Title: Department of Superintendence of the National Education Association
Date: February 22, 1926
Location: Washington, D.C.
Context: President Coolidge addresses superintendents of the National Education Association reminding them of the heritage and passion of our ancestors in pursuing education and the value of continuing it for our youth
Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is doubtful if anyone outside of certain great religious teachers ever so thoroughly impressed himself on the heart of humanity as has George Washington. No figure in America has been the subject of more memorial tributes and more unstinted praise. And yet the subject never seems to be exhausted and the public interest never seems to be decreased. The larger our experience with affairs of the world, the more familiar we become with his life and teachings, the more our admiration enlarges, and the greater grows our estimation of his wisdom. He represented the marvelous combination of the soldier, the patriot, and the statesman. In the character of each he stands supreme.
As a brave soldier he won the Revolutionary War. As an unselfish patriot he refused to use the results of that victory for his own benefit, but bestowed them all on his fellow countrymen. As a wise statesman, gathering around him the best talent of his time, he created the American Republic. All the increasing years only reveal to us how universally great he was. If to set a mark upon the minds of men which changes the whole course of human events is teaching, then Washington ranks as a prince of teachers.
The world is not the same as that into which he was born on that February day in 1732. It is a better world. The stately march of civilization which has since advanced so far has proceeded in a course which he marked out. The imposing edifice of human progress which has since been raised so high rests to a large extent upon the foundations which he wrought. To those who wish more civilization and more progress there must be a continuing determination to hold to that course and to maintain those foundations. If any doubt what benefit these have been, they have but to compare the present state of America especially, or even of the rest of the world, with what it was when Washington was born.
History seems to indicate that he led and directed a transformation that was growing with an increasing strength over western civilization. The fires of the Middle Ages had burned out. The reaction from the days of Cromwell had run its course in England. The glory of the old regime in France was declining. The power of Spain was shifting to other hands. But while the old was passing the new had not yet begun. Materially and spiritually, things were at a low ebb in the Old World. It has been described as a time “when poetry sank into dull prose; when philosophy rarely soared above the material or the purely logical; when the only earnestness existing took the direction of greed or self-indulgence; when the public service was corrupt; when public morals were licentious and when common language was profane.”
The finances of the people were in a disordered condition. It was distinctly a transition period in America. The early settlers who had come from the old country had passed away. A very large proportion of the inhabitants of the Colonies, estimated by some as nearly 90 per cent, were native born. The pioneer crusading fervor was gone. The new awakening had not come. The attachment to those institutions that are represented by an order of nobility was breaking down. Both in the Old World and in the New the ancient aristocracy was crumbling; but the modern democracy had not arisen. An era was approaching which was to give less and less attention to kings and more and more attention to the people. In that era Washington was to be the heroic figure.
No doubt the most powerful influence which was working to establish the new order was the revival of religion. This movement had been started in England by John Wesley and George Whitefield in 1729. It was distinctly an effort to reach the common people. They went down among those who were not otherwise reached, preaching the gospel. In America, Jonathan Edwards led two revival movements, culminating in 1742. Whitefield came to this country and preached to great congregations during this period, and the followers of Wesley sent Bishop Asbury here in 1771. These religious activities were distinctly popular movements. They rested on the theory that every human soul was precious. They resulted in a leveling process; but it was not a leveling down, it was a leveling up. They raised every person that came under their influence to a higher conception of life. A new recognition of spiritual worth gave to all humanity an increased importance.
Another very predominating influence, supplementing religion and flowing from it, was education. This movement was not new in the Colonies but it increased in volume after 1732. It has been claimed that the Reformed Dutch Church of New York founded an academy in 1633 and that the Boston Latin School was established in 1635. In the same year Boston took action in a town meeting to support a school, and in Connecticut and Rhode Island schools were opened within a few years. In Philadelphia, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, and other Colonies, early action was taken to provide schools, but the effort was not followed up so assiduously as it was in New England, where the clergy were very active in its promotion. This influence was seen in the first compulsory school law in America, which was passed in Massachusetts in 1647, “* * * it being one chief project of the old deluder Satan to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures,” the preamble recited, the General Court ordered that each township “after the Lord hath increased them to the number of 50 householders shall then forthwith appoint one within every town to teach all such children to write and read.”
