Declining test scores. Illiterate, spiritless, and passive graduates who have little motivation to find a job or succeed. Youngsters with no skills to compete in the marketplace. This is the tragic record of American public education, after billions of dollars and 127 years of direct federal funding.

The results seem more appropriate for a rebellious Soviet-bloc satellite nation, where Moscow wants to break its freedom-loving spirit.

And in fact this is exactly the starting point for Washington’s initial impulse to aid schooling. Civil war. Massive destruction. Enormous casualties, higher than World War II. Bitter hatred and the spirit of vendetta by the victorious North over the conquered Confederate enemy. And that spirit, through the law, lives on today. This is not absurd. The political malice of the 1860’s has long since been buried in human terms. But not in the law, which has a strange life of its own. It has an unswerving trajectory that can go on indefinitely without deflecting from its original mandate, even when that purpose is long extinct.

This is the case now. Children of the I980’s are being given an education that was deemed appropriate for an 1860’s Confederate child. We will never recover from our literacy tailspin until we perceive this and understand Uncle Sam’s original motive for aiding schools.

The Morrill Act

Washington jumped squarely into education in 1862. The Civil War was raging. The Union Army had been suffering major reverses. Robert E. Lee maneuvered to bring the war to the North, and the Union was not sure it would win. In such an atmosphere the Morrill Act passed Congress. This was the closest that Washington had ever come to direct aid to education. Its stated objective was to fund colleges that teach agriculture and mechanic arts, via money raised through federal land-grant sales. The true objective was to bring the Northern perspective to the reconquered areas of the South, to teach the rebel’s children “respect for national authority”—to break their rebellious spirit forever. The three R’s had absolutely nothing to do with this landmark bill.

Senator J.P. Wickersham stated this clearly in 1865: “What can education do for the non-slave-holding whites of the South? The great majority are deplorably ignorant. . . . It is this ignorance that enables the rebel leaders to create a prejudice in the minds of this class of persons against the North and to induce them to enlist in their armies. As long as they are ignorant they will remain tools of political demagogues and therefore be incapable of self-government. They must be educated. . . . A republican form of government cannot long last without providing a system of free schools. . . . Ignorant voters endanger liberty. With free schools in the South there could have been no rebellion in the future . . . when our youth learn to read similar books, similar lessons, we shall become one people, possessing one organic nationality.”

Senator Justin Morrill, in explaining his authorship of the Morrill Act, said, “The role of the national government is to mold the character of the American people.”

All this sounds similar to the Aryan dream. But not everyone believed that spiritual dictatorship was the best course to follow. When Justin Morrill first introduced his bill in 1857, Congress passed it, but President Buchanan vetoed it, saying, “I deem it unconstitutional. It would contribute to the deterioration of the relations between states and federal government.”

With civil war and the expulsion of Southern Democrats, the act became law easily. Seemingly innocuous, in reality it was a war measure, education fused with military and political strategy. The land-grants had hidden strings; Washington controlled curriculum. To insure a uniformly nationalized, anti-Southern slant, land and money could be taken from one state and given to another. Morrill also said his bill provided “something . . . for better support of Christian Churches,” a clearly unconstitutional act, binding state and church together.

Freedmen’s Bureau Schools

1866. The war was over. Millions of former slaves wandered around the South, without work and without the skills and education to survive on their own. Congress created a Freedmen’s Bureau to ease their transition to citizens.

But martial law, via radical Congressional Reconstruction policies, sat squarely on the shattered South. The Radicals enmity meant “turning Dixie into an obedient colony.” This pushed the Freedmen’s Bureau under the War Department instead of the civil Treasury Department, where it was originally intended to go, uniting emancipation with the brutality of martial law. The Radicals saw the bureau as a tool through which the ex-Confederacy could be politically and economically neutered forever and national power centered in the northern industrial states—the Radicals’ own states.

The Freedmen’s Bureau had its own military court system which overruled all local civil courts. Bureau courts twisted decisions to fit War Department policies. The Supreme Court said this was unconstitutional in time of peace. But the bureau went on, unabated, behind the cloak of martial law.

