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Horace Mann (1796–1859)

Education and Training, Career and Contribution

Principal advocate of the nineteenth-century common school movement, Horace Mann became the catalyst for tuition-free public education and established the concept of state-sponsored free schools. The zeal with which Mann executed his plan for free schools was in keeping with the intellectual climate of Boston in the early days of the republic. The Mann contribution, state government sponsored education unfettered by sectarian control, made possible a democratic society rather than a government by elites. The atmosphere of early-nineteenth-century Boston stimulated keen minds to correct social disharmonies caused by ignorance, intemperance, and human bondage. Reform that emanated from the Lockean notion that human nature may be improved by the actions of government motivated these New Englanders, who shaped social and political thought for generations.

Horace Mann was born in Franklin, Massachusetts, to Thomas Mann and Rebecca Stanley Mann. His parents lacked the means to educate their children beyond rudimentary ciphering and elementary reading. Therefore Mann's education consisted of no more than eight or ten weeks a year of sitting in tight rows on slab benches, learning from a schoolmaster barely out of his teens. Of his early schooling, Mann recalled, "Of all our faculties, the memory for words was the only one specially appealed to." A small lending library in Franklin circulated such books as John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. School days were minimal as the majority of the year was spent in haying, planting, and plowing. When Horace's father died of tuberculosis in 1809, the farm was left to an older son, Stanley Mann. The modest sum of $200 was left to each child. Horace saved tuition by teaching his sister, Lydia, to read and write, instead of her attending school.

Education and Training

Part of the bequest of Thomas Mann to Horace was spent on his tuition at Barrett's school. Horace was twenty in 1816, and his education to that point amounted to several dozen weeks scattered over nine years. At Barrett School under an exacting but sometimes intemperate schoolmaster, Mann first conjugated Latin verbs.

A half year at Barrett School fitted Mann for admission to the sophomore class at Brown University, where penury remained a constant problem for Mann. Mann graduated first in his class (1819) two years after arriving at the university. His oration, entitled "The Gradual Advancement of the Human Species in Dignity and Happiness," linked the success of the American political experiment directly to the development of its educational system. No valedictory speech has ever been more prophetic. Brown University president Asa Messer honored Mann by making him an instructor soon after his graduation. From 1820 until 1822 he taught Latin classics. Nine years later, Mann married Messer's daughter, Charlotte.

Mann's ambition was to train in the law at Judge Tapping Reeve's prestigious law school in Litchfield, Connecticut. At the time there was no better preparation for legal and political careers than Reeve's plain, free-standing law library located in the yard of his stately home in Litchfield. Meanwhile, Mann clerked in the office of Judge Fiske for thirteen months to earn tuition money. Mann arrived in Litchfield in 1822 for the course of study that took a year and a half and cost $160. Then Mann became a clerk for Judge James Richardson in Dedham, Massachusetts, for several months until he was admitted to practice before the bar of the State of Massachusetts in 1823.

Career and Contribution

Intemperance and the humane treatment of criminals were topics debated in polite society around Dedham, and Mann championed reforms ranging from temperance to religious toleration. He realized that through proper educating of the public, lasting change could be effected.

The positions of trust Mann achieved in Dedham in the 1820s made him confident to offer for the legislature in Massachusetts. The same year he was elected to the Dedham School Commission, he was also elected to the state's general assembly. Mann added the title legal counsel to the state supreme court, as well as commissioner to the new mental hospital, to his growing list of responsibilities.

After the death of his wife Charlotte in 1832, Mann liquidated his estate and resigned all offices, including his seat in the legislature. To those around him, it was apparent he planned to immerse himself in his work. Taking lodging at a boarding house in Boston, Mann joined the law firm of his old friend, Edward Loring. Boarders there were Boston notables such as Elizabeth Peabody, social crusader, and Reverend William Ellery Channing, the voice of Unitarianism in Boston. Elizabeth Peabody's sister, Mary, was there as well.

