The Virtue of an Educated Voter

The Founders believed that a well-informed electorate preserves our fragile democracy and benefits American society as a whole



Almost everyone praises education, but consensus dissolves over who should pay for it. This dilemma runs deep in our history, back to the founders who led the American Revolution and designed a more participatory form of government, known as a republic. They declared that Americans needed more and better education to preserve their state and national republics from relapsing into tyranny. A governor of Virginia, William H. Cabell, asserted in 1808 that education “constitutes one of the great pillars on which the civil liberties of a nation depend.” More than a mere boon for individuals, education was a collective, social benefit essential for free government to endure.

Those founders worried that their 13 state republics, loosely tied in a new union, were vulnerable to internal divisions and external manipulation. They lived in a dangerous world dominated by empires and kingdoms run by monarchs and aristocrats who inherited and guarded their wealth and power. In European history, previous republics had been short-lived and usually small: cantons or city-states such as Pisa and Florence. How then could an immense and growing union of diverse states sustain a form of government that had always failed in the past? The American political experiments seemed especially threatened by contentions over balancing power between the states and the nation and between the regions: North and South, East and West.  In addition to the North-South division that would nearly destroy the union during the 1860s, 18th-century Americans feared a violent split between the old states east of the Appalachians and the new settlements emerging in the vast watershed of the Mississippi River. Lacking a strong national identity, the people of 1787 identified with their states and distrusted outsiders. That pervasive distrust, rather than any common sense of nationalism, led the founders to craft the federal union as a “peace pact” meant to avert wars between the states.

American leaders worried that their imperial neighbors—French, Spanish, and especially British—would exploit the new nation’s internal tensions to break up the tenuous union of the states. Poorly educated voters might also elect reckless demagogues who would appeal to class resentments and promote the violent redistribution of wealth. In such a nightmare scenario, a military despot—an American Caesar—ultimately would seize power and restore order at the expense of free government. John Adams warned the people, “When a favourable conjuncture has presented, some of the most intrigueing and powerful citizens have conceived the design of enslaving their country, and building their own greatness on its ruins. Philip and Alexander are examples of this in Greece—Caesar in Rome … and ten thousand others.” Though a blessing for common people, a republic seemed dangerously fragile.

Republican political theory of the day held that empires and monarchies could thrive without an educated populace. Indeed, kings and nobles could better dominate and dazzle the ignorant and credulous. But republics depended on a broad electorate of common men, who, to keep their new rights, had to protect them with attentive care. These citizens, theorists insisted, needed to cultivate a special character known as “virtue”: the precious capacity to transcend their diverse self-interests by favoring the common good of the political community. If everyone merely pursued his private interest, a republic would succumb to the perverse synergy of demagogues and tyrants. To override the selfishness assumed to be innately human, people had to be taught the value of virtue. Thomas Jefferson noted, “I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.”

To sustain their republics, American leaders felt compelled to reform the morals and manners of the nation’s citizens. “We have changed our forms of government,” Benjamin Rush declared, “but it remains yet to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government that we have adopted.” Having grown up in colonies ruled by an empire committed to monarchy, the founders wanted the next generation of Americans to master a new culture of republicanism. Schools needed to produce well-informed protectors of republican government. “If the common people are ignorant and vicious,” Rush concluded, “a republican nation can never be long free.” A physician and reformer from Philadelphia, he sought to use education “to convert men into republican machines” in order to “fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” Putting revolutionary turmoil behind them, citizens had to become orderly supporters of the new state and federal governments. They also needed enough education to distinguish worthy from treacherous candidates for office—lest the republics succumb to those reckless demagogues or would-be aristocrats. As Jefferson put it, “Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other.”

Reformers wanted more and better schools to endow young Americans with the cultural resources needed to protect the common good. During the colonial era, only New England’s towns had sustained public grammar schools, and those towns mandated just a few weeks of schooling in the winter, when family farms needed less labor. Elsewhere in the new nation, the grammar schools were few and reliant on private tuition. Throughout the states, the children of wealthy families could learn Latin, advanced mathematics, and some science by going on to private academies. Colleges were even more expensive and exclusive. Neither women nor African Americans were permitted to attend, and few young white men could afford to. In 1800, the United States had only 18 colleges. The largest, Yale, had 217 students that year. Collectively, just 1,200 students attended college: fewer than one percent of adolescent males in the country.

Although home to many great revolutionary leaders, Virginia lacked any public schools and had but one small college—William & Mary, founded in 1693—and it was in financial decline. A third of adults could not read or write. Wealthy planters dominated the counties that constituted the new state. Loath to pay higher taxes to educate common whites, the gentry preferred to hire tutors to prepare their sons for private colleges in another state or in Britain. Jefferson regarded the county elites as self-perpetuating cabals of unworthy men, so he sought a more meritocratic and public educational system.

