Horace Mann (May 4, 1796-August 2, 1859), was an educator and a statesman who greatly advanced the cause of universal, free, non-sectarian public schools. Mann also advocated temperance, abolition, hospitals for the mentally ill, and women’s rights. His preferred cause was education, about which he remarked that while “other reforms are remedial; education is preventative.”
Mann was raised in the congregational church in Franklin, Massachusetts under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Emmons, a well known exponent of the “New Light” Calvinism. In Mann’s own words, Emmons “expounded all the doctrines of total depravity, election, and reprobation, and not only the eternity but the extremity of hell torments, unflinchingly and in their most terrible significance, while he rarely if ever descanted on the joys of heaven, and never, in my recollection upon the essential and necessary happiness of a virtuous life.” Mann was by his own account a gullible student of such teachings until the age of fourteen, when his older brother by four years, Stephen, drowned. Emmons used the occasion of Stephen’s funeral to preach of the hell that awaited those dying in an unconverted state. Hearing his mother’s groan of pain at this pronouncement, Mann suspended his Calvinist beliefs in a Creator who could be so cruel, and commenced his life-long belief in the kindness and ethical integrity of God.
After graduating from Brown University and the Litchfield Law School, Mann joined the First Parish (Unitarian) Church of Dedham, Massachusetts after moving to the area in 1823 in order to open his first law practice. In his very first legal case, Mann successfully represented the First Parish Church of Milton (Congregational) in their removal of their minister, who refused to participate in the custom of exchanging his pulpit with his Unitarian colleagues. In the first year of his practice in Dedham Mann was invited to deliver the local Independence Day address. Here he outlined for the first time the basic principles that he would return to in his subsequent public statements, arguing that education, intelligent use of the elective franchise, and religious freedom are the means by which American liberties are preserved. John Quincy Adams, newly elected President, was in attendance that day. Impressed by what he heard, Adams predicted that Mann would have a distinguished career.
While in Dedham Mann served in the Massachusetts legislature, 1827-32. He was instrumental in getting state support for a railroad between Boston and the Hudson River and in getting an asylum for the mentally ill built in Worcester. In 1830 he married Charlotte, daughter of Asa Messer, Unitarian president of Brown University.
After the death of his wife two years later, Mann moved to Boston in 1833, taking up residence at a boarding house run by James Freeman Clarke’s mother. It was here that Mann began his lifelong friendship with many influential Unitarians, including Jared Sparks, Theodore Parker, William Ellery Channing (whose Federal Street Church Mann frequently attended) and Elizabeth, Sophia and Mary Peabody, the latter of whom he married in 1843. Through this marriage he became a friend and relative of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who married Sophia Peabody. The Hawthornes later lived with the Manns. Channing’s amanuensis, Elizabeth Peabody has reported Mann’s reaction to Channing’s 1834 Easter Sunday sermon, “The Future Life,” based upon a text from Ephesians 1:20. Grieving the death of his first wife, Mann was comforted by the way the sermon, in Peabody’s words, “gave laws to the imagination and landmarks to the affections” he had never known before.
After serving three years in the state senate, Mann became Secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. Most of Mann’s educational policies stemmed from his belief in the perfectability of humanity and society through adherence to naturally revealed moral law. In his view, education allowed persons to discern the ethical demands of natural law, thereby creating a responsible and moral citizenry. During his tenure Mann increased the funding available to schools, improved the preparation and support of teachers, and advocated for compassionate discipline.
Mann’s most controversial work for the Board of Education involved his advocacy of nonsectarian religious education. Mann believed children in public schools should be taught the ethical principles common across Christianity but not those doctrines about which different sects disagreed. In his own lifetime he was criticized both by those who felt his approach to be anti-Christian and also by those who felt his “common denominator” approach to Christianity were simply reflections of his own liberal interests in Unitarianism and phrenology. Today he is still criticized by both sides, as religious conservatives often blame him for taking the steps that would lead to the complete secularization of the public school system while liberals sometimes criticize his lack of interest in making public education more comfortable for non-Christians. Practically, however, Mann’s compromise was possibly the only one that could have both satisfied the day’s legal requirement for religious education in the schools and also allowed for the tremendous expansion under his leadership of the availability of public education to an increasingly diverse population.
Mann remained as Secretary of the Board of Education until 1848, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (at first filling out the term of the recently deceased John Quincy Adams) and moved to West Newton, Massachusetts, where he helped to establish the First Unitarian Church. As a Representative Mann was distinguished for his ringing indictments of slavery. Mann’s outspokenness on the issue drew him into closer friendship and correspondence with the Rev. Theodore Parker, who often praised Mann’s work for abolition. Even while working for abolition, though, Mann’s thoughts were still connected to the importance of universal public education as the means for the creation of a just society. During one of his speeches to the House, Mann claimed that “slavery would abolish education, if it should invade a free state; education would abolish slavery, if it could invade a free state.”
In 1851, Mann became the first President of a college being organized by the Christian Church, Antioch, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. At Antioch he quickly fell under the suspicion of the more conservative members of the faculty, who accused Mann of trying to make Unitarians of the entire student body. Mann for his part felt misled, having been assured that Antioch would be determinedly nonsectarian. Feelings were eased somewhat when Mann enlisted Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows, then of the First Unitarian Church of New York, and Dr. Rufus Phineas Stebbins, the first President of Meadville Theological Seminary, to orchestrate a dramatic Unitarian bailout of the college’s shaky finances. Mann uttered perhaps his most famous words to Antioch’s graduating class of 1859, two months before his own death: “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
The Collected Mann Papers, which includes Mann’s journal and many letters and notes are in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. The Antioch College Library in Yellow Springs, Ohio contains a large collection of works by and about Mann, original documents relative to his relationship with the college, and Robert Straker’s 14,000 page typescript copy of some of the materials from the Massachusetts Historical Society. Some of Mann’s most important statements come in the form of his Annual Reports of the Board of Education, all of which are collected, along with other important occasional writings, in Mary Peabody Mann and Georges Combe Mann, The Life and Works of Horace Mann, 5 volumes, (1865, revised with additional material 1891). In addition to many tracts published by Mann in response to his conservative Christian critics, Mann wrote A Few Thoughts for a Young Man (1851), advice for young men on how to use education as a way of living ethically; Slavery: Letters and Speeches (1851); A Few Thoughts on the Power and Duties of Women (1853); Lectures on Education (1855); and Twelve Sermons Delivered at Antioch College (1861), some of his best oratory on the subject of the mission of education.
Twentieth century studies of Mann and his work on education include Raymond B. Culver, Horace Mann and Religion in the Massachusetts Public Schools (1929); E. I. F. Williams, Horace Mann: Educational Statesman (1937); Robert Lincoln Straker, The Unseen Harvest: Horace Mann and Antioch College (1955); Neil Gerald Mc Cluskey, Public Schools and Moral Education: The Influence of Horace Mann, William Torrey Harris, and John Dewey (1958); and Robert Bingham Downs, Horace Mann: Champion of Public Schools (1974). Among other biographical works are Louise Hall Tharp, Until Victory: Horace Mann and Mary Peabody (1953) and Johnathan Messerli, Horace Mann: A Biography (1972).
Article by Susan Ritchie
Posted November 11, 2000