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As recounted by Historian General James A. Williams, the Puritans who came from England to the Bay Colony in the early 1600s established a vigorous educational system that included several universities that are still thriving today.

Most of the Separatists who came to America on the Mayflower had little or no education and those who followed during the next nine years added nothing to raise the standard of educational or literary culture. In 30 years, less than a score of university men came to Plymouth and of these only three remained and pursued ministerial calling. In seven out of eleven towns of the colony as a whole, the pastorate during these years was vacant or not established, while Plymouth itself was without a minister from 1624 to 1628 and from 1654 to 1669. For 50 years, the colony was without a public school and during that time furnished no student to higher education, even of the standard that Harvard then required.

A certain section of the Separatists were called Brownists. The Venetian Ambassador in England wrote in 1637: "The Brownists abhor letters, study, learned men, and think ignorance is the only key to heaven. For this reason, their followers have ceased to associate with others and have withdrawn to New England, which is farther north than Virginia."

Yet there were books in the colony. At his death in 1643, William Brewster left a library of nearly 400 volumes. Bradford had in his library 80 volumes. And even Myles Standish, whose hand was better fitted to his sword than his pen, left a library of 50 books.

Many of these books were acquired by their owners after 1620, showing that books
were not infrequently sent for from the mother country. Among the earliest ones, of course, were bibles, catechisms and religious discourses. But taken all into consideration, there were fewer theological works than those of the later Massachusetts Bay colonists, The Separatists were not all religiously minded.

Old Harvard College
This view shows Old Harvard College from the yard.

The Puritan Influence
Massachusetts Bay in this respect represented a somewhat different approach to education. Following the settlement at Plymouth, emigration to the Bay Colony in the next 20 years was great. Although the Puritan mind lived and labored in a world of its own and man's relationship to God, men of the Bay Colony accomplished a great work in bringing English culture to the colony through practices and books.

While the Puritan wrote of certain cultural activities, such as the drama, and failed to do much for others, such as music, he was stimulated by his faith to an intellectual activity that was conspiculously absent in other English colonies. Within ten years of the founding of Massachusetts Bay, New England has a vigorous intellectual life of its own expressed institutionally in a college, a school system and a printing press applied to sermons, poetry and history.

This regard for learning derived from contacts made in the mother country and took early form in the employment of a schoolmaster in Boston in 1635, and the erection of school houses later in Boston, Roxbury and Dorchester, followed by the founding of Harvard College in 1636. A printing press was set up in Boston in 1639 to print the freeman's oath, almanacs, psalm books and sermons. A library in the townhouse was built as early as 1657.

The Seal of Harvard
The Seal of Harvard

The schools set up in Dorchester, Roxbury and Boston were all free schools, as they were in English towns of the period and supported by public funds.

Harvard University was the result of the beneficence of the Reverend John Harvard who gave one-half of his estate amounting to some L 1,700 and all of his library to the building of a college on the site of Cambridge. Soon the sons of the most prominent citizens of New England were coming to Harvard. During the mid-17th century, English fathers, thinking that Harvard offered fewer temptations and more godly surroundings than Oxford or Cambridge, sent their sons to this new school to be educated.

Strict Rules for Students
Immediate laws were laid down for the conduct of these first scholars:

"No scholar shall go out of his chamber without coat, gown, or cloak, and everyone everywhere shall wear modest and sober habit without strange ruffianlike or new fangled fashions, without all lavish dress or excess apparel whatever. Nor shall any wear gold or silver or such ornaments, except to whom upon just ground the President shall permit same; neither shall it be lawful for any to wear long hair, locks, or foretops, nor to use curling, crisping, parting, or powdering their hair ... "

John Harvard
John Harvard by Donald C. French

In 1640, a Cambridge graduate by the name of Henry Dunster came along and assumed the Presidency of the college. He eschewed the flogging of the student body, which was common practice in those days, and set up a two-year- liberal arts course, the general thrust of which was to train candidates for the ministry. In spite of this, President Dunster managed otherwise to obtain suitable books in law, physics, philosophy and mathematics.

In New England the funds for the support of the schools came from the sales of town lands, rents from lands leased on the mainland and the islands, and gifts and legacies. We know this to be true from an examination of the town records both in Boston and Dorchester.

To the Puritan, education was a necessity as well as a chastisement, for it was a Puritan tenet of faith that the rod of correction was an ordinance of God.

Thus in Massachusetts Bay, the average immigrant from England to the Colony was intellectually high, at least more so than that of his poor Pilgrim neighbor to the south. There were a large number of university men in the Bay area who possessed more than a mere smattering of knowledge - then number being less than 100. Some of these were Masters of Art from either Oxford or Cam-bridge, among whom were famous names such as Saltonstall, Braxton, Bradstreet, Nathaniel Ward, John Harvard, Edward Winslow and John Winthrop. Some could write letters in Latin, others could speak in French and many knew their classical authors and could quote Virgil and Cicero.

Harvard Yard
Harvard Yard (foreground) and Cambridge looking south in 1668. First Harvard Hall is in center foreground, with Indian College due west of there.