Friends persuaded him that he should stand for the Massachusetts senate in 1834 as a Whig. Mann had never competed politically at this level, and campaigns for senate races brought vitriolic debates not seen in his career before. As he celebrated his forty-first birthday, he contemplated his newest responsibility, president of the Massachusetts senate. This honor as a junior senator typifies the trust and respect colleagues placed in his judgment. One issue that the senate wrestled with for several years prior to Mann's election was how public education could better prepare people for citizenship in this expanding young republic. As senate president, Horace signed into law the bill creating the Massachusetts State Board of Education, unique for its time and designed to disseminate education information statewide and to improve curriculum, method, and facilities.

Educating the masses was also the concern of James G. Carter of Boston, and he published in 1825 the Outline for an Institute for the Education of Teachers. He wrote on the necessity of training teachers in the art of teaching. Normal schools were an outgrowth of this important early work in educational thought. Carter, a legislator, and Mann, president of the senate, maneuvered a revolutionary bill through both houses and to the desk of Governor Edward Everett.

The members of the board of the newly created State Department of Education selected Mann as its first secretary. Mann resigned his seat in the state senate. Mann, like many Bostonians, believed that the emphasis on public education held more promise than either government or religion for yielding lasting social reform. He accepted a 50 percent cut in pay, from $3,000 a year to $1,500. His personal journal records, "I have faith in the improvability of the race, in their accelerating improvability…. "

The struggle for common schools in Massachusetts defined the parameters of the free school movement for decades to come. Though Mann engaged in reforms such as temperance and the treatment of the insane, the perfection of the common school concept occupied his waking hours for the rest of his life. Mann argued that all citizens, regardless of race or economic status, should have equal access to a tuition-free, tax-supported public school system. Such a system must be responsive to all races and nonsectarian if society is to achieve the unshackled status of a true democracy.

Mann knew he had to convince the entire state that the common school system was desirable and worth the increased tax revenue. He conducted town meetings across the state, giving a speech "The Means and Objects of Common School Education." The obstacle was a populace that did not care whether more schooling was offered.

Mann's tour of the state's schools concluded with Salem, the town where Mary Peabody was teaching. Once more, he pleaded for a statewide system of tuition-free education that would, he claimed, break down the troubling hierarchy of class in American society. Mann had spent months on tour, and much of what he had encountered discouraged him. Revenue would have to be raised to build adequate schools and staff them with learned teachers. There was the problem of poor versus wealthy districts; and that of the poor counties' being able to offer an education comparable to that of wealthy counties. Inadequate instruction troubled Mann as much as broken-down school buildings. He contemplated teacher training academies, called normal schools, as a solution.

Required by state law to make an annual report to the legislature on the condition of the state's school districts and programs, Mann turned the legal mandate into a yearly treatise on educational philosophy and methods. His annual reports became his platform for launching new programs and educating the public on new ideas in pedagogy. He explored new ideas in school design and the teaching of reading by words rather than by alphabet letters. Simple instruction in daily hygiene was emphasized along with more interesting ways of teaching science. Mann saw education as the uniting force to bring understanding and toleration between factions of the populace, as well as between the various states themselves. One novel idea Mann put forth was that teachers should gather together periodically to share ideas.

Mann developed the special teacher training colleges that he called normal schools. Instruction expertise rose yearly because the normal schools graduated capable teachers and eliminated the unfit. With teaching skills garnered from the normal school programs, teachers looked forward to a higher pay scale. Horace Mann was certain that better schools coupled with compulsory education would cure the ills of society. Traditional education did not vanish quickly in Massachusetts, however. Many found that curriculum and instruction varied little from content and materials of their grandparents' time.

Mann recalled the small library he had known while growing up. He believed that every child should have that advantage, so he set up a library expansion program. Mann also liked the German kindergarten idea that his confidant, Mary Peabody, espoused. Horace married Mary Peabody in 1843 in the bookstore that her sister, Elizabeth, ran on West Street, a store that was a gathering place for William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. Mary's sister, Sophia, had wed Nathaniel Hawthorne there a few months earlier. Horace wished to take a trip to Europe to visit common schools, so they settled upon that idea as their honeymoon.

