Confounded Fathers: Constitution Framers Appalled at Attacks on Free Public Education

[Editor's note: This post originally ran in May 2012. We are reviving it at this time in conjunction with Bernie Sanders' call for a free public college education for all. We hope it sheds some light on why this not only isn't a radical idea, but is one deeply rooted in our nation's history. Let us know what you think in the comments below.] 

As I prepare to send my youngest child off to a state university, recent Congressional kerfuffles over student loan interest rates have left me wondering when our nation abandoned our core values. When conservative pundits like George Will actually call student loans "entitlements" and Cal Thomas of the Baltimore Sun says student debt problems are simply a failure of the students themselves, something distinctly un-American is happening. Here's a dose of truth for those so-called conservative values types: Public education paid for by all citizens was one of the core values our Founding Fathers named as fundamental to a free, democratic society.

In April 1776, John Adams put his Thoughts on Government in writing in response to a resolution by the North Carolina Provincial Congress. He begins by making a case for the purpose of government, writing "the happiness of society is the end of all government" which naturally follows his belief that "the happiness of the individual is the end of man." Using these as guiding principles, Adams then sketches an outline of what he believes good government should be.

After outlining a legislative framework, Adams moves on to specifics. After a well-armed militia, Adams wrote, "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."

To a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant. Imagine waking up to a 21st century in the United States with that core value. Imagine.

John Adams wasn't alone in this belief. Thomas Jefferson was so committed to his belief that self-government was doomed to fail without an educated electorate that in his 1806 State of the Union address, he called for federally funded public education, saying "An amendment to our constitution must here come in the aid of public education. The influence over government must be shared among all people." When he could not garner support for a constitutional amendment, he set about to create a framework for his vision for public education, which ultimately failed to pass the Congress. IIn the end, Jefferson settled for the establishment of the University of Virginia as a legacy to his undying belief in public education.

In all the research and reading I have done on this subject, I've been unable to find one Founding Father who devalued public education or argued against education of the general public. There was disagreement around who should control public education. The same conflict we see today between federalists and state's rights advocates hindered the question of whether public education should be a state matter or a federal matter, which ultimately led to the defeat of Jefferson's initiatives. Yes, tension existed as to whether states, municipalities or the federal government should control public education, but no one opposed the idea of providing one at public expense.

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