The American educational reformer and humanitarian Horace Mann (1796-1859) was enormously influential in promoting and refining public education in Massachusetts and throughout the nation in the 19th century.

Horace Mann was born in Franklin, Mass., on May 4, 1796. He labored on the family farm and learned his letters at home and in the district school, supplemented by long hours in the town library. Guided by his parents, he developed an appetite for knowledge. Mann's father died in 1809. The next year, when his older brother drowned while swimming on a Sunday, the local Congregational minister elaborated on the dangers of breaking the Sabbath, instead of consoling the family. This confirmed Mann's growing alienation from the Church.

After briefly attending an academy in Wrentham and intensive tutoring by an itinerant schoolmaster, Mann entered the sophomore class of Brown University in 1816. He developed a lively interest in debating, frequently speaking in support of humanitarian causes. He graduated as valedictorian in 1819. A growing interest in public affairs led him to study law after graduation. He interrupted his legal education to serve as tutor of Latin and Greek at Brown but returned to legal study in 1821 at the famous school of Tapping Reeve in Litchfield, Conn. He was admitted to the bar in 1823.

Mann practiced in Dedham and Boston, acquired an admiration for Whig politics, and was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1827. Essentially an activist, Mann came to believe that public education, which he called "the great equalizer of the conditions of men," was more likely to yield the general social improvements he desired than piecemeal efforts in behalf of prison reform, humane treatment of the insane, and temperance. A fellow legislator had studied educational conditions in Massachusetts and reported that barely a third of the school-age children were attending school; that teachers were ill-prepared, poorly paid, and unable to maintain discipline; and that public schools were avoided by those who could afford private education. As a result, in 1837 the assembly created the Massachusetts State Board of Education. The board was required to collect and disseminate information about public schools and, through its secretary, report annually to the legislature.

First Secretary of the State Board

Mann abandoned his promising political career to become secretary of the board. For 12 years he campaigned to bring educational issues before the people. He toured the state speaking on the relationship between public education and public morality, developing the theme of education as "the balance wheel of the social machinery." He believed that social and economic distinctions, unless reduced by a common educational experience, would create communities of interest that would eventually harden into warring factions.

In publicizing his cause, Mann found arguments attractive to all segments of the community, but he sometimes irritated powerful interests. Because he admired the Prussian system of education, his loyalty to democratic institutions was questioned. Because he believed the schools should be nonsectarian, he was attacked as antireligious. His advocacy of state supervision antagonized local politicians. His criticism of corporal punishment angered the influential Boston schoolmasters.

All the reform impulses of the American 1830s and 1840s converged in Mann's devotion to the cause of the common schools. He created teachers' institutes to improve teaching methods and arranged public meetings to discuss educational theory. He established and edited the Common School Journal. With private benefaction and state support he established three state normal schools for teacher education, the first in the country. His annual reports were lucid examinations of educational issues. Widely distributed and discussed, they exerted a powerful influence on public opinion in Massachusetts and the nation.

In Massachusetts, Mann's leadership produced dramatic change. The school curriculum was broadened and related more closely to the social outcomes he admired. Teaching methods, especially the teaching of reading, and the professional status and salary of teachers were improved. Facilities and equipment were increased, and more than 50 new high schools were established. Mann's influence became national and international.

Later Years

In 1848 Mann resigned his secretaryship to accept election to the U.S. Congress. He now enthusiastically entered the slavery debate, opposing the extension of slavery into the territories. His stand generated such hostility that he declined to run in the 1852 election and, instead, unsuccessfully campaigned for the governorship as a Free Soil candidate.

In 1852 Mann was elected president of Antioch College in Ohio. He discharged his new duties with customary zeal, creating a curriculum, doing much of the teaching, and contending with difficult economic problems. But the work proved too much for Mann, in ill health since boyhood. He died on Aug. 2, 1859, 2 weeks after telling the graduating class to "be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

Further Reading on Horace Mann

The Republic and the School: The Education of Free Men (1957), edited by Lawrence A. Cremin, contains a thorough analysis of Mann's educational positions and extracts from his annual reports. E. I. F. Williams, Horace Mann: Educational Statesman (1937), is somewhat eulogistic but complete and well documented. Louise Hall Tharp, Until Victory: Horace Mann and Mary Peabody (1953), is a popular treatment, well written and rich in background but sometimes casual in documentation. Jonathan Messerli, Horace Mann (1972), is a perceptive and revealing biography, particularly informative on Mann's 12 years as secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education.

Additional Biography Sources

Downs, Robert Bingham, Horace Mann: champion of public schools, New York, Twayne Publishers 1974.

Sawyer, Kem Knapp, Horace Mann, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1993.

Tharp, Louise Hall, Until victory: Horace Mann and Mary Peabody, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.