American Leaders

American Leaders

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay about education in Colonial America. Written for HIS 324: History of American Education.


American Leaders



Noah Webster quite literally defined education in early America.  In his first dictionary, which gave rise to a series of dictionaries in America that are still in use today, Webster (1828) defined education as

The bringing up, as a child, instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline, which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.  (Webster, 1828, cited in Shenandoah, 2002, para. 2).

Webster espoused the importance of education for girls as well as for boys, and he believed that "all American children could learn the virtues of liberty, just laws, morality, hard work, and patriotism" (Pulliam and VanPatten, 2007, p. 117).  To that end, Webster supported the government's formation of free, public schools, and he wrote numerous textbooks that contained "a strong patriotic and nationalistic flavor" (Pulliam and VanPatten, 2007, p. 117).

Where Webster was the dictionary for early American education, Thomas Jefferson's

approach to understanding the entirety of the intelligible world, natural and human, and each in relation to each other was encyclopedic in the original meaning of the word; that is it aimed at the development of an all inclusive knowledge of facts related to each other within a continuum of natural historical life. (Sparagana, 2002, para. 10).

Jefferson believed that literacy was the key to a successful life, and "[h]e embraced education as the equalizer for all children" (Sparagana, 2002, para. 4).  Jefferson saw education and learning as a life-long endeavor, and he divided formal schooling into three parts, which correspond to our modern system of education.  His elementary schools, which taught "Grecian, Roman, English and American history as well as reading, writing and arithmetic" (Brulatour, n.d., para. 3), corresponded to our modern elementary schools, although he believed that "three years of public schooling" (Pulliam and VanPatten, 2007, p. 117) was sufficient for "the average citizen who belonged to the 'laboring' class" (Sparagana, 2002, para. 3).  Jefferson's male-only grammar schools, which taught "Greek, Latin, and English grammar, advanced arithmetic, geometry, navigation, and geography" (Brulatour, n.d., para. 3), corresponded to our modern middle and high schools.  Girls were excluded from this advanced education, and Jefferson is quoted as saying: "A plan of female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me. It has occupied my attention only so far only as the education of my own daughters occasionally required" (Jefferson, n.d., cited in Brulatour, n.d., para. 4).  Finally, Jefferson's structure of formal schooling included the university, in which "requirements were limited to a proficiency in Latin and Greek"a graduate had to be able to read and understand the classics with ease; although scientific studies were encouraged students were free to attend any class and 'listen to whatever he thinks may improve the condition of his mind'" (Brulatour, n.d., para. 3), and which corresponded to our modern colleges and universities.  In addition, Jefferson set the stage for the exclusion of religion from schools, believing that "histories, not bibles, should be put in the ands [sic] of children, so that 'their memory may be stored with the most useful facts' from ancient and modern times" (Sparagana, 2002, para. 13).  He also "dividing the states into small districts ... [which would] supervis[e] and support ... the schools" (Brulatour, n.d., para. 2), which eventually gave rise to our modern school districts.



Brulatour, M. (n.d.).  Background for the state of education in New England: post-         Revolutionary War to mid-19th century.  Retrieved January 12, 2010, from 

Pulliam. J.D. and VanPatten, J.J. (2007).  History of education in America.  Upper Saddle   River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Shenandoah, A. (2002, March 4).  History of America's education: Noah Webster &    education in early America, second of three parts.  Retrieved January 12, 2010,      from 

Sparagana, J. (2002, May 13).  The educational theory of Thomas Jefferson.  Retrieved January     12, 2010, from

© 2017 Debbie Barry

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Debbie Barry
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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, education, history

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..