University of Rochester Library Bulletin: James Wadsworth, Educational Reformer

Volume VIII · Winter 1953 · Number 2
James Wadsworth: Educational Reformer

[In 1945-1948, a collection of Wadsworth papers was microfilmed by Rush Rhees Library through the kindness of the Wadsworth family. Aside from the vast amount of material in this collection pertaining to the settlement and development of western New York State lands and the annals of the Wadsworth family, these papers are a rich source for early New York State political and social history. The following article has been prepared by consulting them in conjunction with the George Washington Patterson papers, the Seward papers and the Weed papers, all in Rush Rhees Library.]



Rare but not unique is the phenomenon of a man, not engaged in politics, authorship, or professional reform, who gives to his fellow citizens the plan and impetus for a needed social change. James Wadsworth (1768-1844) was such a man. His reforming aim was the revitalization of the public school system and the initiation of the school-district library in New York State. The youngest son of a prominent old Connecticut family, he early showed his interest in education when, after he was graduated from Yale in 1787, he spent two years teaching in Montreal. On his return, he became agent for the lands along the Genesee River owned by his uncle, Jeremiah Wadsworth. Accompanied by his brother William, James settled at Big Tree, later named Geneseo, and soon owned much of the surrounding land. From 1796 to 1798, he was a landowners' representative in Europe, trying to attract European investment in western lands. After his return, he lived on his estates, except for occasional trips to eastern cities.

In spite of his secluded location, James Wadsworth exercised great influence in the western New York area and behind the scenes in local and state government. Never, however, did he indulge in active politics, partly because of his isolation from Albany and partly be­cause of business pressure. But his correspondence with state political figures like DeWitt Clinton, William L. Marcy, John C. Spencer, John A. Dix, and William H. Seward indicates the interest he took in cur­rent governmental issues.

Basically, the lord of the Genesee saw his political responsibility as a paternalistic leadership of the tenants and settlers on his lands. His sympathies lay with the Federalists, the conservatives of their day. Writing to George Tibbits on March 18, 1816, he said:

A well informed, moral and religious people will always be a federal people; that is they will always support the great & leading political doctrines of Jay, Hamilton, and Ames; & our civil rights depend, in my humble opinion, on our perseverance in the support of these doctrines.

A month later, on April 24, he warned Nathaniel W. Howell of the dangers of Jeffersonian Republicanism:

Believe me, Sir, the misrule of democracy, is not to be put down by courtly attention, & servile obeisance to its Leaders. They must be told to their faces, that under the guise of Republicanism, they are hastening the government to a Jacobin Despotism.

"But what does it all amount to," he wrote his cousin, Daniel Wadsworth, on May 16,1816,

If a respectable portion of your population, will, from a mere freak, or at best, trifling consideration, so far forget what is due to themselves, as to cooperate with the filth of Democracy, I say again what does it all amount to?

James Wadsworth's economic philosophy was well characterized by the observation of a tenant farmer to the British observer, Lord Morpeth, "the finest nobleman in the country." It was the well matched mate to his political credo -- conservative and paternalistic. He was one of the few great resident landowners, and, having set up a one-year lease system, kept in continuous contact with his tenants. Supporting the traditional attitude of agriculture, Wadsworth op­posed protective tariffs for manufacturers and sometimes, one feels, resented the manufacturers themselves.

The two themes, paternalism and conservatism, are the keys to Wadsworth's educational theories. He wrote on January 7, 1837, to John C. Spencer, who later became New York Secretary of State in charge of the common schools:

I want you to analyse the state of our schools and ascertain what they do and what they might be made to do. Imagine yourself the school master. Imagine half a million of youths displayed before you. Pass to these youths the love you bear your own! What would you do? What if ample means were put in your possession would you do? What in the latter case it would be your duty to do, it is now the incumbent duty of a paternal government to do.

Educational reform, however, was not only a measure of social responsibility, it was also a measure of social control, a way to minimize the possible radical effects of universal suffrage. In the same month, Wadsworth again wrote Spencer:

No nation can long enjoy the privileges of universal suffrage without diffused education. Once thoroughly instruct the youth of our state & There will be exercised in all future times the same vigilance and jealousy towards the right of education as is now exercised towards the right of universal suffrage.

The American Journal of Education, edited by Henry Barnard, printed, in 1858 (vol. V, p. 402), a letter dated September 20, 1833, from Wadsworth to Edward C. Delavan, a professional reformer, in which Wadsworth said:

Our school districts are moral entities. They are little societies. They are little republics. They are little nurseries of men and women, and our legislature ought to treat and regard them as such.