Freedmen’s Bureau courts loosely interpreted the wartime Confiscation Acts and the Morrill land-grant statutes to expropriate massive tracts of choice plantations for private gain and land swindles. The bureau deflated real estate values by the use of public auctions where the prices were bid down to a fraction of their true worth. This way the bureau bought what it could not steal. All this was done in the name of “redistribution” for the Negroes.

The Freedmen’s Bureau had a big education budget. This was the first direct federal aid to schooling. The need to create school buildings fast, without wasting time and money to build them, led to another round of mass confiscation of property, this time in urban areas. President Andrew Johnson said this rape was unconstitutional. But it went on unabated, under the urgency of martial law. In three years the bureau built 630 school houses and placed hundreds more in seized buildings.

Gradually the Freedmen’s Bureau became a shadow government in the South, with more real power via its military backing than either the local civil or carpetbag state governments.

Through this monstrosity federal school aid poured. At first, only soldiers taught. The soldier-teacher obeyed bureau policies via the War Department and the Radical Congress. The three R’s took a backseat; destruction of the Democratic Party was the highest objective. New textbooks were created and all subjects taught from this perspective.

When Negroes got the vote, John Alvord, the bureau’s superintendent of education, said: “Freedmen must be elevated, both in intelligence and character, to guide them in the right use of the ballot and to save them from being dupes of demagogues.” Demagogues were Democrats.

A Radical politician said: “Republicans notice that where there has been the most schooling since the war, the freedmen are surest for our Party.” Few Republican organizers were more active in the South than superintendents and inspectors of freedmen’s schools. Negro schoolhouses became Republican Party headquarters and sites for progressively greater political activity.

As a result of this perversion of education, it was soon obvious that a glorious graft-filled carpetbag career could spring open via teaching. Loyal bureau men were placed in state legislatures.

To the naive, who thought that schools were for learning, there was a price to pay. Reverend Duncan was the bureau’s chief officer in Florida. He had the audacity to refuse to use his school system to distribute copies of a Radical speech by Congressman Thad Stevens, who proposed to pay the war debt by confiscating more rebel property. Duncan lost his job.

The bureau’s mandate was only to teach blacks. But it was imperative to change the values of the Southern whites. There was less concern for their racism than for their ability to make war again. Thus, contrary to the law, classes were forcibly integrated, not to promote healthy race relations, but to have captive whites to brainwash into being “loyal to authority.”

Of course this caused social unrest, which justified a continued military presence, continued funding of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and continued domination of the South. Chaos, not peace and racial harmony, was the objective of the bureau.

Bureau education led to the same kind of dependency for the former slaves that they experienced on the plantation: control of their morals, views, and life-styles. Superintendent Alvord organized the “Lincoln Temperance Association,” used force, violence, and jail to end their “superstitions, immorality,” and improper manners. Alvord’s “Vanguard of Freedom” forced freedmen to pledge against tobacco, alcohol, and profanity.

Such policies showed that the bureau—and Congress—believed that the freedmen were incapable of making it on their own. This enforced dependence required perpetual funding, which meant a continued federal presence.

In an annual report Alvord showed the degree of control the bureau had over freedmen’s lives. In addition to teaching “sewing, straw-braiding, repairing, cutting, making garments,” his idea of education meant “the improvement of home life and family condition, the encouragement of intelligent industry, thrift and the accumulation of property, the establishment of families in homesteads,” and chastity and marital fidelity. Alvord hoped to take girls from their homes and establish seminaries where refined virtue could be taught to them.

General Armstrong, who founded the Hampton Institute via a bureau subsidy, was a paternalist in the most literal sense. He regarded freedmen as children who would improve their socioeconomic status only if they allowed benevolent whites to assist them. Henry Turner, who headed a private aid group, said: “Colored children are being taught to remember ‘you are Negroes. Your place is behind.'” When Turner asked a bureau teacher about higher learning, the answer was: “Oh, the colored children are not prepared for these studies yet. They are too ignorant. It will take time enough to talk about that, years from this time.”

