The Founders on Education

worms eye view photography of statue of liberty

Photo by Jamie McInall on

Independence Day is this week. It is an important time to remind ourselves that independence is not something that happened a long time ago. It is something we have to keep fighting for. At the center of that battle is education.

A lot of people do not realize that the Founding Fathers were big education advocates. They might not have envisioned that vast public education system that we have today, but they educated themselves and then sought to aid in the education of as many of their neighbors as possible. Education was the seed of the American revolution. Founders like Adams and Jefferson saw it as essential to the future of our nation too, yet the need for better education is still holding back our country from being the beacon of liberty that it should be.

Before the U.S. Constitution was written, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts issued its own state constitution, titled A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is a beautiful document that captures the spirit and vision of the Founders of our country. One particular section focuses on education:

Chapter V, Section II.
The Encouragement of Literature, Etc.
Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.

The Massachusetts Constitutional Convention met in 1779 and approved the document on June 15, 1780. It “remains the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world.” It was primarily composed by John Adams and was highly influential on the U.S. Constitution. Take some time this week to read the rest of it and see what Adams and other Founders envisioned for this new nation.

The Founders had their flaws–their unwillingness to end slavery is indefensible–but they had a tremendous vision for humanity and this country. They wanted future Americans to be better than them. Perhaps they wanted us to be better than we are today too. They valued education as essential to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They hoped education would fix the problems they had and the problems of the future.

At times, it can be difficult to feel optimistic about the future of our country. It is not easy to be proud of a culture so separated from our idealistic founding principles. Looking at Washington D.C., over most of my lifetime, it has been hard to find evidence of principles at all. Our state governments are not doing much better.

This country is a mess politically. Two political parties have a duopoly of control over our political system. Both parties are led by people who are out of touch with the role of government, with scientific and economic reality, and with empathy for other human beings. With every election they make political debate more polarized and less fact-based. The beautiful founding principles of this country mean nothing to them, and they erode our liberties with every bill they pass. If we do not stand up to their tyranny of ignorance and narcissism, we will follow in the footsteps of many civilizations throughout history that descended into violent totalitarianism.

The first step our Founders took in fighting for their liberties was to educate themselves. The next step, as demonstrated in the Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and other documents of the time, was to educate others. To restore liberty, intelligence, and empathy in our culture, we must educate ourselves in the arts and sciences, and we must ensure that such a well-rounded education is accessible to all.


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