The reform enthusiasm of the 1830's was applied to education, and this enthusiasm was accompanied by rampant optimism. Wadsworth, in the company of many others, was guilty of expecting to end all evil by extending the state's teaching facilities. This naive faith is strikingly shown in James Wadsworth's letter to Governor William L. Marcy of December 10, 1836:

What more worthy of original Legislation -- of Legislation founded on the wants of society, as it exists at present than the fit instruction of 500,000 Youth now at school. Internal improvements dwindle in comparison with this object. Fortunately the due encouragement of the two objects is not incompatible; but they will aid each other. If proper schools had been established in Spain and Ireland two hundred years ago, these countries would have been full of canals and railroads. I think your excellency will justify the remark that diffused education secures in perpetuity to every nation which enacts and carries it into execution, internal improvements and every blessing which man in his social state is capable of enjoying.

Not only was education for all a theoretical goal of American society, said Wadsworth; it was indeed possible, plausible, and practicable. Writing to Spencer in January, 1838, he asked:

. . . is not the human mind devine[sic] as important as common roads? is it more difficult to legislate for the scientific instruction of the human mind, than for the improvement of roads, is property too sacred to apply to the improvement of mind and not to the improvement of roads.

Earlier (December 20, 1836) he had written to John A. Dix at greater length on these practical problems:

In free government whatever combination[s] of men rationally wish to effect, not at variance with civil and physical laws, is generally accomplished. Here I contend and I shew one example (that of Prussia) that there is no intrinsic difficulty in educating the youths of a state. Proprietors of cotton mills under the impulse of interest, have succeeded in training boys to tend power looms and billies and Jennies. Self interest has taught these proprietors that boys seven and eight years old are capable of giving continuous attention to the most uninteresting employment, for fourteen hours in the day, but I know of no other interest which has as yet been developed or of any variety of benevolence, or patriotism, or piety which has condescended to educate the mass of youth, in the moral, & intellectual laws of their creator.

Like charity, educational reform began at home. James Wadsworth from the time of his settlement in western New York, had followed the practice of setting aside one lot for the school and one for the church in each town. In a letter to Robert Troup (The American Journal of Education, vol. V, p. 395) he congratulated Troup for a similar appropriation of land in Pulteney:

My mind is strongly impressed with the salutary consequences which will follow from these donations. It is a substantial benefit conferred upon the town and in its consequences upon your country.

While his children were growing up, Wadsworth took an active part in organizing a village school, writing various New York friends to find a suitable master. In 1827, when his sons were away at college, he became the moving spirit in the organization of Temple Hill Academy at Geneseo. Three of James S. Wadsworth's Harvard friends, who had just been graduated, consented to come to Geneseo as teachers. One of these, Cornelius C. Felton (President of Harvard 1860­1862), wrote to young James picturing the religious controversies centering around the high school and, in spite of these, Temple Hill's growth. In a later letter of June 8, 1828, he wrote of the intellectual barrenness of the town and its environs:

I have been in a school whose instructions, as far as a knowledge of mankind in general and our country in particular is concerned, throw the science of a college into the shade. What I used in Cambridge to look upon as the characteristic of the age of papal darkness I find to be a matter of common occurrence. What I formerly wondered at in the pages of history, I now witness every day. Much has been done by your father, much remains to be done by yourself, and much must be done by the High School, toward diffusing the benefits of knowledge, and clearing away the clouds of superstition and fanaticism.

By 1830, Wadsworth had turned principally to the problems of state-wide public education. From its beginning, the New York State school system had developed irregularly. Although, during the first third of the nineteenth century, rural common schools were poor, they were superior to those of the larger towns. In the more heavily populated areas the wealthy preferred to send their children to private academies, so that these communities lost the interest of many potential leaders of education which the more sparsely populated areas retained. Even the two key school laws, progressive measures in their time, were out of date. The first of these laws (1805) established an educational fund while the second (1812) provided for the administration of the interest from this fund by the State Superintendent of Common Schools, who was also, after 1821, the Secretary of State. Under the 1812 law, Commissioners of Schools were elected in town meeting and were authorized to divide the town into school districts, elect trustees, provide a schoolhouse and select teachers. Finally, inspectors were appointed to check on the teaching and administration.

