The Origins of Public Education in Baltimore, 1825–1829

  • Tina H. Sheller


The third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century witnessed nationwide agitation for public schools. While our understanding of this movement is far from complete, it is apparent that the receptivity of American communities to this institution varied considerably. Theoretically, large cities experiencing the shift to capitalist modes of production and the accompanying social disorder should have been most receptive to the common school idea. Indeed, in some (Eastern) cities undergoing these dramatic socioeconomic changes, the proposal to introduce a system of uniform, publicly controlled and operated schools which would instruct children from all classes in the community was adopted with considerable public approval and a minimum of opposition.1 In St. Louis, Selwyn Troen has documented the existence of widespread opposition along class and ethnic lines to the institution of public schools.2 Public education also received a hostile reception from community leaders in Baltimore, which was, in 1820, the third largest city in the United States.


Public School City Council School Leader Free School School Supporter 
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  1. 1.
    Michael B. Katz, “The Origins of Public Education: A Reassessment,” History of Education Quarterly 16 (Winter 1976): 391–93;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Stanley K. Schultz, The Culture Factory: Boston Public Schools, 1789–1860 (New York, 1973), p. 41;Google Scholar
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    For the growing class polarization during the 1820s in Baltimore, see Browne, Baltimore in the Nation, pp. 96–98; Whitman H. Ridgway, Community Leadership in Maryland, 1790–1840 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1979), pp. 89–95.Google Scholar
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    Leroy Graham, “Elisha Tyson, Baltimore, and the Negro” (M.A. thesis, Morgan State University, 1975), pp. 43, 84; W. G. D. Worthington Diary, 1825, Box 270, Joseph Toner Collection, Library of Congress;Google Scholar
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    For the House of Industry, see Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County, pp. 826–27; “Report of the Trustees of the House of Industry,” December 26, 1822, Documents 514, 515, Baltimore City Archives. For the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, see Blanche D. Coll, “The Baltimore Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, 1820–1822,” American Historical Review, 61 (October 1955): 77–87. For the Maryland Colonization Society, see Fifth Annual Report of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color (Washington, D.C., 1822), p. 111. The fate of the House of Industry further points up the type of conflict surrounding the public schools. In December 1826, the trustees of the House of Industry suggested that the City Council sell the House of Industry property, donate the proceeds to the Almshouse, which accomplished what the H. of I. had originally intended to do, and then obtain “an efficient vagrant act, by which vagrants, the youthful portion of them at least, may be removed from our streets and placed under the care and control of the Trustees of the Almshouse.” The following month, a committee from the First Branch argued that since the City Council had recently been authorized to establish public schools, the proceeds ought to go to these schools, “the best corrective of pauperism.” The Second Branch defeated this proposal, favoring instead the suggestion of the H. of I. trustees. “Report of the Trustees of the House of Industry,” 28 December 1826, Document 1288; “Report of the Committee on the House of Industry.” 16 January 1827, Document 771; “Report of a Committee on the House of Industry,” 29 January 1827, Document 772, Baltimore City Archives, Journal of the Second Branch of the City Council, 8 February, 30 January 1827, Baltimore City Archives.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    In their views of education and social organization, traditional Baltimoreans were representative of the Southern mindset. See William R. Taylor, “Toward a Definition of Orthodoxy: The Patrician South and the Common School,” Harvard Educational Review 36 (Fall 1966): 412–26. The views of public school proponents, on the other hand, resembled those William Cutler has described in his analysis of the trustees of the New York Public School Society: “Theirs was not a distaste for social mobility by anyone, regardless of his background. For years they helped to send a few of the Society’s brightest graduates to Columbia College, the University of New York, and the Rutger’s Female Institute. But the Trustees firmly believed that social mobility, as well as citizenship, had to entail habits of moral order including a respect for industry, authority, and self-discipline.” “Status, Values, and the Education of the Poor: The Trustees of the New York Public School Society, 1805–1853,” American Quarterly 24 (March 1972): 81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© John L. Rury 2005

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  • Tina H. Sheller

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