Thomas Jefferson and Public Education

In Walking in Darkness at Noonday I stated:

If Jesus Christ is the Author of the agency of man in the heavens, then His John the Baptist for the introduction and establishment of that doctrine in government on the earth was Thomas Jefferson (pg. 134).

I also made the case that compulsory secularized tax-payer funded public schools are the modern day vehicle for “education after the order of Nehor” (pg. 152) and that it is destructive of the agency of man.

Yet, Thomas Jefferson proposed to establish public education in America. How could this seeming contradiction be?

Jefferson was profoundly concerned with the safety and preservation of the Republic. He understood that there is no salvation in ignorance:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe. (Letter to Col. Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816)

Accordingly, Jefferson considered an educated and informed citizenry to be fundamental to maintaining liberty and tried, at both the federal and state level (in Virginia) to assure the general availability of a basic education to all, thus

…rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. For this purpose the reading in the first stage, where they will receive their whole education, is proposed…to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views. In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness will insensibly open, cultivate, and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe their minds must be improved to a certain degree…An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe. (Notes on the State of Virginia, Chapter 18, Epilogue: Securing the Republic)

In his State of the Union address on Dec. 2, 1806 Thomas Jefferson proposed that the federal government support education:

“Their patriotism would certainly prefer its continuance and application to the great purposes of the public education, roads, rivers, canals, and such other objects of public improvement as it may be thought proper to add to the constitutional enumeration of Federal powers…Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal…I suppose an amendment to the Constitution, by consent of the states, necessary, because the objects now recommended are not among those enumerated in the Constitution, and to which it permits the public moneys to be applied…The present consideration of a national establishment for education particularly is rendered proper by this circumstance also, that if Congress, approving the proposition, shall yet think it more eligible to found it on a donation of lands, they have it now in their power to endow it with those which will be among the earliest to produce the necessary income.”

In his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson proposed that such public education be targeted to benefit the poor only and only for two to three years, thus giving all citizens an opportunity to obtain a good basic education. Beyond this basic education, further educational opportunities would be offered to a limited few of the poor who excelled. But education was not to be compulsory, for, reasoned Jefferson:

“Is it a right or a duty in society to take care of their infant members in opposition to the will of the parent? How far does this right and duty extend? –to guard the life of the infant, his property, his instruction, his morals? . . . It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation and education of the infant against the will of the father. . . What is proposed. . . is to remove the objection of expense, by offering education gratis, and to strengthen parental excitement by the disfranchisement of his child while uneducated. “ (The Elementary School Act of 1817, proposed legislation that Thomas Jefferson sent to Joseph C. Cabell on 9 September 1817 with an accompanying letter)

Repeating a theme from his State of the Union address quoted above, the education he proposed was to be directed by parents, not the government.

“But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the Governor and Council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further and amend the bill so as to commit to the Governor and Council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores” (Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Cabell, Feb. 2, 1816).

From these quotes we may glean some fundamental principles of Jefferson’s ideas for public education.

  • He favored publicly supported education only for the poor and only for two to three years with limited exceptions.
  • At the federal level, he recognized that education was no part of the authority of the government and could only be addressed by an amendment to the Constitution.
  • His proposal at the federal level called for funding by the donation of lands, not from taxes, to create an endowment to fund education.
  • He believed that education should never be compulsory, and that
  • Education should be directed by parents, never by the government at any level.

At the federal level, his proposal was not unlike the Perpetual Education Fund, which helps the poor with voluntary donations. His proposal to establish publicly funded education for the poor in the State of Virginia was to be funded by a tax of one cent on each citizen of the state, for:

…the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests & nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance (letter to George Wythe, August 13, 1786).

Thomas Jefferson’s determination to preserve the safety and viability of the American Republic by promoting a system of public education for those who could not otherwise afford an education was certainly not misplaced. Knowledge and truth are essential if liberty is to be preserved.

Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honourable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst (Isaiah 5:13).

Further, knowledge, truth, and liberty are essential to eternal salvation:

It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6)

Jefferson was right about the value and importance of education. That said, the system of education he proposed in Virginia is still “education after the order of Nehor,” which is ultimately destructive of the agency of man. But you and I have the benefit of access to the Book of Mormon, to the pure doctrines of Jesus Christ, and to Walking in Darkness at Noonday from which to form our views. Thomas Jefferson did not. I’ll give him a pass on this.


About John C. Greene

I am a rapidly aging businessman in Connecticut and author of Walking in Darkness at Noonday; married since 1975 to Kyong Sook; three children, long time empty-nester. I have been a convert member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over half my life. While a member of a rock band in LA in the mid-1970s I became fascinated with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's story of solitary bravery in the face of political imprisonment, his exile from his homeland, and his book "Gulag Archipelago." The book had a profound impact on me as it made me realize that there is a vast difference between the land Solzhenitsyn was born to and the land where I was so fortunate to have been born. That was the beginning of my interest in liberty, correct principles of government, and the peculiarly LDS doctrine we call the agency of man.
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