Unfortunately, this system had failed to work. In a report of a state-appointed Committee of School Visitors, summarized in a letter from William C. Dwight to George W. Patterson, January 14, 1840, the educational problems which the citizens of the 1830's had to face were enumerated: lack of money to pay the teachers, lack of schoolhouses, lack of good teachers, lack of energetic school inspectors, lack of suitable uniform texts, lack of esprit de corps among the teachers, lack of support from the parents. Furthermore, the financial burden of the rate bill, which provided that the expenses of the schools, not covered by support from the state and by town taxes, be prorated among the parents according to the number of days during the year that their children attended school, fell upon those whose children attended the common schools. Although the poor and indigent were excused from this tax, the resulting social stigma was so great that many did not send their children to school at all, nor would they send them to charity schools for the stigma was there also. Thus those children most in need of the schools were denied them.

Wadsworth saw the broad and comprehensive role the state had to play in solving the problems of public education. In his letter to John A. Dix, December 20,1836, he wrote:

There is no intrinsic difficulty in teaching the entire youth of any nation the Moral, and Physical laws of their creator. As a matter of expense, it is quite within the means of any civilized nation. Most unfortunately no government (with one single solitary exception [Prussia]) no caste, and no combination of men, have ever deemed it for their interest to educate the rising generation, but have deemed it for their interest that the mass of the population should remain in debasing ignorance and in ignorance the mass have been kept.

If the most skeptical as to the possibility (To those who are skeptical as to the propriety I have nothing to say) of teaching common country boys Physics, will study for one hour the plain expositions in Lee's Natural Philosophy I am convinced their doubts will be removed. Are there ten mechanics in Albany that understand the scientific principles of the respective trades? I think there is not one. I am confident there is not a farmer in the State who understands the scientific principles of his vocation ... This seems wonderful in a government as well disposed to consult the happiness of its citizens, and as Paternal in its character as ours is: I take it the true explanation is, that no order, no combination of men ever deemed it for their interest to instruct common boys in Physics.

As well as formulating ideal solutions, Wadsworth took advantage of all his political contacts, writing them on current educational bills, encouraging their legislative action. Often he wrote to assemblyman George W. Patterson, not only urging some special measure but suggesting tactics by which to achieve the desired end. But always Wadsworth insisted on remaining in the background. As late as 1844, his daughter Elizabeth wrote to young James that their father was not willing to become the "suggestor or patron" of common-school measures in the legislature.

If he would not sponsor legislators, Wadsworth would sponsor educators. From 1836 to 1840 he subsidized J. Orville Taylor's publication of The Common School Assistant. He established a trust fund of $30,000 to reward writers of treatises on education and to publish their work. The School and The Schoolmaster by Alonzo Potter and George B. Emerson was circulated under this provision. Independent of this trust, James Wadsworth sponsored the distribution of Samuel Read Hall's Lectures on Schoolkeeping, Victor Cousin'sReport on the State of Public Instruction in Prussia and numerous other pamphlets, magazines, and books. By his will he bequeathed $10,000 whose income was to be used for the benefit of common schools.

The greatest problem and the greatest achievement in common­school education during the 1830's was the raising of funds. As Wadsworth pointed out frequently, money, in most districts, was sorely needed by the residents for the improvement of their own homes and farms. Under these conditions school improvement ran a poor second. In 1836, however, the Federal government divided among the states the giant surplus in the national treasury. From the time this distribution was announced, Wadsworth pressed in all ways possible to have its income used for educational purposes. In 1838 it was decided to apply the income from New York's surplus to education -- and common schools received the lion's share.

The problem of school supervision was tackled in the legislation of 1839, which provided for an unpaid county board of inspection. This provision was revised by the law of 1841, which Wadsworth was instrumental in drafting. The board was replaced by a deputy superintendent for each county and two inspectors in each town. The education law of 1843 changed the provision of the 1841 law, establishing the posts of county and town superintendents.

The grave situation of ill-trained teachers remained. In the 1820's Wadsworth had espoused the monitorial system in which the teacher taught the older, more intelligent children, who in turn drilled their younger, slower schoolmates. The weaknesses of this system must have presented themselves forcefully, for in the 1830's Wadsworth became an ardent champion of normal schools as the only solution for the teacher problem. Realizing the impossibility of raising enough funds to make teachers' salaries attractive, he recommended tuition-free normal schools whose training would be requisite to teacher certification and employment. The tremendous importance Wadsworth attributed to such schools he indicated in a letter to a friend, December, 1836:

The mass are, and ever have been, forgotten; but we ought not to be discouraged. It may be useful to recollect that it required far more patience, far more expense, and far more violent measures, to introduce the blessings of Christianity in to England; than it will [to] introduce Normal Schools into this state. If Normal Schools had accompanied the introduction of Christianity into England, the social state of man would have been greatly improved.

