in the first decade of the operation of free schools, there were not enough teachers in the State for each of the 1,250 school districts created.

           The public school system was further handicapped by the inefficiency of the county boards of superintendents and the district committeemen. Since the State exercised no administrative control over the county boards, they were left to their own devices. Few county boards took the trouble to make reports to the Literary Board on the number and condition of the schools as required by the act of 1846. It was often difficult to find capable men who were willing to serve on the school boards. Sometimes a county court appointed "one of the most illiterate of our citizens" chairman of the board of superintendents, as R. W. Millard of Sampson County complained in 1856. 65

It was even more difficult to obtain efficient committeemen. "Men who are the most capable will not serve as committeemen and the consequence is the people Elect men who are totally unfitted for this office [.] some men have been Elected for this office who could neither Read nor write," 66 wrote A. W. Brandon of Rowan County in 1854. Sometimes "a popular, noisy fellow" would engineer the election of the

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district committee so that his favorite would be employed to teach. 67

           In 1841 the Legislature unfortunately passed an act which retarded the development of public schools. The act made federal population instead of white population the basis of distributing the Literary Fund. It clearly discriminated against the West with its small amount of Negro population. 68

Sectional strife which had so long prevented the adoption of a public school now appeared to handicap the operation of the system.

           Moreover, the school districts were too large to make the location of the schoolhouses convenient to all in the districts. The act of 1839 had advised the county boards of superintendents to lay off districts "containing not more than six miles square, but having regard to the number of white children in each." 69

"Our districts are generally quite large or extend over a considerable extent of county," wrote a committeemen from Hyde County in 1854, "& it seems that now we are obliged to have them large to get anything like a decent sized school [.] when a school commences in a good sized district the scholars will number perhaps 55 or 50 or even more for 4 or 5 weeks & then a falling off takes place until the end of the quarter when the number is hardly 10." 70 He overlooked the fact that some families in the district lived so far from the school that their children could not possibly make the trip every day.

           The defects in the public school system itself probably would not have been so apparent had there been a general sentiment in the State in favor of public schools. "I do not think the Public Schools will ever prosper and work well until a new generation

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arises," wrote A. W. Brandon, chairman of the Rowan Board of Superintendents, in 1854. "The people take but little Interest in the schools in this County." 71 James Avery of Burke County thought that "the greatest difficulty in the way of success in our Common Schools . . . is the apathy and indifference manifested by the Upper Classes who do not send their children much to Common Schools." 72 On this same subject S. D. Wallace wrote, "I am sorry to say that in Wilmington our common schools are not patronized except by those who have not the means to send to other schools & hence the numbers that attend are limited & their character not very flattering." 73 Others objected to the public schools because they were coeducational. In Washington there were more than 450 children of school age in 1857 but not more than 60 ever went to the "Free Schools in their mixed character," for many parents would not "send Females where males go." 74 Accordingly, the committeemen in 1857 were "about to have a male & Female School separate [sic]."

           In addition to this lack of public support, the common schools were further handicapped by the opposition which they encountered from the old-field schools and academies and by the scarcity of good teachers. 75

Committeemen quarreled and neglected their duties; county chairmen misapplied school funds; prosperous families patronized private schools for fear of contamination from the poor; poor families kept their children out of school to work on the farm; schoolhouses went without repairs and finally fell in ruins.


           At last the Legislature, after refusing in 1839 to provide for a state superintendent of public schools, saw the necessity of one. Calvin H. Wiley of Greensboro had introduced a bill in the Legislature of 1850-1851 providing for a state superintendent but the measure failed. At the next meeting of the Legislature he was more successful. The act of 1852 created the office of superintendent

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and defined the duties. The superintendent was to codify the educational laws of the State, to enforce these laws, to see that the school funds were properly applied, to obtain annual reports from county boards, to collect full information concerning the condition and operation of schools in each county, to find the causes which promoted and those which retarded the schools, to consult and advise with teachers, to instruct the examining committees concerning the proper qualifications of teachers, to attend meetings of the State Literary Board, to deliver educational addresses, to make an annual report to the governor on the progress of the public school system, and otherwise to promote the cause of public education. 76 This new officer was to receive only $1,500 for such an undertaking, but Calvin H. Wiley, state superintendent of public instruction from 1853 to 1865, was equal to the task.

           If Murphey was the father of public education Wiley was the savior. Born in Guilford County in 1819 of Scotch-Irish descent, a student at Caldwell Institute in Greensboro and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Wiley was already popular in the State as a lawyer, author, editor, and politician before his appointment as state superintendent of public instruction. 77

He took to his office an enthusiasm for his work and a genuine devotion to North Carolina. His theory of education was the old Jeffersonian doctrine which had been expressed in the State since the time of the Revolution: popular education is the basis of a republican form of government. It was Wiley, however, who sought to popularize the theory in North Carolina. From Cherokee to Currituck, in his speeches, letters, and reports, he constantly preached the doctrine that a "system of common schools for a great and growing state is a vast and sublime moral obligation."

           When Wiley began his work as state superintendent in 1853 he found the public school system "obscured in darkness." After spending the most of his first year in office traveling over the State, visiting schools, inquiring into conditions, sounding out public opinion, he said in his first report to the governor, "I feel

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bound to say that money is not our greatest want-- . . . We want more efficient management--a constant embodiment and expression of public opinion--a watchful supervision--a liberal course of legislation, good officers, and patience and energy in all having an official position in the system." 78 During the twelve years that he was state superintendent, he made the accomplishment of these objectives the chief duties of his office. He seldom had difficulty in obtaining legislation for improving the machinery of the school system. He gradually won the coöperation of the county and district committees, and in the end made the public schools a credit to the State. It was no idle boast when he declared in 1860, "North-Carolina has the start of all her Southern sisters in educational matters." 79

           In his second report to the governor, Wiley pointed out three serious defects in the school system: the failure of the county boards of education to make annual reports as required by law, the difficulty of obtaining good teachers, and the lack of organization in the schools. 80

By constantly reminding the county boards of their duties and bringing suit in cases of extreme misconduct or neglect, Wiley was able to report in 1858 that "the spirit of chairmen of county boards has now undergone a complete revolution." 81 The character of the teachers had also greatly improved, and with the improvement in teachers there came also an improvement in the organization of the schools.