Theological Doctrine Important
These men represented a branch of the intelligentsia from England, whose interests were both dialectical and disputatious. Their learning was neither literary, scientific or historical and was dedicated primarily to theological discussion.

There was perhaps no period in American history when so much time was expended on problems of the soul. Folios of theological discussion weighed down the shelves of the average clergyman's library and even the layman became proficient in the niceties of theological doctrine.

This became the norm in Massachusetts for the next 200 years and in the mid-19th century, my great grandfather, Joseph Warren, whose family was firmly established in Massachusetts since 1651, was credited with being able to quote entire chapters from the King James version of the Bible by heart. My mother, another Warren, born in 1863 and educated at Northfield Seminary, believed that anyone graduating from a school west of the Appalachian Mountains was little more than barbarian. My father, who graduated from the University of Illinois, suffered greatly as a result of this onus because he could never spell very well.

Until 1630, New England was anybody's country. But once the Massachusetts Bay Colony became firmly founded, the fate of New England was sealed. In ten years time, at least 15,000 people came over under Puritan leaders and three colonies — Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Haven — had been founded to contest with Massachusetts Bay in rivalry for divine and godly living.

Yale was the second colonial college in New England after Harvard and it owed its founding to a group of strict Harvard Puritans who felt that Harvard's liberalism was leading the colony to imminent ruin. They were concerned it had become a college of "riot and pride", to use the words of these early precursors of doom. A charter was obtained in 1701 when the school was first set up at Saybrook. In 1716 it was moved to New Haven where a wealthy merchant in the East India trade by the name of Elihu Yale made a donation to the school of three bales of East India goods, a picture of George I and a parcel of books. When the sale of the goods realized L500, the authorities were so elated they named the school for him. Ever since that time, jealous subsequent donors, mostly from the alumni, have remarked that immortality was never bought so cheap.

Increase Mather, influential pastor of Boston's Second Church, served as President of Harvard for 16 years.

Colonial colleges were not democratic, as the community was not, although there were scholarships and ways of earning money to enable poor boys with the necessary intellectual qualifications to graduate. Harvard and Yale freshmen were placed on what was called an "Order of Seniority", a practice which called for placing sons of Governors and councillors at the top of the class irrespective of their mental qualifications. Degredation by the faculty was used as punishment until it was given up in the mid-18th century.

Harvard, 1726
Burgis view of Harvard, 1726. At the left is First Harvard Hall

In a new country settled by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, the natural alternative to intellectual Puritanism appeared to be a strange intellectual vacuity. The mere physical labor of getting a living in a virgin country was so great as to exhaust and stultify the human spirit in its drive toward other cultures. But in New England, Puritanism thrived under hardship and difficult conditions. Therefore, New England colonies were able almost immediately to create and support a way of life that supported its intellectual needs in the midst of great difficulty.

Grammar Book

Puritanism in New England preserved the tradition of humanism of the mother country more than in any of the other English colonies.

The grammar schools and the college fostered a love of Cicero, Virgil, Ovid and Homer. Classical antiquity was kept alive in a region that had never known the grandeur of Rome or the glory of Greece.New England schools did just that. They handed down a priceless tradition, which Samuel Elliot Morison tells us has been trampled under foot by professional educators and pedagogues for the last hundred years.

The classics flourished in New England under puritanism and began to decay when puritanism withered. A careful combing of lists of immigrants reveal that at least 130 university alumni came to New England before 1646. At that time the entire population of New England was not greater than 25,000, which means there was an average of one university trained man to every 40 or 50 families. Men of education were the chosen leaders of puritan emigration.

Textbook used for teaching Latin at the Boston Grammar School.

The United States Census Bureau today evaluates the 1640 New England Colony population at 17,800. By the end of the century the population of the colony had exploded to 106,000. At the same time. Virginia and Maryland had about the same number. Boston, the largest town in the English colonies, had a population of 7,000.

As in medieval times in 1230, English universities in 1630 provided the ministry of the church. The one great absorbing intellectual interest at Oxford and Cambridge was the great ecclesiastical controversy driving them on. Universities did not inspire studies in science and history and others comprising the many different arts, because man's all-absorbing relationship with God obsessed the spirit of the moment and was his compulsion in 17th century theological studies.

Boston grammar school
The Boston Grammar School is shown at the left of King's Chapel. Benjamin Franklin attended for a year as a scholar.

Home schooling
Schooling began, and sometimes ended, with religious instruction at home. Father was usually schoolmaster, as few women were educated.

Tuition Paid in Varied Ways
It is also of interest that an amazing variety of farm products and other goods constituted the specie by which studentsdischarged their debts to the college. Wheat, malt, livestock, firewood and lumber provided this kind of exchange. Tuition was cheap. A bushel and a half of wheat provided the cost of tuition for a semester. One student exchanged a fat hog for his tuition, rent and other expenses.

