The Spread of Education Before Compulsion: Britain and America in the 19th Century

by | Mar 1, 2021 | Education

Government Education Increased Bureaucracy and Reduced Liberty

Most persons agree that children need the protection of the law against potential abuse by parents. But evidence shows that only a small minority of parents turn out to be delinquent. In practice it is very seldom indeed that governments remove children from their family home. At the end of the 1980s fewer than two children per 10,000 below the age of 18 were under state care in either the United States or England and Wales. That is less than two-hundredths of one percent!1

It can thus reasonably be assumed that the vast majority of parents are altruistic toward their children so that, for instance, they will not neglect their food, clothing, or shelter. Yet if these necessities were to be provided today on the same basis as education, they would be available free of charge. Indeed, there would be laws for compulsory and universal eating and higher taxes to pay for children’s “free” food at the nearest local government kitchens or shops.

But it is only in the last century and a quarter that this kind of asymmetry of treatment has emerged. This essay will accordingly look at the history of the subject to enquire to what extent the altruism of typical parents extended to education as well as to other necessities before governments intervened. I shall first examine conditions in England in the nineteenth century prior to the introduction of compulsory education. I shall then make a similar investigation of the United States to see if there were interesting parallels.

England and Wales

Contrary to popular belief, the supply of schooling in Britain between 1800 and 1840 was relatively substantial prior to any government intervention, although it depended almost completely on private funds. At this time, moreover, the largest contributors to education revenues were working parents2 and the second largest was the Church. Of course, there was less education per child than today, just as there was less of everything else, because the national income was so much smaller. I have calculated, nevertheless, that the percentage of the net national income spent on day-schooling of children of all ages in England in 1833 was approximately 1 percent. By 1920, when schooling had become “free” and compulsory by special statute, the proportion had fallen to 0.7 percent.3

The evidence also shows that working parents were purchasing increasing amounts of education for their children as their incomes were rising from 1818 onwards, and this, to repeat, at a time before education was “free” and compulsory by statute. Compulsion came in 1880, and state schooling did not become free until 1891.

Table 1 demonstrates that the annual growth of enrollments between 1818 and 1858 exceeded the annual growth of population. After the compilation of the first educational census in 1851, it was reported that the average school attendance period of working-class children was nearly five years. By 1858 the Newcastle Commission concluded that it had risen to nearly six years. And the same authority reported that “almost every one receives some amount of school education at some period or other.”4

The author of the famous 1870 Act, W. E. Forster, explained that the intention of introducing fee-based government-run establishments for the first time was not to replace the vast system of private schools but simply to “fill up the gaps” where they could be found. His officials, however, were overambitious in their reports of these needs, and after government schools were erected they were often found to have much surplus capacity. To reduce their embarrassment over half-empty schools, the education boards then resorted to lowering tuition fees and using tax revenues to fill the breach. The lower price naturally expanded the demand; but this was at the expense of the private schools, many of which could not survive such unfair competition.

After education was made compulsory by statute, the government-school advocates argued that it was wrong to compel the very poorest to do something they could not afford. But rather than propose a special financial dispensation or grants to these families, the advocates insisted that education should be made free for all: the rich and the middle class as well as the lower-income groups. Free education was legislated for the new government schools exclusively because it was argued that it would be inviting conflict to ask taxpayers to subsidize religious schools. Protestant taxpayers, for instance, would object to their taxes financing Catholics, and vice versa.

In this way the new “gap-filling” government schools were given a wide-open field with their zero-priced education. Since most of the subsequent growing population naturally chose the free alternative, the private schools’ share of the market declined and that of government schools skyrocketed.

The Literacy Record

The pre-1870 record of educational outputs such as literacy was even more impressive than the numbers of children in school, and this presents an even more serious problem to typical authors of social histories. Professor Mark Blaug has observed that “Conventional histories of education neatly dispose of the problem by simply ignoring the literacy evidence.”5

R. K. Webb, a specialist historian of literacy, offers the following conclusions about conditions in Britain in the late 1830s:

In so far as one dare generalize about a national average in an extraordinarily varied situation, the figure would seem to run between two-thirds and three-quarters of the working classes as literate, a group which included most of the respectable poor who were the great political potential in English life.6

There was, moreover, an appreciable rate of growth in literacy. This is reflected in the fact that young persons were more and more accomplished than their elders. Thus an examination of educational attainments of males in the Navy and Marines in 1865 showed that 99 percent of the boys could read compared with their seniors: seamen (89 percent), marines (80 percent), and petty officers (94 percent).7

It is not surprising that with such evidence of literacy growth of young people, the levels had become even more substantial by 1870. On my calculations for 1880, when national compulsion was enacted, over 95 percent of fifteen-year-olds were literate.8 This should be compared to the fact that over a century later 40 percent of 21-year-olds in the United Kingdom admit to difficulties with writing and spelling.9

American Education on the Eve of Government Compulsion

In the interests of manageability I shall confine attention to a single U.S. state. New York is selected because it seems to have been reasonably representative of conditions generally in the first 70 years of nineteenth-century America.

