The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Education at the Founding

“No careful examination of those members of the Founding generation will fail to record the broad and deep command they had of history and of the principles exemplified by successful and also failed republics.”

Daniel N. Robinson | September 9, 2016
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The Founding Fathers of the United States sign the Declaration of Independence



No careful examination of those members of the Founding generation will fail to record the broad and deep command they had of history and of the principles exemplified by successful and also failed republics. In his famous speech on Conciliation delivered on 22 Mar. 1775, Edmund Burke reflects on this:

“Permit me, Sir, to add another circumstance in our colonies, which contributes no mean part towards the growth and effect of this untractable spirit. I mean their education…This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defense, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle”[1]

The instructed mind sees ahead, weighs alternatives, locates the ruling principle and from it forges predictions and plans.

Thoroughly understood by Burke, and amply defended by the facts of history itself, is the connection between, on the one hand, a mind prepared by disciplined study, and, on the other, a mind able to anticipate consequences and form a plan of action to meet them. Simple persons are abandoned to consequences. Their judgments are a posteriori. The instructed mind sees ahead, weighs alternatives, locates the ruling principle and from it forges predictions and plans. This understanding was commonplace in the 18th century. It is no wonder, then, that so many of the leaders of the Revolutionary cause devoted so much thought to the matter of public education.

In the significant year 1776, delegates to the Continental Congress were encouraged to consult John Adams on the task of creating State constitutions. He offered his advice to the delegates from North Carolina, providing them with what became one of the most notable productions of the Revolutionary period, his Thoughts on Government. It is significant as a treatise in political theory, but the passage most relevant to our current crisis is this:

“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant”[2]

Many years later, in 1810, the same theme is stressed by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to John Tyler. Jefferson declares:

"I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it."[3]

In a letter to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson’s concerns are framed in another way, further completing his thoughts on the matter:

"This [bill] on education would [raise] the mass of the people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety and to orderly government…I have great hope that some patriotic spirit will... call it up and make it the keystone of the arch of our government."[4]

We are running out of citizens aware of the burdens of self-government.

So much for prologue. Our educational institutions are a wreckage, from the primary grades to the doctoral level. We are running out of citizens aware of the burdens of self-government. Technology has given them hundreds of “friends” whom they will never meet, but has conveyed nothing about the nature of friendship itself. On internationally standardized tests, the youth of America reach the alarming rank of 20th or 30th. Collegiate study tends to be a rehearsal of tired ideological clichés propounded by highly credentialed and highly uneducated partisans. Doctoral programs tend in the direction of repetitive busy-work, generally supporting the views of senior professors who control the money. Am I too harsh here? Well, I’ve never been “off campus” from my Freshman year (1954) up to and including 2016. That’s 62 years, and I am not a slow learner.

It was my pleasure to offer instruction at BYU in the Fall terms of 1997 and 1998. I am not a member of the LDS Church, but I am an admirer of the sense of mission and the rich ethical precepts that guide (or are meant to guide) family and civic life. I worry that the enthusiasms of the wider world will assert themselves against BYU’s core values. Eager to be sure that her graduates will not be left behind, the “Y” might find it easier to come to terms with a culture that is vulgar, superficial, self-centered and self-congratulatory. DON’T DO IT!


[1] Burke, E., & Denney, J. V. (n.d.). Edmund Burke's speech on conciliation with America, 1775.

[2] Adams, J., & Wythe, G. (1776). Thoughts on government applicable to the present state of the American colonies.: In a letter from a gentleman to his friend. Boston: Philadelphia, printed. Boston

[3] “Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 17 June 1812,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-05-02-0112. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 5, 1 May 1812 to 10 March 1813, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008, pp. 134–137.]

[4] “John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 13 July 1813,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-06-02-0238. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 6, 11 March to 27 November 1813, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 286–288.]