           In 1860 Wiley had been in office only seven years; yet in that short period he had revolutionized the public school system of North Carolina. 82

[82 The following questionnaire which Wiley sent to the counties shows his method of work and at the same time presents valuable information concerning the status of the common schools (MS in Calvin H. Wiley Papers, Returns from Counties):]

[Question 1. What is the number of Common School Districts in your county?]

[Answer--Thirty nine]

[2. How are the Districts laid off? are they generally intended for one school, or for several.]

[Ans. Surveyed regularly about 3¼ miles squ--intended for only one school]

[3. What is the size of the Districts generally?]

[Ans. About 3¼ miles square]

[4. Could your county, in your judgment, be so laid off in Districts, that no one District would be too large for one school, and few Districts so very small that a distribution of the Fund, according to Districts, would not be unjust?]

[not too large, but too populous. the size near equal]

[5. Were the Districts laid off by actual survey?]

[Yes,--varied in size to suit water courses]

[6. Can your county be so Districted as to bring each child, or a very large portion of the children within reach of a school?]

[Yes, in the way it is now laid off]

[7. When did the Common School System go into practical operation in your county?]

[On May 1850]

[8. When did you begin to have Examining Committees?]

[from the beginning or shortly after]

[9. What is your observation of the effect of Examining Committees, good or bad?]

[has a good effect]

[10. Has there been complaint of the want of capacity and fidelity in teachers?]

[at first there was but some improvement]

[11. Do the people generally elect Committee men? do many vote in each election?]

[the people Elect. do not many attend & vote]

[12. What is the general opinion as to the best method of choosing Committee-men?]

[By County Superintendant]

[13. Is it difficult to get good men to act as Committee-men?]

[verry difficult]

[14. Do you lay a school tax? if so when did you begin, and what is the amount levied on each poll, and on each hundred dollars' worth of land?]

[Yes. commencement, 8 cts on Poll 6 on land present amt about 700 $ from the county]

[15. Have you school houses in all your Districts?]

[Yes. One with 3--5 with 2 schools]

[16. How many Common Schools are there in your county?]


[17. Is there a supply of teachers moderately qualified?]

[not in the county]

[18. What is the probable cause of the want of more teachers?]

[the want of proper information]

[19. Are your schools gradually improving?]

[They are]

[20. Do you know how many Academies, Classical and Select schools there are in your county?]

[One Male-- (no) Female]

[21. What is the average character of the school houses in your county, comfortable or otherwise?]

[largest number comfortable.]

[22. How do you divide your portion of the Common School Fund?]

[By the number of children in each District of proper age]

[23. Does this method give general satisfaction?]

[It does. was adopted by bord of county superintendants]

[24. Have you ever divided on any other plan?]


[25. Do the people generally build the school houses, furnish wood &c., at their own expense?]

[About 4/5 do balance do not]

[26. At what seasons are the schools generally taught?]

[Too much in winter]

[27. Do your teachers ever have public examination?]

[But a few cases yet but increasing]

[28. How will the wages of school teachers compare with the general prices for labor, clerking, &c., &c., favorably or otherwise?]

[reasonably favorable ranging from $12 to $20 per month--prices and qualification increasing]

[29. Are your teachers native, or from other places?]

[Two thirds natives one third from abrod]

[30. Has the Chairman of your county been often changed?]

[No change]

[31. Is there complaint of want of uniformity in books? or of the use of bad books, or of frequent changes?]

[Verry great need of uniformity of Books, at least one third lost for want of such . . . Make such suggestions as may occur to you, in regard to the deficiencies of the Law, the difficulties in the way of greater success of the Common Schools, and the want of proper attention or management on the part of all concerned.]

[It would be of Great benefit for som one qualified to visit all the schools and impart som more interest and attention to duties of the committeemen som of whom are very inatten to there duties also to see how the Teachers fullfiled there duties I would also recommend that female schools be taught in the warm season of the year.]

The number of school districts had increased

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from about 3,000 in 1853 to 3,471 in 1860; the number of schools from 2,500 to 3,082; the number of children in school from 95,000 to 118,852; the number of licensed teachers from 800 to 2,752;

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the expenditures from $150,000 in 1854 to $278,000 in 1860. 83 He had been unable, however, to lengthen the school term; it remained at about four months until the close of the ante-bellum period.

           The establishment of common schools in North Carolina was an achievement of North Carolina statesmanship. The ante-bellum period opened and closed with the majority of the people in the State indifferent to education; some, yeomen and gentry alike, were actually opposed to the principle of public education. A few farseeing men had always been in favor of a general instruction of the masses; others were converted to the theory by the Revolution. These few, the articulate members of the State community, advocated the subject constantly in the pulpit, the press, and the legislative

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hall. They slowly won converts; finally achieved their goal. After 1840 the State boasted of its system of common schools as proudly as it previously had boasted of its State University and its statue of Washington. A few men in their devotion to a cause had forced a State, ridiculed by its neighbors as backward and ignorant, into a step as progressive as any taken by its scorners.

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