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Elisha Mitchell, 1793-1857
A Lecture on the Subject of Common Schools, Delivered Before the North Carolina Institute of Education, at Chapel Hill, June 26, 1834
Chapel Hill [N.C.]: Printed by Isaac C. Patridge, 1834.


The 1776 North Carolina Constitution stipulated that there be public schools in the state, but it was not until 1816 that a committee was formed in the General Assembly to see to their establishment (Smith, 164). In 1825, a fund to support them, known as a "literary fund," was created, and in 1839 the General Assembly passed a common school law, which divided the state into school districts and established a system of combined state and local funding (North Carolina State Board of Education). By 1846, every county in North Carolina had a school, according to the North Carolina State Board of Education.

The North Carolina Institute of Education was founded in 1831. The movement for common schools was becoming more pronounced, and newspapers in Raleigh were calling for an association to promote public education (Coon, xli). The Institute's purpose was "mutual consultation and the discussion of subjects connected with education and the advancement of knowledge" (Coon, xli). It met once annually during commencement week at the University of North Carolina, and its officers and executive committee were faculty of the University. Meetings in 1831-33 were reported in local newspapers (Coon, xli). The existence of this pamphlet suggests that the Institute also met in 1834, but it is unknown whether it met in later years.

Elisha Mitchell delivered this lecture, which addresses school funding, before the Institute during commencement week 1834. He explains at the beginning of his speech that it was meant to be a "sort of after-piece" to a longer talk by a speaker who was unable to attend (p. 3). It was published as a pamphlet by Isaac C. Patridge, postmaster of Chapel Hill and editor of the village's first newspaper, The Harbinger (Lindemann). At the time of this lecture, Mitchell was acting President of the University of North Carolina because President Joseph Caldwell was ill (Battle, p. 357). When the Institute of Education was founded in 1831, Mitchell was a member of its executive committee and helped to draft its constitution but was not one of its officers (Coon 514-15). His status in the organization in 1834 is unknown.

The lecture begins with an overview of the history of printing and the difference in cost per copy when there are many copies of a book printed. Mitchell then states that because the population of the United States is increasing rapidly, books will become less and less expensive: "With the funds which we have exhausted in the purchase of a few volumes, a man of the next generation will provide himself with what may bear the name of a library" (pp. 4-5). He suggests that popular education is the means by which society can gain from, rather than suffer from, this development. "With the mere ability to read . . . but without the information necessary to guide his selection," Mitchell argues, "a man's condition will be little better, than if, when labouring under disease, and ignorant of medicine, he be left in the shop of an apothecary to swallow a potent remedy or a fatal poison, as he may happen to lay his hand on the one or the other" (pp. 5-6).

After this introduction, Mitchell proceeds into the question of how public education should be funded. He concludes that its success depends upon all citizens paying for it, rather than just those who have children, and that in determining the amount that each individual should contribute, it should not be the number of children he has but his ability to pay that should be considered. Mitchell argues that it is within the rights of the legislature to impose "taxes for the support of schools to a limited amount, and according to the plan of assessment already in use for other purposes" (p. 8). He criticizes the perception that funds can simply be drawn from the state treasury to fund schools without additional taxation and chides those members who might have wanted him to "shew how decent schoolhouses can be made to rise spontaneously out of the earth; schoolmasters be taught to live upon air and clothe themselves, with a mist or vapour, so as to need no support from us; and how, instead of rain, we may get now and then, in the course of the summer, a shower of spelling-books" (p. 9).

Mitchell's plan for reducing the expense of schools is to hire as teachers "young females, born in humble circumstances; without property, and whose honest industry is the only fund to which they can look for a maintenance" (p. 10). He argues that these women could turn to teaching as a means of avoiding loveless marriages and "still greater evils" (p. 11). His plan could be accomplished, Mitchell says, "with a trifling addition only to the amount of wages these persons are now receiving" (p. 11). He next suggests that common schools would provide not only education from books, but also "an opportunity and occasion of intercourse between families and neighbouring sections of the country," which he calls a second kind of education (p. 12). Mitchell concludes his lecture by expressing a hope that "more faithful and laborious hands" will join the effort, since "the annual roaring on the subject of education" on the day before Commencement will not be enough to establish a system of schools (p. 12).

Works Consulted: Coon, Charles L., The Beginnings of Public Education in North Carolina: A Documentary History, 1790-1840, Vol. 1, Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton, 1908, available from Documenting the American South (accessed September 9, 2010); Lindemann, Erika, "The School Day and the School Year," available from Documenting the American South (accessed September 10, 2010); North Carolina State Board of Education, "History of the North Carolina State Board of Education," (accessed September 9, 2010); Smith, Charles Lee, "The History of Education in North Carolina," Washington: Government Printing Office, 1888, available from Documenting the American South (accessed September 9, 2010); Tolley, Kim, "Joseph Gales and Education Reform in North Carolina," North Carolina Historical Review January 2009, 1-31.

Erin Bartels

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