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john adams on education and democracy

John Adams on Education and Democracy: A Historical Perspective

Historical commemorations of the Fourth of July are often dominated by the likes of Founding Father heavyweights such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Thanks to the unprecedented success of the Broadway musical that bears his name, Alexander Hamilton has enjoyed a pop culture resurgence of late.

But not all founding fathers are the recipients of such enduring adulation. Despite being the subject of a best-selling biography by historian David McCullough and a critically acclaimed HBO mini-series, John Adams hardly receives the fanfare of his founding brethren.

It’s not for lack of contribution or accomplishment.   

Not only was Adams America’s first vice president and second president, the former lawyer also played a key role with Jefferson in helping to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was also a lead negotiator of the Treaty of Paris, the agreement that officially ended the Revolutionary War.

Adams was also among the nation’s first great champions of organized education.

In his 1776 essay “Thoughts on Government,” Adams argued for the type of representative republic structure that would eventually be established in the United States constitution. He also laid out the concept of the separation of powers that would become so vital to the governing philosophy of the nation.

Among his many influential thoughts on laws and governance, Adams included a short, but substantial passage about the vital need for quality education, accessible to all citizens:

“Laws for liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

Much like his on-again, off-again friend Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers, Adams saw a clear link between a strong public education system and the health and strength of the American democracy.

He also saw education as a vehicle for previous generations to empower future generations with the ability to learn and prosper, as he eloquently wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail:

“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

But, Adams perhaps made his strongest argument for the value of a strong system of public education in a letter to British reformer John Jebb:

“The Whole People must take upon themselvs the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expences of it. There should not be a district of one Mile Square without a school in it, not founded by a Charitable individual but maintained at the expence of the People themselvs they must be taught to reverence themselvs instead of adoreing their servants their Generals Admirals Bishops and Statesmen.”

As we celebrate Independence Day this week, let’s not forget the importance with which our founding fathers viewed public education in the preservation of American democracy.

Have a happy and healthy July 4th! TrustED will return later this week with more fresh content.