Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?

But Jarratt himself knew better about his scholarly abilities, and on his own, during noontime breaks in plowing or harvesting, he undertook to study arithmetic more thoroughly and soon became fairly expert at it. On the strength of this expertise he was asked, at the age of nineteen, to become a schoolmaster on a plantation near the frontier. He accepted the job, having little taste for manual labor, bought himself a wig and two new shirts—aside from his everyday clothes, these items constituted his entire personal property—and moved west. There he happened to come upon a book of sermons by the New-Light preacher George Whitefield, and, wanting to understand better the things he read in the Bible, he took it up and tried to read it. But he had to confess that “I was but a poor reader, and understood little of what I did read.” (At this time he was teaching other people to read.) Conscious of his inadequacy and wanting to improve, he cast about for ways to develop his reading ability, but, he says, “I had not a single book in the world, nor was I able to buy any books, had I known of any for sale.” When he was finally able to borrow a book, he had no candle to read by at night and was forced to read by firelight. Nevertheless his efforts bore fruit: “It pleased God mightily to improve my understanding, by these means—and I soon became, what was called a good reader, and my relish for books and reading greatly increased.” In his mid-twenties Jarratt learned Latin; eventually he became a minister.

It would be a mistake to generalize too broadly from this particular account, but we do get a sense from Jarratt of how tenuous an acquisition literacy could be in the American colonies, particularly among the poor and those isolated on the frontier. Jarratt had to make what amounted to heroic efforts to improve his reading abilities; for those not willing to make such efforts, literacy probably extended no further than the ability to read, without much understanding, portions of the Bible, and to sign one’s name. People in towns, and the wealthier sort generally, had a much better chance than someone like Jarratt to become fully literate, but even wealth did not guarantee it. Lockridge estimates that by 1800 male literacy in Virginia among those with personal estates of £200 or more was no higher than 80 per cent, while for those with estates under that amount it was only 50 per cent. The situation in Pennsylvania was not materially better; in states like South Carolina, which made no efforts whatsoever to provide schools for any but the rich, it was probably worse. Only in New England, then, were the literacy rates in colonial times high, and they were high there only because the Puritans believed so strongly that everyone should read the Word for himself.

By the Revolution, of course, the strength of Puritan beliefs had greatly waned. The heritage of public schooling in New England was as honored in the breach as in the practice, and elsewhere in the colonies it hardly existed at all. Revolutionary leaders saw clearly the need for a new educational ideology. They found it in the need to secure the Revolution; if the people were to govern themselves, they had to be educated well enough to be able to understand and avoid the dangers attendant on the exercise of power. This was a particular concern of Jefferson’s, who wrote to Washington that “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction.” An illiterate electorate, Jefferson felt, obviously could not protect itself from demagoguery, or from the designs of a would-be aristocracy. The only solution was to make sure the people were literate. His famous Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, proposed to the Virginia legislature in 1779, envisioned, among other things, a system of free elementary schools, to be established in every ward of every county, to meet the need. A similar interest in education was evident in Congress, which, in the Ordinance of 1785, set aside one out of the thirty-six lots in every township in the Western Territory for the maintenance of free public schools.

Universal schooling was not to be obtained so easily, however. Neither in Virginia nor elsewhere was the idea of free, tax-supported public schooling quickly accepted; Jefferson’s bill never passed the Virginia legislature, and the school lands in the Western Territory were used as often for land speculation as for the establishment of public shcools.