Towns of 100 families were required to have a grammar school and a teacher able to prepare youths for the university. Penalties were fixed for the violation of this law.
In 1732 there were already three colleges in America–Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale–with a combined attendance which is estimated at about 275 students.
The intellectual awakening that went on between that time and the opening of the Revolutionary War could not be more plainly revealed than by the establishment during that period of only a little over 40 years of no less than 10 additional colleges. Then were laid the beginnings of such great institutions as Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, and Dartmouth. When it is remembered that a knowledge of the truth has always been the maker of freedom, this remarkable quickening of the religious and intellectual life of the Colonies in these years just prior to the Declaration of Independence becomes of enormous significance. Rightly considered, it would have been an ominous warning to the British Government that America had long since begun to think for itself and unless justly treated would soon begin to act for itself.
While this intellectual and spiritual awakening was taking place during the youth and maturing years of Washington, he benefited by it not so much from taking part in it as in later directing the results of it. Although he lived in one of the most populous and perhaps richest of the Colonies, popular education around him was still undeveloped. Newspapers were almost unknown in the New World and permanent and regular lines of transportation did not exist. About the only regular visitors to his Colony were foreign tobacco traders, dealers in fur, and peddlers. The clergy were almost the only professional class. The people were very largely engaged in agriculture.
At the early age of 3, however, Washington was placed under the instruction of a tutor, who seems to have confined his teaching to the most rudimentary subjects. When he was 11 another man took charge of his education and began to instruct him in the fundamentals of the forms of business. Some of his copy books of that day are still in existence. There is evidence that he was taught some Latin, but his preliminary education was virtually completed when he was 13 years old. Paul Leicester Ford says that “the end of Washington’s school days left him a good cipherer, a bad speller, and a still worse grammarian; but fortunately the termination of instruction did not by any means end his education.”
After this he studied surveying and pursued that occupation for several years. This was an exacting calling, training him in accuracy. But when he was 15 he came into close contact with Lord Fairfax, a cultured gentleman of 60 years, who had a considerable library. His diaries of that period show him reading English history and essays in the Spectator. But these early opportunities constituted only the beginning of his education, which he continued in one form or another almost to the end of his days. His experience, his power of observation and absorption finally overcame this lack of early training, so that in his later days his writings, correct in form and taste, adequately revealed the great strength of character which he had developed.
Perhaps because of his own early experience he was the more solicitous for the members of his family. To one who was charged with the care of John Washington he wrote as follows:
“In respect to the kinds and manner of his study, I leave it wholly to your better judgment. Had he begun, or rather pursued, his study of the Greek language, I should have thought it no bad acquisition; but whether if he acquire this now, he may not forego some useful branches of learning, is a matter worthy of consideration. To be acquainted with the French tongue is become part of polite education; and to a man who has the prospect of mixing in a large circle absolutely necessary. Without arithmetik, the common affairs of life are not to be managed with success. The study of geometry and mathematics (with due regard to the limites of it) is equally advantageous. The principles of philosophy, morals, etc., I should think a very desirable knowledge for a gentleman.”
His practical interest in education in his later life was further manifest by his accepting the position of a chancellor of William and Mary College in 1788.
In religion he conformed to the practice of his time. It is related that he was baptized when two months old and probably attended church regularly until he was 16. From that time until 1759 he was largely engaged in expeditions. After his marriage and settlement at Mount Vernon he was made vestryman in two parishes, for one of which he was instrumental in erecting a building. While he was not a constant church attendant, he was a constant contributor and always gave respectful consideration to the religious beliefs of others. He was tolerant in all things.