He distinguished between the old “artificial aristocracy” of inherited privilege and a new “natural aristocracy” of virtue and talents. Despite having inherited both wealth and slaves, Jefferson considered himself a natural rather than an artificial aristocrat because, he asserted, his commitment to serve common men proved his superior virtue. Through education, people could learn to think as active democrats, forsaking the passive deference that had elected old-style aristocrats to govern. “Worth and genius” should be, Jefferson preached, “sought out from every condition of life and compleately prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth & birth for public trusts.”

Jefferson wanted to weaken the old Virginia elite by broadening educational access for ordinary folk. He favored taxing the rich to educate the poor as essential for the common good. Jefferson assured George Washington, “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan.” Government had to act to reshape society. His friend and future president, James Monroe, agreed: “Being a high public concern, [education] ought to be provided for by the government itself.”

In 1778, Jefferson proposed a radical educational system meant to transform Virginia along republican lines. To weaken the counties, he would subdivide them into several “hundreds,” or townships, where through direct democracy the voters would build schools and hire teachers to educate every white girl and boy. The best boys (but no girls) would advance to county academies, where the rich would pay tuition but the best poor boy from each hundred school would earn a charity scholarship. In turn, the finest charity graduate from each academy would merit a college scholarship. With the bluntness of a natural aristocrat, Jefferson explained that, under his three-tiered system, “the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.” His program had two goals, both political: to train for republican leadership “a few subjects in every state, to whom nature has given minds of the first order,” and to enable every common man “to read, to judge & to vote understandingly on what is passing.”

Radical for his time, if limited by our standards, Jefferson’s proposal provided scant education for girls and none for African Americans, either free or enslaved. A practical politician, he knew that neither white voters nor leaders would spend a penny on educating blacks, who accounted for two-fifths of Virginia’s people. Although Jefferson disliked slavery, he did not expend any political capital to challenge it in his home state, and he rebuffed a Quaker abolitionist who proposed to raise charitable funds to educate slaves. Jefferson warned that schooling could only deepen the unhappiness of the enslaved with their lot.

Despite his concessions to racial and gender inequality, Jefferson’s system got nowhere in a revolutionary state at war with the British and already struggling to pay for military measures. Even the restoration of peace (in 1783) and of prosperity (after 1790) did not endear educational reform to Virginia’s legislators. In 1796, they belatedly passed a watered-down bill that invited county governments to put in place Jefferson’s system but left it to them to raise the taxes to finance it. Only one of Virginia’s more than 100 counties implemented even part of the system during the next 20 years. County leaders balked at taxing themselves to educate the poor. In vain, Jefferson argued that “the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

The failure of Jefferson’s proposal distressed the small pool of well-educated Virginians. In 1804, William Wirt, later the attorney general of the United States, praised the “astonishing greatness” of the plan to rescue genius from “obscurity, indigence, and ignorance” while giving “stability and solid glory to the republic!” Wirt worried that Virginia lacked “the animating soul of a republic. I mean, public spirit. … There seems to me to be but one object throughout the state: to grow rich.” In 1809, the state’s governor, John Tyler (the father of the future president), rebuked the legislators: “There cannot be a subject of more importance, in a free government … and yet so fatal is that apathy which prevails, or so parsimonious a policy has insinuated itself among us, that year after year is permitted to pass away without a single attempt to attain so great and so indispensable an object.” As a result, Tyler traveled about the state and reported, “Scarcely a common country school is to be found capable of teaching the mother tongue grammatically.”

Jefferson was half-right to blame county oligarchs, but it was state legislators who had passed the buck to the counties rather than raise state taxes to fund public education. And those legislators answered to voters who also did not like paying taxes. David Watson, a friend of Jefferson’s, supported public education as a member of the Virginia General Assembly, but he lost his bid for reelection. Watson blamed common voters for “being so ignorant as they are, that our gentlemen are not more anxious to get learning and knowledge.” In a satirical essay, Watson insisted that common Virginians preferred to buy new boots for their sons, peach brandy for themselves, and bonnets for their wives rather than fund education. He doubted that there was “sense enough among the great bulk of the people to prevent a few cunning, ambitious men from taking our houses and land and every thing else away from us; and then how shall we get boots, bonnets and brandy?”

Governor Tyler agreed: “He who can go back from the assembly and tell his constituents he has saved a penny secures his popularity against the next Election.” Tyler expressed this lament in a confidential letter to Jefferson, likening the public to a patient in denial: “It is sometimes necessary to conceal the healing medicine from the patient, lest his sickly appetite may reject that which alone can bring him health and life.”

