From the revolutionary era to the late nineteenth century, academies were the dominant institution of higher schooling in the United States. Academies generally served students between the ages of eight and twenty-five, providing a relatively advanced form of schooling beyond the elementary level. The Catholic order of the Ursulines founded the first academy for women in French-speaking New Orleans in 1727. Philadelphia's Franklin Academy received a colonial charter in 1753, and the Colonial Assembly introduced a bill to incorporate New Bern Academy in North Carolina in 1766. According to Henry Barnard, by 1850 there existed more than 6,100 incorporated academies across the United States, with enrollments nine times greater than those of the colleges.

Characteristics of Academies

Late eighteenth and nineteenth-century academies can be distinguished from other forms of higher schooling by their corporate structure, legal status, and by the breadth of their curricula. A school bearing the name academy, seminary, or institute differed from an entrepreneurial venture school by having some form of financial support other than tuition, in addition to articles of incorporation, and the oversight of a board of trustees. The trustees secured land and buildings for the institution, helped with fundraising, recruited and hired teachers, and supervised the public examinations of academy students. Because of this corporate support and governance, academies tended to enjoy a greater degree of financial stability and longevity than venture schools.

Like the many private venture schools in the nation's early years, academies offered a broad range of subjects in response to popular demand. Typically, institutions offered reading, writing, grammar, geography, arithmetic, classical languages, and the higher branches of "English" education, including the sciences, mathematics, composition, history, rhetoric, theology, and philosophy. Most academies also offered applied subjects on a pay-as-you-go basis, such as ornamental needlework, music, painting, drawing, navigation and surveying, and bookkeeping.

In contrast to the early Latin GRAMMAR SCHOOLS, which provided instruction to males and emphasized the classical languages, academies served a broader clientele. Both boys and girls attended academies, either in single-sex or in coeducational institutions where instruction was provided in separate departments. Students hailed from the families of farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen as well as professionals, plantation owners, and wealthy merchants.

Academy Expansion

Religious groups founded many of the earliest academies in both northern and southern colonies and in the southwest. Various teaching orders in the Roman Catholic Church established academies in the early seventeenth century, particularly in the Catholic colony of Maryland and in the French and Spanish territories. The Moravians opened a number of academies for women in the Mid-Atlantic states during the mid-eighteenth century. Irish Presbyterian ministers established more than forty-four academies in prerevolutionary America to train students for the ministry in the middle and southern colonies.

During the decades following the American Revolution, the number of academies in the United States expanded. Many entrepreneurial venture schools were incorporated as academies during this era, and pre-existing academies broadened their curricula in response to community demand. By 1825, the New York Board of Regents had chartered a total of forty-six academies. Ohio incorporated approximately one hundred academies between 1803 and 1840, and Illinois chartered at least one hundred and twenty-five from 1818 to 1848. By the 1830s, there existed as many as twenty-four incorporated academies in Alabama and fifty-five in Virginia, and Texas had ninety-seven academies by 1850.

A number of factors contributed to the expansion of academies and the growth in academy enrollments in the nineteenth century, including Jacksonian politics, population growth, and the Second Great Awakening. Jacksonian political leaders argued in favor of distributing state benefits widely. Legislators in some states facilitated the incorporation process, making corporate charters more widely available. During the same period, state governments also increased the amount of financial support for academies, either in the form of funding or grants of land. Additionally, the first decades of the nineteenth century witnessed an enormous expansion in population, coinciding with a great migration to the western and southern regions of the country. This was the age of canal-building, town-building, and railroad construction; in many communities the establishment of an academy became a traditional feature of a town's internal improvements. Finally, the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening, a period running roughly from 1795 to 1837, gave rise to collaborative educational enterprises among some Protestant denominations. In virtually every community during the 1820s and 1830s, Protestant evangelicals played an important role in the consolidation of free urban schooling and the establishment of academies to provide a form of higher education for women as well as men.

The local communities, individuals, and religious groups that organized and supported academies acted from diverse motivations. Throughout the nineteenth century, various community groups, individuals, and mercantile associations established academies to provide a form of higher schooling for their youth, train a skilled workforce, or increase the property values in their towns. Some communities founded academies as an alternative to the forms of higher schooling provided by dominant cultural groups. For example, the Catholic Institution in New Orleans actively promoted a radical political agenda among free children of color; the academies founded by African Americans in Mississippi provided literacy and racial uplift during the post–Civil War Reconstruction Era; the Chinese Western Military Academy in California–together with its affiliates across the country– sought to empower young Chinese men by providing higher schooling and military training during a period when higher public schooling was denied to Chinese youth in that state.

The Transformation of Academies

In the post–Civil War era, different forms of higher schooling came into intense competition with each other. During the period immediately before and after the Civil War, some independent academies were absorbed into the expanding public education system. In New York, this process began in 1853, when the state legislature passed a law enabling neighboring school districts to unite for the purpose of establishing a local "academical department" or public HIGH SCHOOL. Local districts could establish academic departments either by organizing a new school or by adopting an existing academy. In some communities, the transformation from tuition-driven academy to public high school occurred within the context of a political struggle over the issue of providing tax-support for higher schooling.

Many independent academies continued to exist after 1870, and some communities and religious groups continued to establish new ones. However, as more towns established tax-supported high schools and more families paid the taxes necessary to support them, academies faced increasing pressure either to become public high schools themselves or to transform themselves into some other sort of institution that could continue to attract tuition revenue or other sources of public funding. When states established normal school systems in the 1860s and 1870s, they competed directly with existing academies that had provided much of the regional teacher training up to that time. Some academies met this challenge by successfully applying to become normal schools for their areas. Other academies sought to serve a particular student clientele by remaining independent private schools. Among this group, some institutions transformed themselves into independent colleges or into elite private preparatory schools. Others survived by emphasizing a particular form of schooling, such as religious training, education in the visual and performing arts, scientific and technical training, or compensatory schooling.

The academy movement left many historical legacies. Academies established an infrastructure of capital assets and political and financial support for higher schooling that continues to live on in both public schools and in alternatives to the public system. Academies provide a body of evidence for considering a number of current policy issues in education, including CHARTER SCHOOL and SCHOOL CHOICE policies, as well as broader issues of community-based schooling, teacher autonomy, school funding, local control, and issues of the roles of both church and state in education.

See also: Common Schools; Convent Schools (Cathedral Schools); Girls' Schools; Latin School; Private and Independent Schools.


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Miller, George Frederick, 1969. The Academy System of the State of New York. New York: Arno Press.

Oats, Mary J. 1994. "Catholic Female Academies on the Frontier." U.S. Catholic Historian 12 (fall): 121–136.

Sizer, Theodore. 1964. The Age of the Academies. New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Whitehead, Maurice. 1996. The Academies of the Reverend Bartholomew Booth in Georgian England and Revolutionary America: Enlightening the Curriculum. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press.