The mature opinion of Washington upon the importance of the intellectual, moral, and religious forces of the Nation is not only revealed by his actions, but is clearly set forth in his statements. He looked upon these attributes as the foundation which supported the institutions of our Republic. This opinion was most forcibly expressed in his farewell address, where he said:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.
Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. ‘Tis substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”
The policies of Washington always had a national outlook. He warned his country against sectionalism. He promoted internal improvements calculated to bring together different parts of the Nation. When he came to the consideration of the problem of training the youth of the country he was not only in favor of education for its own sake, but sought to make it contribute to the national spirit. Believing thoroughly in American ideals and in the American Union, it early occurred to him that a national university would be beneficial both by the power it would have to present the principles on which the Republic was founded, and the power it would have to resist provincialism, by creating a forum for the exchange of ideals through a student body drawn from all quarters of the Nation. It is said that he expressed this thought soon after he took command of the Continental Army at Cambridge. He referred to it in a general discussion of the subject of education in one of his early messages to the Congress, in which he said:
“Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in the opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of happiness. In one in which the measures of government receive their impressions so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours it is proportionably essential. To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways–by convincing those who are interested with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority, between brethren, proceeding from a disregard to their convenience, and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first and avoiding the last; and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments with an inviolable respect for the laws.
“Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording aids to seminaries of learning already established, by the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients, will be worthy of a place in the deliberations of the legislature.”
And in his farewell address he again uttered this same thought as follows:
“Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
He urged it more strongly in a letter to the Commissioners of the District of Columbia in 1795, and finally he declared in his will–
“That as it has always been a source of serious regret with me to see the youth of these United States sent to foreign countries for the purpose of education, often before their minds were formed or they had imbibed any adequate ideas of the happiness of their own, contracting too frequently not only habits of dissipation and extravagance, but principles unfriendly to republican government and to the true and genuine liberties of mankind, which thereafter are rarely overcome. For these reasons it has been my ardent wish to see a plan devised on a liberal scale which would have a tendency to spread systematic ideas through all parts of this rising Empire, thereby to do away local attachments and State prejudices as far as the nature of things would, or indeed ought to admit, from our national councils.
“Looking anxiously forward to the accomplishment of so desirable an object as this is (in my estimation), my mind has not been able to contemplate any plan more likely to effect the measure than the establishment of a university in a central part of the United States to which the youth of fortune and talents from all parts thereof might be sent for the completion of their education in all the branches of polite literature in arts and sciences–in acquiring knowledge in the principles of politics and good government–and (as a matter of infinite importance in my judgment) by associating with each other and forming friendships in juvenile years, be enabled to free themselves in a proper degree from those local prejudices and habitual jealousies which have just been mentioned and which when carried to excess are never failing sources of disquietude to the public mind and pregnant of mischievous consequences to this country.”
And he therefore made a bequest to the National Government on condition that it cooperate in carrying out his wish for a national university.
His desire for the increase of knowledge was further elaborated and reiterated in his will. In that instrument he even provided for educating the slave children which he set free. He made bequests to two academies besides that for the founding of a national university. Although the Congress failed to cooperate, so that this wish was never carried into effect as he had contemplated it, yet the city of Washington has been made the seat of no less than 10 colleges and universities, and the larger institutions all over our country are more national than local in their precepts and teaching.
While there has been agitation lasting almost up to the present day for a national university, if the idea prevails it will probably not be an institution devoted to the regular collegiate courses, but one for post-graduate and original research work, for which there are such abundant sources and opportunities already located in the Capital City. The Federal Government, however, has not been remiss in the support of advanced learning and of vocational training, or which it has appropriated more than $90,000,000 in the last 35 years, while for general educational purposes it has donated about 95,000.000 acres of the public lands.