Here then was the rub. Visionary leaders insisted that preserving a republic required improving the common people by an increased investment in education. But a republic depended on common voters who lacked schooling and often balked at paying for it, preferring to spend their money on consumer goods. As farmers, they also wanted to keep their children at work on the farm. To justify their preferences, they invoked a populist distrust of the educated. A rustic republican from North Carolina insisted, “College learned persons give themselves great airs, are proud, and the fewer of them we have amongst us the better.” Preferring “the plain, simple, honest matter-of-fact republicanism,” he asked, “Who wants Latin and Greek and abstruse mathematics at these times and in a country like this?” Distrustful of all aristocrats, natural and artificial, he insisted that they should pay to educate themselves, and the poor could make do without book learning; thus, he would vote for candidates who kept taxes low. Common voters in the southern states often did not regard education as essential to preserving their republic.

In old age, after retiring as president of the United States, Jefferson sought to revive at least half of his educational program in Virginia. During the late 1810s, the state expected a windfall in federal money to reimburse Virginia for damages and expenditures during the recently concluded War of 1812. The state also reaped new funds by chartering bank and canal corporations. The enhanced revenue sufficed to fund a new state university or a broad system of local, public schools for common people—but not both. Jefferson and his legislative allies favored a university and located it in his hometown of Charlottesville, sucking up almost all of the state’s available funds for education. He reasoned that the new university would train a natural aristocracy for Virginia, and during the next generation, the graduates would (he hoped) belatedly create the public system of common schools. His wishful thinking faltered, for the new university educated the sons of wealth and privilege, who perpetuated those advantages when they became the state’s legislators and governors. By compromising his full vision for education, Jefferson unwittingly delayed the creation of educational opportunity for most Virginians for half a century.

A different model of reform emerged in the northern states, where slavery was vanishing and society sustained a larger middle class. In the North, the educational reformers included Jedediah Peck of Otsego County in upstate New York. During the 1790s, Peck was a self-educated farmer, carpenter, and preacher among fellow settlers who had migrated from New England. Ambitious and resourceful, he won a seat in the state legislature by expressing the resentments and aspirations of his common neighbors, who felt insulted by the condescension of the wealthy lawyers and landlords who ran the county and state governments. Peck promoted social mobility and equality by demanding state funding for a new system of public education. He wanted to “bring improvement within the reach and power of the humblest citizen” because, Peck emphasized, true liberty required educated citizens: “In all countries where education is confined to a few people, we always find arbitrary governments and abject slavery.”

In the legislature, he kept pushing for appropriations for common country schools, and in 1812, New York became the first state outside New England to adopt a comprehensive system for educating all children in grammar schools. Such public systems gradually spread throughout the middle-Atlantic and midwestern states during the 1820s and 1830s but not in the South, which had none until after the Civil War. The conviction that freedom required education flourished only where slavery had been disavowed. Northerners paid for the expansion of educational opportunity with their tax dollars because they anticipated economic benefits.

The growth of colleges and universities followed, accelerating over the generations, particularly in the North. By 1840, about 16,000 Americans attended 173 colleges, most of them small and religiously oriented. Forty years later, the United States had more than 85,000 students in 591 institutions of higher learning, which included some new, larger, and secular state universities. The percentage of young adults attending college had doubled from 1800 but still accounted for just two percent of the people in that age group. The 20th century brought the greatest leap forward, from four percent of young adults in 1900 to nearly 50 percent by 1980. (The United States now leads the world in the proportion of college graduates.) The growth reflected an economic transformation as most Americans moved away from agriculture into industry, government bureaucracies, or commercial services. Corporate managers, professionals, and bureaucrats needed the training and certification of a college education to land and keep a good job. Until the 1970s, voters supported increased investment in education as a political priority.

In the process of that expansion, education gradually became redefined as an economic good, rather than a political one. The proponents of higher education promised economic growth, not political virtue, as the prime goal. It became quaint at best to raise an alarm about demagogues and aristocrats as the dangerous consequence of an ignorant electorate. Many students valued economic and social mobility over the responsibilities of civic leadership. And only a political fool would seek virtue in an electorate bombarded by advertising that urged Americans to keep score of winners and losers by the consumer goods that they could buy and display. Today, we have more boots, bonnets, and brandy than ever before and are now expected to pursue our self-interest as voters much as we do as consumers.

The shift to an economic justification for education has led to its redefinition as a private, individual benefit instead of a public good. In the wake of the Second World War, the GI Bill funded students on a vast scale, allowing them to pursue any major, including those that did not lead immediately to a particular job, enabling them to exercise a choice denied to current students by the financial exigencies of high costs and mounting debts. Today, we justify that constraint on their choices by assuming that the individual student is the primary beneficiary of education and that its value is best measured in dollars subsequently earned.

