A prominent statesman, Horace Mann is best remembered as a pre–Civil War educational reformer who was instrumental in the creation of the Massachusetts system of public education. A statue of Mann stands before that state's capitol today as evidence of his importance. Mann was also a successful lawyer, a member of both the Massachusetts General Court and the U.S. Congress, the president of a fledgling college, and a humanitarian reformer.
Mann was born in Franklin, Massachusetts, and he grew up in a poor and puritanical environment. He received the typical schooling of the time, consisting of brief periods in the district school under ill-equipped teachers, but he seems to have devoured the town library's collection. He was admitted to nearby Brown College in 1816 at the age of twenty (which was older than customary) as a sophomore. He graduated as valedictorian of his class and returned to the college a year later to serve several terms as a tutor. He read law intermittently with a local barrister, attended the Litchfield (Connecticut) Law School, and was admitted to the bar in 1823. Four years later, in 1827, he was elected to the lower house of the state legislature from Dedham, where he had set up his practice, commencing a thirty-year career devoted, as he put it, to the "benefit of mankind." In 1830 he married Charlotte Messer, the daughter of Asa Messer, president of Brown and Mann's early mentor. After his wife's death two years later Mann resigned his seat and moved from Dedham to Boston to continue to practice law. He was elected to the state senate in 1834 as a representative of Boston.
Although he had been born in modest circumstances, Mann became a member of the Massachusetts establishment. His second wife, whom he married in 1843, was Mary Peabody, sister of Elizabeth Peabody, an inveterate reformer. Mann had initially stood for office as a National Republican, and he later became a Whig. In the legislature his stances were those of a moralistic reformer. His maiden address was a defense of religious freedom, while his next argued that the support of railroads would lead to prosperity, which in turn would lead to the intellectual and moral betterment of the populace. He was an ardent supporter of the temperance movement, was instrumental in the establishment of the first state institution for the mentally ill, and was a moderate abolitionist. It was for his efforts on the behalf of common schools, however, that he is most remembered today.
Massachusetts had, as early as 1647, mandated the support of schooling by local communities, but by the nineteenth century the state's schools, dependent on local sources, were in a sorry state. Inspired by reports of educational reform in Europe and a growing national movement, and prodded by eminent citizens such as Edmund Dwight, James G. Carter, Josiah Quincy, Charles Brooks, and the governor, Edward Everett, the legislature passed a bill on April 20, 1837, authorizing the creation of a state board of education. Mann accepted the secretaryship a month later, vowing that from that moment to "let the next generation be my client." For the next twelve years he served that client with dedication.
The board, in actual fact, had virtually no power; its role was the collection and dissemination of information about the state of the schools. Mann lectured widely on educational topics to citizens and teachers, and he utilized his twelve annual reports to publicize and advance his cause. His first report, in 1837, served to introduce the reformist agenda, including the need for good schoolhouses, competent teachers, committed school boards, and widespread public support. His twelfth and final report, in 1848, was by far the most thoughtful, and it provided his valedictory–an anthem in support of public education. Other reports addressed issues such as language instruction, teacher training, music and health education, compulsory attendance, the necessity of school libraries (as well as free public ones), and the economic benefits of better schools. In his seventh report (1843), Mann summarized his observations of schools in Europe, lauding especially the Pestalozzian techniques he had seen demonstrated in the schools of Prussia, but the angered response of an association of Boston schoolmasters led to a lengthy and acrimonious exchange.
To Mann, good, publicly financed COMMON SCHOOLS would never succeed without an informed and concerned citizen body and without good teachers. Local authorities had to rekindle their commitment under the supervision and urging of the central government. Good teachers had to be trained in the newest pedagogical techniques that emphasized motivation and encouragement, rather than DISCIPLINE, and recognized the individuality of each child. The curriculum had to be designed for every child in the commonwealth, and it should encompass all that was necessary for the creation of upright, responsible citizens. Mann believed that schools were vested with intellectual, political, and, most importantly, moral authority–the morality of the liberal, nonsectarian, Protestant elite of the day.
In 1839 the first public normal school (for training teachers) was opened in Lexington, Massachusetts, and two others soon followed. However, partisan politics threatened the board's existence when the democratic governor, preaching economy, advocated returning control of the schools to the localities. But the board survived, and Mann continued as its secretary until he resigned in 1848, when he was appointed to John Quincy Adams's seat in Congress. He was elected in his own right later the same year, and was re-elected as a Free Soil advocate. He served in Congress until 1852, the year in which he was defeated in the race for the governorship of Massachusetts.
Although he had given scant attention to higher education previously, Mann was intrigued, during a lecture tour through the West, at the descriptions of a projected nonsectarian, coeducational college in Ohio, and in 1853 he accepted the presidency of the not-yet-completed Antioch College in Yellow Springs. Despite near financial disaster, faculty opposition, and an innovative honor code, the college survived, and the first class of sixteen students (including three women) graduated in 1857. Mann declined offers to become the head of other institutions of higher learning and remained at Antioch until his death in August, 1859. His final address to that year's graduating class was both a challenge to them and a summary of his life: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
Cremin, Lawrence A., ed. 1957. The Republic and the School: Horace Mann on the Education of Free Men. New York: Teachers College Press.
Mann, Mary Peabody. 1867. Life of Horace Mann, By His Wife Boston: Walker, Fuller.
Messerli, Jonathan. 1972. Horace Mann: A Biography. New York: Knopf.
EDITH NYE MACMULLEN