In 1811 five commissioners were authorized to report on the extent of education in the state. They recognized that, in order to qualify for state aid, it was necessary to establish in what respects the people were not themselves already securing sufficient education for their children. The commissioners acknowledged that schooling was indeed already widespread: “In a free government, where political equality is established, and where the road to preferment is open to all, there is a natural stimulus to education; and accordingly we find it generally resorted to, unless some great local impediments interfere.”10 Poverty was in some cases an impediment; but the biggest obstacle was bad geographic location:

In populous cities, and the parts of the country thickly settled, schools are generally established by individual exertion. In these cases, the means of education are facilitated, as the expenses of schools are divided among a great many. It is in the remote and thinly populated parts of the State, where the inhabitants are scattered over a large extent, that education stands greatly in need of encouragement. The people here living far from each other, makes it difficult so to establish schools as to render them convenient or accessible to all. Every family therefore, must either educate its own children, or the children must forego the advantages of education.11

The problem was thus presented in the same terms as those later used in England by W. E. Forster, the architect of the 1870 English Education Act. As we have seen, it was largely a problem, to use Forster’s words, of “filling up the gaps.” The logic of such argument, of course, called mainly for discriminating and marginal government intervention. To this end three methods were available. First, the government could assist families, but only the needy ones, by way of educational subsidies. Second, it could subsidize the promoters of schools in the special areas where they were needed. Third, the government itself could set up schools, but only in the “gap” areas. Without discussing possible alternatives, the New York State commissioners recommended that the inconveniences could generally best be remedied “by the establishment of Common Schools, under the direction and patronage of the State.”

The report, having stressed the plight of the rural areas, leads the reader to expect special attention to be paid to them in the New York State general plan of intervention. No such priority appears, however. The main features of the plan suggested by the commissioners were: that the several towns of the state be divided into school districts by three commissioners, elected by the citizens to vote for town offices; that three trustees be elected in each district, to whom shall be confined the care and superintendence of the school to be established therein; that the interest of the school fund be divided among the different counties and towns according, not to the distribution, but to the size of their respective populations as ascertained by the current census of the United States.

Thus, in place of discrimination in favor of the poor and thinly populated districts, a flat equality of treatment was decreed for all areas; the public monies were to be distributed on a per capita basis according to the number of children between five and fifteen in each district, whether its population was dense or sparse, rich or poor.

Two details of the early legislation (of 1812 and 1814) are worthy of special attention. First, there seems to have been no announced intention of making education free. Even with the addition of the revenues from town taxes there were far from sufficient monies to cover expenses. The substantial balance was presented in the form of rate bills (fees) to the parents, who were required to pay in proportion to the attendance of their children.

For instance, in 1830 parental fees contributed $346,807 toward the total sum for teachers’ wages of $586,520.12 The second detail of the early legislation worth noticing is that religion was regarded as an integral part of school education.

The commissioners observed: “Morality and religion are the foundation of all that is truly great and good; and consequently, of primary importance.”13 The Bible, in common schools, was to be treated as more than a literary work. The commissioners particularly recommended the practice of the New York Free Schools (the charitable establishments) in “presuming the religious regard which is due to the sacred writings.”14

Subsequently, the annual reports of the superintendents revealed a steady growth in the number of school districts organized. In some cases, entirely new schools were built; in others the personnel of existing private schools allowed themselves to become socialized, that is, to become common schools, in order to qualify for the public monies. In the report of 1821 it was stated that the whole number of children between the ages of five and 16 residing in the state was 380,000; and the total number, of all ages, taught during the year was 342,479. Thus, according to this evidence, schooling in the early nineteenth century was already almost universal without being compulsory. Moreover, although it was subsidized, it was not free except to the very poor.