“A typical college graduate can expect to make over half a million dollars more than a nongraduate over a lifetime,” Quoctrung Bui recently wrote in The New York Times. Indeed, it now sounds fuzzy and naïve to speak of any other benefits of higher education, such as knowledge for its own sake, increased happiness, an enhanced appreciation of art, or a deeper understanding of human nature and society. Along the way, we also have shunted into the background the collective, social rewards of education: the ways in which we all, including those who do not attend college, benefit from better writers and thinkers, technological advances, expanded markets, and lower crime rates. Above all, we need to return to Jefferson’s emphasis on rational inquiry built on evidence—or risk the republic’s fate on politicians who appeal to our emotions and prejudices.

Those prejudices have led to a comparable assault on public funding for K-12 schools, ominously rebranded “government schools” by critics who seek to discredit them. These critics associate public education with a demonized concept of all government, even state and local, as undemocratic. In the process, legislators disproportionately reduce funding for schools in the poorest districts with the greatest numbers of immigrants and people of color. Taking the lead in this assault, the Kansas legislature and Governor Sam Brownback provoked the state’s supreme court to denounce the state’s draconian new funding formula for creating “intolerable, and simply unfair, wealth-based disparities among the districts.”

We have come to think and speak of education as primarily economic (rather than political) and individual (rather than social) in its rewards. As a consequence, growing numbers of voters care only for the education of their own children. These conceptual and rhetorical shifts lead legislators to wonder why taxpayers should pay for the education of others—particularly those of poorer means, different culture, or darker color. If only the individual, rather than society as a whole, benefits from education, let the student bear the cost of it: so runs the new reasoning.

During every recession, state governments make budget cuts, and public colleges and universities become the tempting, soft targets. That temptation grows when states feel pinched by rising costs for Medicaid and prisons (places stuffed with the poorly educated). By reducing public support for colleges and universities, legislators and governors induce them to increase the tuition and fees that students pay. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student. During the same period, tuition has risen by 33 percent. The University of California system is the largest in the nation. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the state of California provided a quarter of the system’s budget in 2002. After a billion dollars in cuts, the state now pays for just nine percent of the system’s costs, yet legislators howl in outrage when university administrators admit more out-of-state and foreign students, who can be charged twice as much as in-state students. The same game is playing out in every state.

Increasingly reliant on loans to cover the cost of higher education, students have assumed alarming levels of debt: an estimated $1.3 trillion owed by 42 million Americans. According to the August issue of Consumer Reports, graduates this year average $37,000 in debt per student. The debt burden puts a drag on the overall economy and society, as thousands of graduates delay buying a home or having children. Increasingly, young people from middle-class families question whether attending college is worth the cost.

As a country, we are in retreat from the Jefferson and Peck dream of equal educational opportunity for all. And the future social costs will be high. Proportionally fewer Americans will benefit from higher education, inequality will increase, and free government will become a stage set for opportunists to pander to the prejudices and fears of the poorly educated.

Although the current definition of education is relentlessly economic, the source of the crisis is political. Just as in Jefferson’s day, most legislators and governors believe that voters prefer tax cuts to investments in public education. Too few leaders make the case for higher education as a public good from which everyone benefits. But broader access to a quality education pays off in collective ways: economic growth, scientific innovation, informed voters and leaders, a richer and more diverse culture, and lower crime rates—each of which benefits us all. Few Americans know the political case for education advanced by the founders. Modern politicians often make a great show of their supposed devotion to those who founded the nation, but then push for the privatization of education as just another consumer product best measured in dollars and paid for by individuals. This reverses the priorities of the founders.

Americans lost something valuable when we forsook “virtue” as a goal for education and a foundation for free government. In 1950, a Harvard committee published an influential report titled General Education in a Free Society. The authors wrote that “our society, like any society, rests on common beliefs and … a major task of education is to perpetuate them.” But the report struggled to define the “common beliefs” best taught by modern American universities. In the 19th century, most colleges had promoted a patriotism linked to Protestant Christianity. But in our own century, no one creed seems capable of encompassing the diverse backgrounds and values of American students. We also balk at empowering any public institution to teach a particular political orthodoxy. The sole common ground is a celebration of the university as a “marketplace of ideas,” where every individual can pick and choose her or his values. Secular universities preach just one core value: the open and free investigation of multiple ideas. Liberal education now favors a process of free choice rather than any other particular belief.

We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeking power through bluster and bombast and pandering to the self-interest of members of the electorate. At the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman in Philadelphia is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the delegates had created for the people. He supposedly replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

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Alan Taylor is a historian at the University of Virginia. He has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history, most recently in 2014 for The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832. His latest book, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804, has just been published.


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