June 1868. The Freedmen’s Bureau’s “education” efforts paid off. Seven Southern states were readmitted to Congress. Twelve of the 14 senators were Republicans. Thirty-two of the 34 representatives were Republicans.

November 1868: Ulysses S. Grant won the national election by the narrowest margin: 309,000 votes. But he received 450,000 Negro votes. The bureau had kept the Radicals in power.

As a result, even a Northern Republican, Eber Ward, shuddered. “The Freedmen’s Bureau, that was designed as a most beneficent engine of good, has been so perverted from its original object that it ought to be abolished at once.”

The Bureau of Education and the Census of 1870

1869. Freedmen’s Bureau funding was withering as relations between North and South inched toward normalization. The only money remaining was to keep “common schools in country places and to cooperate with public school officers in rendering effective the public school system of the states.” So, even as it sank, the bureau’s role expanded into the Southern civil apparatus.

As he resigned in October 1870, John Alvord said that “educational initiatives must be continued. The masses of the freedmen are ignorant.” Congress obliged. A low-profile Bureau of Education was created within the Interior Department. Its mandate seemed harmless. “Collecting such statistics and facts as to show the condition and progress of education in the several states.” But it did have a clear objective—to focus its statistics on the South, to guarantee a federal presence there. Its second commissioner was John Eaton, a famed carpetbagger, long associated with the excesses of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Eaton soft-pedaled the Bureau of Education’s role, saying it should do nothing “calculated to decrease local or individual effort for education.” Yet he also pointedly said that the bureau was designed to be “an essential and permanent part of reconstruction,” as if it would go on forever. Moreover, the statistics collected would be used to prove whether the Morrill land-grant money had been “spent wisely.” If not, “the government may take such exceptional action as exceptional circumstances may require . . . for the assurance of a republican form of government.”

So the statistics could be generated to provoke such exceptional action by proving that the South was not educating its young.

1870. The once-a-decade census was underway. The Bureau of Education “worked with” the census field people to get the correct numbers. One contemporary source said that “data primarily from the 1870 and 1880 census cannot be considered as accurate, in view of the inadequate census techniques and unreliable appraisals of property values.”

The techniques were inadequate because wide areas of the South were still under martial law and census-takers could not canvas door-to-door unless accompanied by Union troops, whose presence insured the “correct” numbers. Property appraisals were unreliable since enormous tracts had been confiscated by the Freedmen’s Bureau and sold at auction to speculators or friends or freedmen at a fraction of their true worth. Land valuation was critical to education. It related to taxation for school construction.

As a result of this collusion, the numbers looked like this: Northern and Western states spent $2,225 per child in taxable wealth; the South, $851. Further, illiteracy was defined by the bureaus of Education and the Census as “cannot write.”

By this definition the North had 7.7 percent illiteracy; the Pacific area, 15 percent. The South, 42 percent. But a second question, “cannot read,” was discarded. This question made the numbers much closer.

These statistics caused a national sensation. Congressmen, particularly Radical Republicans, clamored for legislation to pour massive federal dollars into the South to correct the deficiency. Yet, in the heated Congressional debates that followed, even the detractors of federal aid didn’t see the fraud behind the numbers.

First, the census questions could only be answered by a head of household or someone 21 years or older. These people were the illiterates. Since most children finished school at 15 in that era, the questions (particularly when fused with “illiteracy by voters”) had been skewed to that group who would never benefit by aid. Yet it was this group that was paraded as a conclusive argument for federal support.

President Ulysses S. Grant referred to the census data in a message to Congress. “I recommend a Constitutional amendment . . . making it the duty of the several states to establish and forever maintain free public schools . . . [and] make education compulsory so far as to deprive all persons who cannot read and write from being voters after the year 1890.”

In one move Grant could force Radical views down the throats of the South and disqualify half his political opposition.

The census statistics present a barbaric, indifferent South. But that is implausible. Several prewar Southern states had the finest locally funded school systems in the country. North Carolina is a prime example. And all Reconstruction state constitutions had s clause creating public, taxsupported education for all children, regardless of race.