In 1834 the New York legislature had passed a bill authorizing the Regents to subsidize private academics for teacher training. The provisions of this bill were put into effect in 1835, but in the following March Wadsworth wrote urging George W. Patterson to introduce a bill for the establishment of normal schools in each county. On December 10, 1840, he wrote Governor William H. Seward:

In what manner can we extend civilization into these remote districts? Shall they remain masses of ignorance, and puppets for demagogues to sport with? These County Normal Schools by awakening the vigorous spirits of mountain regions, will soon fill the vacant benches of our Colleges.

Wadsworth envisaged a three months' summer session in an adequate building equipped with good apparatus, a good library, and a competent instructor, for which students would pay nothing but their board. He continued to write letter after letter explaining and advocating his plan but it was not until 1844, the year of his death, that the first normal school was opened at Albany.

If he wanted free public schools, Wadsworth also wanted free public libraries. He wanted his fellow citizens to have as ready access to books as he himself had always had. "Mr. James Wadsworth had arranged a very well chosen library of about six hundred volumes of the best modern books; doubtless the best room in this neat and well furnished house," Thomas Cooper wrote in A Ride To Niagara in 1809. In addition to building his own library, as early as 1818 he wrote Myron Holley suggesting the establishment of adequate libraries, especially agricultural collections, outside of New York City. In the 1830's, while he was spending a Winter in New York, he was instrumental in convincing John Jacob Astor to endow a public library. Many years later (March 9,1871) George W. Patterson wrote Lockwood L. Doty discussing Wadsworth's role in the New York library: "He had to labor with the old Dutchman a good while before he brought it about." In 1843, Wadsworth established in Geneseo the free public Atheneum Library, available to all residents of Livingston County. Writing to his son James, then in Philadelphia, he advised him to study the methods and catalogs of the Franklin Library and the Philadelphia Athenaeum so that he might be a better trustee of the Geneseo library. In his letter of November 29, 1843, Wadsworth inquired particularly of the effects of libraries on the people:

I should be much gratified to learn what has been the general effect of the Franklin Library on the citizens of Philadelphia. Would the effect have been materially different if the library had been free to all the inhabitants? It has yet to be ascertained how much knowledge can be communicated through libraries. Uneducated man has been and always will be a puppet in the hands of designing demagogues. If this can't be prevented by the diffusion of popular instruction, the future prospect of man is not very cheering.

His crusade for school-district libraries made more apparent the fact that Wadsworth was interested primarily in the educational value of books. In his support of local libraries he stressed the plight of the common-school students who learned how to read but had nothing to read. Writing to Patterson, March 12, 1835, he said:

In this simple provision [for district school libraries] I see or think I see a vast accession of intelligence and of capabilities (if I may use the expression) to the inhabitants of this state at a future but not a very distant day. What is the purpose of the abstract term Education -- when you have analysed the term will it not imply a greater or less number of facts in the human mind of facts in the arts and Sciences. Education is good and bad then according to the number of facts impressed upon the minds of our youth for their guidance and to enable them to discharge their duties in all the infinite diversity of station and condition to which they will be called, to think to judge and to act.

After pointing to the benefits of the system in a letter to State Senator Samuel Young (February 27, 1837), Wadsworth challenged him:

Try for once the experiment of bringing our plebeian but gifted boys in con­tact with scientific books. Scientific principles have been secreted, hoarded, monopolized, how shall I term it?, have been fraudulently and cruelly withheld from the mass.

To remedy this situation, Wadsworth had conceived the idea of the school-district library system whereby, in each school, collections of scientific and educational books would be available to all residents of the district. After a year of promoting his plan for such libraries, the permissive legislation of 1835 enabled the trustees of a district school to tax the community twenty dollars the first year and ten dollars each subsequent year. By the end of 1836, Wadsworth was sadly aware that the establishment of school-district libraries must be compulsory and that they must be supported by the state, either wholly or partially. Immediately he renewed his campaign, subsidizing lectures and printed propaganda for a more effective public library system. Again the federal surplus came to the aid of education, the assembly allotting $55,000 per year for school-district libraries. The law of 1838 obliged trustees of each district, for a minimum of four years, to purchase books with the funds allotted. By 1843, school-district libraries reported 875,000 volumes, an increase of 872,250 over 1838, the last year in which state support had not been given.

Common schools, normal schools, school-district libraries all benefited from James Wadsworth's efforts in their behalf. Without entering politics, without writing professionally, without taking the speaker's platform in behalf of reform, James Wadsworth helped his state attain a revitalized educational system and the foundation for a local public library system.