The country at large has not failed to follow the precepts of Washington. From the three institutions of higher learning in existence at the time of his birth the number has grown to 913, with a total enrollment of over 664,000 students and over 56,000 teachers, an endowment of nearly $815,000,000, and a property value of over $1,000,000,000. Our elementary and secondary schools have expanded until they provide for more than 26,000,000 pupils and require over 822,000 teachers. In 1912 the total amount expended yearly for all educational purposes was about $706,000,000. This has been increasing with great rapidity, until in 1924 it reached $2,400,000,000. The source of this enormous expenditure, so far as public money is concerned, is almost entirely from the local and State governments.
This represents the result which has been secured by the carrying out of some of the most important policies of our first President. It should be noted that these are the policies of peace. They are based on a desire for intellectual and moral enlightenment. They are the only means by which misunderstandings, suspicions, hatreds, and wars can finally be eradicated from the earth. They are the foundation of order, of law, and of an advancing civilization. It is these elements of domestic tranquility and foreign harmony that Washington helped to build into the structure of our institutions. There is no other structure on which they can rest.
Envy, malice, uncharitableness, class jealousies, race prejudices and international enmities are not realities. They do not abide. They are only the fictions of unenlightened comprehension. Those who preach them are not safe advisers and not sound leaders. Nothing but discord and disaster at home and abroad can result from following these policies. Washington was the antithesis of all this. His writings and teachings breathe a higher, broader purpose, a more inspired leadership. No man clung more tenaciously to what he believed was right, or was prepared to make greater sacrifices in its support. But he viewed the right as a universal principle, to be applied not only to himself but to others, not only to his own State but to the Nation, not only to his own countrymen but to foreigners. There was nothing about him of the small American.
He believed our own political institutions were superior to those of other countries, but he never preached hatred of all things foreign and he made large concessions in the negotiation of treaties for the settlement of disputed questions which were for the advantage of foreign nations. He believed that obligations were mutual; that what we expected to receive we should be ready to give, both in the field of citizenship and in the larger domain of international relations. He clung to the realities. That was his greatness.
Washington has been known as one of the most practical of leaders. He was not emotional. He was possessed of that broad comprehension of a situation which made his judgment eminently sound. With the possible exception of the field of Monmouth, when disobedience to his orders amounting almost to treachery was losing the day, history always reveals him as calm, cool, and collected. He always knew what he was doing. He was not a sentimentalist. But he was a man capable of deep and abiding affection and of exalted and inspiring ideals. He loved his country with an abounding devotion. He lavished upon it a wealth of genius.
We are wont to think of him as a military commander and a civil administrator–as a man of public affairs. He was surpassingly great in all of that. But he was very much more. He wished to see his country not only materially prosperous and politically successful, but beyond that, and above it, he wished to see the intellectual, moral, and spiritual life of the people developed. This is the side of Washington to which too little attention has been given. He did not fail during his lifetime to give the most painstaking thought to these subjects. In his farewell address be solemnly warned his countrymen that these are the foundations on which rest all American institutions. More than that, they are the foundations on which all civilization must rest. It is as an expounder of these great principles that he performed the greatest service for the world.
Our country has prospered, our Government is secure. But that prosperity and that security flow from the school and the church. They are the product of the mind and the soul. They are the result of the character of the American people. Through and through Washington is the great example of character. He sought to bestow that heritage upon his country. We shall fail in our estimation and understanding of him unless we remember that during his lifetime he helped to build a place of religious worship; in his will he provided for institutions of learning, and in his farewell address he emphasized the spiritual values of life. But what he did was even more eloquent than what he said. He was a soldier, a patriot, a statesman; but in addition to all these he was a great teacher.
Citation: Everett Sanders Papers, LoC
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Robert Manchester, who prepared this document for digital publication.
President Coolidge delivered a message on the importance of acquiring and increasing knowledge. He uses the example of George Washington who recognized the need for learning within his own life. Washington knew that knowledge is the basis of happiness, and it builds character. The colonies recognized the importance of teaching children to read and write.