Horace Mann: The Visionary Pioneer of Free Public Education in America

Horace Mann Founder of Free American Public EducationIn the history of American public education few persons were more influential than its pioneering founder Horace Mann.

Born on May 4, 1796 in Franklin, MA, Mann grew up in poverty.

His dad was a farmer who produced little income for his family. Between his tenth and twentieth birthdays, the teen Mann received about six weeks of schooling per year. Fortunately, he lived near Franklin Public Library. That library just happened to be the first public library in the U.S., thanks to a book donation by Benjamin Franklin. It’s where Mann self-educated himself.

After a three year education at Brown University, the future educator studied law, tutored students in Latin and Greek, and worked as a librarian.

In 1827, Mann was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature.

He quickly carved out a name for himself, promoting education and public charities…as well as a reputation for opposing alcohol and lotteries.

Mann happily married Charlotte Messer in 1830 but the honeymoon didn’t last. She unexpectedly died two years later. It took Horace nine years to recover from his grief, but he eventually remarried Mary Tyler Peabody. The couple settled in West Newton, MA and started a family that soon boasted three sons.

In 1837, Mann was appointed Secretary of Education for the Massachusetts Board of Education.

Mann was instrumental in reimagining education in the state of Massachusetts and eventually throughout the United States. He helped to establish “normal schools” to train professional teachers. He worked to establish tax-supported elementary public education. And he traveled his state’s schools to ensure they met the Board’s standards for educational excellence. He also discouraged the use of corporal punishment in school discipline.

In 1838, Mann introduced “The Common School Journal” that promoted six educational principles:

  • The public should no longer remain ignorant;
  • That education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public;
  • That this education will be best provided in schools that embrace children from a variety of backgrounds;
  • That this education must be non-sectarian;
  • That this education must be taught using the tenets of a free society; and
  • That education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.

At the time, Massachusetts schools were rooted to the “Old Deluder Satan Act” and 17th century Puritan codes. Consequently, they were stringently religious (read: Puritan) in their objectives. Mann opposed allowing one particular sect to control the state’s education (which taught students from a variety of Protestant sects, plus Catholic and Jew). He argued for more “non-sectarian” instruction that honored all faiths.

A common and popular myth about Horace Mann–propagated by both the secularist and Christian–is he wanted a purely secular school, but that’s not true.

Horace Mann, after years of attacks by Massachusetts’ Christians (mostly of the Puritan persuasion), answered his critics. While it was true that many Massachusetts Protestants feared Mann’s common schools were “secular” in nature (or had the potential to become secular), that was not his intent. In his lengthy 1848 report to the State Board of Education, Mann denounced this critique and advocated, ironically, for the opposite. He noted proudly how all of Massachusett’s common schools used the Bible as its primary textbook. However, their curricular purpose was not to evangelize (for a particular sect), but rather to inculcate morals and values. The Bible, he added, wasn’t merely a helpful text toward raising up a moral citizenry, but also instrumental in teaching other subjects like reading, writing, and history.

It was the home and church’s job, Mann argued, to preach to any particular dogma or doctrine.

Essentially, his common schools were not secular in nature at all. They were religiously non-sectarian.

Mann pointed out that Massachusett’s common schools were “not Theological Seminaries” that instilled “the peculiar and distinctive doctrines of any one religious denomination.” However, he also assured the populace, that his schools stridently inculcated every Christian value and moral. Here are some additional quotes by Horace Mann from his Common School Journal (1839) regarding the philosophy and practice of free and public education in America:


“Our institutions demand men, in whose hearts, great thoughts and great deeds are native, spontaneous, irrepressible. And if we do not have a generation of men whose virtues will save us, we shall have a generation whose false pretensions to virtues will ruin us.” 


“The germs of morality must be planted in the moral nature of children, at an early period in their life. In that genial soil they will flourish and gather strength from surer and deeper sources…”


“T’he diversity of religious doctrines, prevalent in our community, would render it difficult to inculcate any religious truths…were it not for two reasons: first, that the points on which different portions of a Christian community differ…are far less numerous than those on which they agree; and, secondly,…that a belief in those points in which they all agree, constitutes the best possible preparation … deemed necessary to a complete and perfect faith.”


“A work, devoted to education, which did not recognize the truth that we were created to be religious beings, would be as though we were to form a human body forgetting to put in a heart.”


From these statements, and many others, it’s clear that  Horace Mann preached against a secular school system.

The argument of this influential American educator wasn’t to war against religion (or Christianity, in particular) but to battle the narrow sectarianism that Protestant Christianity, in particular, tended to create.

Overall, Mann felt in order for public schools to work there must not be sectarian doctrines (Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian) driving the curriculum. A free (democratic), public school required lessons in morality and values that produced good citizens later in life. Consequently, both the Bible and religion was part of Mann’s curricular vision.

Which should make us wonder.

Would Horace Mann be disappointed in our public school system today? Would he find the lack of moral and religious training a serious issue?

It’s something to think about.



1. The Common School Journal for 1839 by Horace Mann, Volume 1 (Boston: Marsh, Capon, Lyon adn Webb): 13-14.

2. Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Board of Education by Horace Mann (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1891): 310-322.

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