In the first half of the century, statistics for private schooling throughout the state were hard to come by. But it will be remembered that the 1811 Commissioners observed that in thickly populated areas the means of education were already well provided for. The Superintendent’s Report of 1830 contained an account of a census of the schools of the city of New York for the year 1829. It showed that of the 24,952 children attending school in the city, the great majority, 18,945, were in private schools.15

By this time the superintendents were expressing complete satisfaction with the provision of schooling. On the quantity of it the Report of 1836 asserted:

Under any view of the subject, it is reasonable to believe, that in the common schools, private schools and academies, the number of children actually receiving instruction is equal to the whole number between five and sixteen years of age.16

The fact that education could continue to be universal without being free and compulsory seems to have been readily acknowledged. Where there were students who had poor parents, the trustees had authority to release them from the payment of fees entirely, and this was done “at the close of term, in such a manner as to divest the transaction of all the circumstances calculated to wound the feelings of scholars.”17

Literacy in Nineteenth-Century America

The spread of literacy among the American population before education became compulsory seems to have been at least as impressive as in the case of Britain. An item in the Journal of Education of January 1828 gave this account:

Our population is 12,000,000, for the education of which, we have 50 colleges, besides several times the number of well endowed and flourishing academies leaving primary schools out of the account. For meeting the intellectual wants of this 12,000,000, we have about 600 newspapers and periodical journals. There is no country, (it is often said), where the means of intelligence are so generally enjoyed by all ranks and where knowledge is so generally diffused among the lower orders of the community, as in our own.

The population of those portions of Poland which have successively fallen under the dominion of Russia, is about 20,000,000. To meet the wants of which there are but 15 newspapers, eight of which are printed in Warsaw. But with us a newspaper is the daily fare of almost every meal in almost every family.

Sheldon Richman quotes data showing that from 1650 to 1795, American male literacy climbed from 60 to 90 percent. Between 1800 and 1840 literacy in the North rose from 75 percent to between 91 and 97 percent. In the South the rate grew from about 55 percent to 81 percent. Richman also quotes evidence indicating that literacy in Massachusetts was 98 percent on the eve of legislated compulsion and is about 91 percent today.18

Finally, Carl F. Kaestle observes: “The best generalization possible is that New York, like other American towns of the Revolutionary period, had a high literacy rate relative to other places in the world, and that literacy did not depend primarily upon the schools.”19


This account of education in New York State prior to full government intervention to make it free, compulsory, and universal, can be concluded as follows: Whether or not it was appropriate (after 1867) to apply compulsion unconditionally to all classes of individuals, the laws that were actually established did not in fact secure an education that was universal in the sense of 100-percent school attendance by all children of school age. If, on the other hand, the term “universal” is intended more loosely to mean something like, “most,” “nearly everybody,” or “over 90 percent,” then we lack firm evidence to show that education was not already universal prior to intervention. The eventual establishment, meanwhile, of laws to provide a schooling that was both compulsory and free, was accompanied by major increases in costs. These included not only unprecedented expenses of growing bureaucracy but also the substantial costs of reduced liberty of families eventually caught in a choice-restricted monopoly system serving the interests not of the demanders but of the rent-seeking suppliers. Both sides of the Atlantic, meanwhile, shared this same fate.

1. G. Becker and K. Murphy, “The Family and the State,” Journal of Law and Economics 30 (1988): 3 and fn. 9.
2. E. G. West, Education and the Industrial Revolution (London: Batsford, 1975).
3. Ibid., p. 89.
4. Newcastle Commission, 1861, p. 293.
5. Mark Blaug, “The Economics of Education in English Classical Political Economy: A Re-Examination,” in A. Skinner and T. Wilson, eds., Essays on Adam Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 595.
6. R. K. Webb, “The Victorian Reading Public,” in From Dickens to Hardy (London: Pelican Books, 1963), p. 149.
7. Ibid.
8. E. G. West, “Literacy and the Industrial Revolution,” Economic History Review 31 (3) August 1978.
9. Central Statistical Office, Social Trends: 1995 Edition (London: HMSO, 1995), p. 58.
10. M. Randall, History of the Common School System of the State of New York, from its Origins in 1795, to the Present Time (New York: Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor, & Co, 1871), p. 18; my emphasis.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid., p. 66. Teachers’ wages constituted about one-half of total expenses.
13. Ibid., p. 19.
14. Ibid., p. 22.
15. Annual Report, New York Superintendent Common Schools, 1830, p. 17.
16. Annual Report, New York Superintendent Common Schools, 1836, p. 8.
17. Annual Report, New York Superintendent Common Schools, 1831, p. 16.
18. Sheldon Richman, Separating School and State: Liberating America’s Families (Fairfax, Va.: The Future of Freedom Foundation, 1994), p. 38.
19. Carl F. Kaestle, The Evolution of the School System: New York City 1750-1850 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 5.

This article was originally published on Read the original article.

Edwin West is emeritus professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and author of Education and the State (Liberty Press).

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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