One person Mann wanted to meet in England was Charles Dickens, the social reformer and novelist. Dickens gave Mann and his wife a tour of London's wretched east side. The squalor was worse by far than anything Mann had seen in America. The English schools did not impress Mann, either. Recitation and Anglican dogma dulled the student's appetite for intellectual stimulation. He was amazed that teachers talked in monotone voices and stood transfixed during lecture. The Manns traveled widely in England and on the continent. While touring the University of Berlin, Horace learned that Alexander von Humboldt had implemented a state certification process and written examinations for teachers. Horace realized that this is what he must do in Massachusetts to eliminate the problem of incompetent teachers.

Mann's seventh annual report to the board was written partly on the voyage home. The comparisons he made with European schools, especially German schools, offended school administrators. Critics questioned Mann's credentials to lead school reform. Mann stood his ground for five more years and continued to bring uniformity to programs and quality of instruction.

Mann saw revenue for education rise precipitously over the twelve years of his tenure (1836–1848). He popularized the idea of a centralized bureaucracy to manage primary and secondary education. He advised the legislature on fiscal responsibility in implementing equal programs throughout the state. He standardized the requirements for the diploma.

When the eighth congressional seat became vacant due to the death of John Quincy Adams, Mann ran for the office and was successful in his first federal election. The two terms he spent in Washington were neither satisfactory nor productive. He had disagreements with his loyal political friends Daniel Webster and Charles Sumner. Against a backdrop of the rising tension over slavery, Horace sought a way out after his second term.

In 1852 Mann heard of a new college being built in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with support from a liberal Christian denomination. He decided that if the college presidency were offered, he would accept and resign from Congress. The post was offered, and Mann became the first president of Antioch College. The Ohio churchmen were so liberal in their doctrinal beliefs that they accepted Mann, a Unitarian. Antioch was a sectarian foundation and chapel attendance was not compulsory. Antioch College opened its doors to eight young men in 1850.

The Ohio frontier proved a different world from the East. Money was a problem from the start, grand illusions in the minds of the trustees never bore fruit, and paydays were missed regularly. Mann never compromised his expectations in scholarship. The financial problems at Antioch began before the buildings went up, and they steadily got worse.

The curriculum and methodology had all been Mann's development, and it was a creditable program. A preparatory school was added to accept the less qualified and was open to all no matter what race or gender. The mood of the populace, however, turned against Mann due to his Unitarian belief.

Mann turned his attention to the idea of publicly funded universities. He believed that church-sponsored colleges and universities undid the work of the free-school movement. The fight for the publicly funded university would be someone else's battle as Mann had developed a form of debilitating cancer. Mann's last educational act was to salvage the bankrupt Antioch College with a syndicate of New England investors. Mann died August 2, 1859. He could not have realized that he would become part of the legend of democracy built upon the foundation of a tuition-free public school system. Mann's last professional statement concluded the commencement address at Antioch College: "I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."


CREMIN, LAWRENCE A. 1980. American Education: The National Experience: 1783-1876. New York: Harper and Row.

KENDELL, KATHLEEN EDGERTON. 1968. "Education as 'the Balance Wheel of Social Machinery': Horace Mann's Arguments and Proofs." Quarterly Journal of Speech and Education 54:13–21.

MANN, HORACE. 1891. Life and Works of Horace Mann, 5 vols. Boston: Lee and Shepard.

MANN, MARY PEABODY. 1891. Life of Horace Mann. Boston: Lee and Shepard.

MESSERLI, JONATHAN. 1972. Horace Mann: A Biography. New York: Knopf.

THARP, LOUISE HALL. 1950. The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Boston: Little, Brown.

TREICHLER, JESSIE. 1962. Horace Mann. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Press.

VINOVSKIS, MARIS A. 1970. "Horace Mann on the Economic Productivity of Education." New England Quarterly 43:550–571.


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