Alcott, Bronson (1799-1888)

Born November 29, 1799, in Wolcott, Connecticut, Amos Bronson Alcott (known as Bronson) was an educator, author, child psychologist, reformer, self-styled conversationalist, lecturer, and transcendental philosopher. He formulated an innovative approach to education and revised traditional assumptions about childhood. However, Alcott's strongest legacy is the formative impressions he made on his betterremembered daughter, Louisa May Alcott, and his many friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Often characterized by historians as a dreamy, vague, ineffectual man, Alcott's greatest crime may have been poor writing. Although he was a great conversationalist and public speaker, his intimate companions proved more able to communicate his principles in writing.

Alcott grew up in rural poverty; his schooling began with charcoal letters on the floor and formally ended at age thirteen. Afterward he found employment as a peddler and journeyed to the South before returning to Connecticut to work as a schoolteacher in 1823. His early educational innovations included beautifying the schoolroom with pictures and tree branches, adding physical exercise to intellectual exertions, and developing his students' reasoning capacities rather than their memorization skills. Alcott found support in the educational reforms proposed by JOHANN PESTALOZZI in Switzerland and Robert Owen in England. Yet his ideas were not well received by local parents, who withdrew their students from his school, forcing him into itinerant teaching after 1827.

In 1830 Alcott married Abigail May, the reform-minded daughter of a socially prominent New England family. At the birth of their first daughter, Anna, in 1831, Alcott started a journal of infant observation. He continued his scrutiny of Anna and her younger sisters for five years, filling over fifty journals. He concluded that children were born with intuitive wisdom and the potential for good; it was the responsibility of parents and educators to elicit children's innate morality and to develop their self-knowledge, self-control, and self-reliance. Alcott's effort to understand child development have earned him a reputation as the first child psychologist.

To put his philosophy into practice, Alcott opened the Temple School in Boston in 1834. The Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing supported the project and persuaded many elite families to enroll their children. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who later founded the American KINDERGARTEN movement, assisted. Alcott tried to elicit his students' inner wisdom through silent study, physical exercise, journal writing, and Socratic conversations. He limited corporal punishment; nonetheless, he was a stern disciplinarian, working on his students' consciences rather than their fears–twice he even had students hit him to evoke their contrition. His school was initially popular, but when Alcott published his Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836-1837), many were shocked by his unconventional approach to religion and withdrew their children from his classroom. His admission of a black student the following year lost Alcott the remaining pupils, and the school failed.

In 1840 Alcott moved to Concord to be close to his friends Emerson and Hawthorne. He engaged in many projects before his death in 1888, but few were successful. Alcott's utopian community Fruitlands (1843-1844) attracted many visitors but quickly fell apart. His books had few readers, although his speaking tours were popular. He depended on his wife and daughters for economic support, especially after the success of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), the text that best captures his ideas.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Little Women and Louisa May Alcott.


Dahlstrand, Frederick C. 1982. Amos Bronson Alcott, an Intellectual Biography. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

McCuskey, Dorothy. 1940. Bronson Alcott: Teacher. New York: Macmillan.

Strickland, Charles. 1969. "A Transcendentalist Father: The Child-rearing Practices of Bronson Alcott." Perspectives in American History 3: 5-73.