Yale University was started by a group of ministers who robbed their own precious libraries to build one at the college and by shillings and sixpence squeezed out of budgets at New Haven, Saybrook and Harvard. Amherst College was built by the savings, sacrifice and voluntary labor of local clergymen and farmers. Mary Lyon collected the wherewithal to build the first women's college at My. Holyoke in denominations of ten cents to five dollars. And Anson G. Phelps took a leading part in founding New York University to grant young men the same opportunity for higher education enjoyed by farmers throughout New England.

Although New England colonial colleges trained ministers for the cloth, they were not theological seminaries. Less than half the alumni of 17th century Harvard entered the sacred calling.

Boys with their master. (Folger Library)

All students, whether or not candidates for the pulpit took prescribed courses in six of the traditional seven arts — Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy. Latin was supposed to have been mastered in grammar school. Greek and Hebrew were added college courses.

Horn Book
Hornbook containing the Lord's Prayer. (Folger Library)

Only a small portion of the New England people was directly touched by higher education. The total number of college students in the 17th century was less than 600, of whom 465 graduated.

Garmmar Schools Sparse
Historian Charles M. Andrews writes that grammar. schools were not only rare, but did not reach a very high level, And Professor Knight's history of American education states that the Massachusetts School Act of 1647 seems only to have been an effort to restrict the influence of Catholics and adherents to the English church and to impose the Puritan creed on New Englanders.

In spite of this, New England took the first steps to establish free public schools, not new to the English-speaking world. In England the best schools were the grarnmar schools which took a boy between the ages of six and eight and taught him Latin Grammar and literature and a little Greek until he was fit to enter Oxford or Cambridge at the age of 14 to 16. These seeds were already sown in England before the Puritan migration. 

The Puritans did far more than the Anglicans in this regard for elementary education, which was the weak point of English education in 1600. At that time a boy's parents had to teach him how to read and write before he was admitted to a grammar school.

This condition of affairs was promptly addressed in the puritan colonies and within thirty years, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Haven had passed a remarkable series of education acts establishing agencies for education. By 1660 several principles of elementary and secondary education had been formulated that became the foundation of the American public school.

The lot of a schoolboy was not easy in the 17th or 18th century, with strong disciplines being meted out by the schoolmaster. Not only were children soundly thrashed for disorderly behavior, but some teachers believed in beating "learning" into their students when they seemed negligent in their lessons. And the notion that school children might choose what they wanted to study would have been regarded as rank heresy and utter nonsense to colonial teachers.

Beatings were not the only punishment in elementry schools. Parents were expected to help pay for the child's education by supplying firewood. When parents failed in this regard, their children were placed farthest from the fire in the coldest part of the room. A shivering child would be sure to carry the message home that wood was needed. Nobody worried about complexes children might develop from being singled out for this kind of treatment.

Grammar Book
Grammar school book of Hebrew for the use of Harvard studies.

Primer Basic to Education
The elementary school, as the name implies, was the first step in the world of the New England child's education. His book was the primer, probably a hornbook. This was merely a printed alphabet sheet with a few words of one syllable and the Lord's Prayer mounted on a wooden frame with a sheet of horn to protect the surface. These had been used in English schools since time immemorial. Other books used in elementary schools were a spelling book, a primer and a catachism. Catachisms were sometimes supplied with unique titles like those written by the Reverend John Cotton in 1643: "Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both testaments, Chiefly, for the Spiritual Nourishment of Boston Babes in either England ..."

There was a goodly number of public grammar schools in 17th century New England set up as secondary schools patterned after their English models. The master of one of these in Boston in 1636 was Edward Maude. By statute he had to be an M.A. from a university, probably Cambridge or Oxford. He had to teach grammar, Latin and Greek, reading generously into the classical authors.

The Boston Grammar School, which came into existence in 1636, is the only one of whose curriculum we have an exact account. The school, which underwent a name change to Boston Latin School in 1698, is mentioned in a 1712 report by Cotton Mather who details a list of the books studied by him during his time as a student in the 1670s.

In addition to the free elementary schools were eight "writing schools" in Boston conducted for 2,000 families in 1715. Two were supported by public funds. Of the six-private writing schools, one was conducted in French for the Huguenots. Of Benjamin Franklin's two years of formal school education, one was spent at the Boston Latin School and the other at one of the "writing schools" conducted by George Brownell.

This school, in addition to elements of reading, writing and arithmetic, offered a remarkable range of additional subjects which included "Dancing, Violin, Flute. Spinnet, French Quilting and Embroidery".

The Boston "writing schools" accounted in great measure for an extraordinary high rate of literacy, although they were no preparatory school for Harvard. As early as 1680, the literacy rate in Massachusetts was 98 percent and in seaports was as high as 99 percent. Among women the percentage was 62 percent for the same general period, according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

John Winthrop
Edward Winslow
Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop. (Boston Museum) As discussed in this article, Edward Winslow was one of the intellegentia from England who came to Massachusetts. He sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 and became a founder of the famed Plymouth Colony.

-- The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England", Samuel Elliott Morison.
"Everyday Life in Colonial America", Louis B. Wright.
"The Colonial Period of American History", Charles M. Andrews.
"Benjamin Franklin, The Shaping of Genius in the Boston Years", Arthur Bernon Tourtellot.