The Reverend A.D. Mayo was a Radical Republican and an executive in the quasi-private Peabody Fund. This was a gigantic multimillion dollar school endowment, matching local Southern tax monies. Mayo was considered one of the top education experts in the country. He hated the South and dreamed of reforming it in the image of New England, but even he had to admit that the Southern states focused more effort on schooling than the North. “In many of the Southern states the school tax is higher than in the Northern states that maintain a splendid school system.”

Dr. Mayo’s views were sacrosanct in Congress. He had a huge impact on legislative efforts and national policy. He pointed out, using census data and his own personal experience, that the rural South was mired in extreme illiteracy. But it was the policies of the Peabody Fund and the Freedmen’s Bureau that created this. Both agencies focused their efforts and money on high-density urban areas to more easily control the student population. Rural families were pushed into the cities to get “better” federal schooling for their children. This denuded the countryside of most school-age children. Then the consequences were hurled back into the South’s face as proof of its incompetence.

The census data of 1870 through 1890 projected the same dismal story for the South. Stagnating illiteracy. Slight gains here and there, a hopeful state here and there, but overall, failure. No one seemed to notice that the Census Bureau was mixing apples and oranges, presenting longterm trends based on unrelated statistics.

To accurately project a trend the same questions must be asked each time. But the census questions kept subtly changing.

In 1870, one question read: “Attended school within the year?” In 1880 that became, “Attended school within the census year, June 1-May 30?” This is significant. The national average number of days of school attendance in any year was about one hundred. The “when” of those hundred days fluctuated widely by region, depending on crop planting and harvesting seasons and weather. The change in the question helped keep the literacy numbers bunched higher in the North, decade after decade.

In 1870 and 1880 the questions “cannot read/cannot write?” were asked. 1890: “Able to read/able to write?” replaced it. These are very different questions. Again, this resulted in Northern numbers remaining higher. Major school legislation was proposed based on those statistics.

The Hoar and Blair Bills

George Hoar, Republican representative from Massachusetts, introduced the first civil peacetime bill for direct federal aid to common schools in 1870. It was pure tyranny. Via direct federal tax, funds would be distributed to the states based on census illiteracy data.

Hoar said: “It will compel the states to do what they will not do and to do for them what they cannot do.” Hoar rationalized his bill in terms of “intelligent voting.” He said the Democrats opposed it because “that party knows that the greater the ignorance of the masses the greater its political power, hence it denounces the light of education.” Another side effect of the Hoar Bill was “extinguishing Catholic or religious education and to form one homogeneous American people after the New England evangelical type.” The bill passed the House but was narrowly beaten back in the Senate.

By the late 1870’s direct military rule over the South was waning. The new Republican President, Rutherford B. Hayes—who won his election only because of massive military intervention at the Southern polls—was committed to the same kind of federal extortion in the classroom. He requested funds from Congress for that purpose. “To perpetuate the Union and abolish slavery was the work of the war. To educate the uneducated is the appropriate work of the peace.” Behind the noble words emerged a plan to permanently enslave the South. Senator Henry Blair put Hayes’ plan into legislative form.

The Blair Bill, “for the temporary support of common schools,” provoked a decade-long struggle in Congress, as the danger of national aid became clearer to the public. Like its predecessors, Blair linked federal aid to illiteracy, making the South the greatest recipient. Blair went further than any legislator had dared before. He confessed that his plan would not be temporary. And it was “necessary to prevent the growth of illiteracy and anarchy in the North, especially in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.” This would spread mind-control nationally.

President Hayes wanted to enlighten the public about the virtues of the Blair Bill. He asked an old friend, Albion Tourgee, to write and speak toward that goal. Tourgee, a former carpetbagger Supreme Court justice in North Carolina, hated the South. He had been called “Tourgee the Infamous” and “Tourgee the Cain-Marked.”

Tourgee spent the entire decade fanatically promoting the Blair Bill. “Make the spelling book the sceptor of national power” became his theme. The Blair Bill would achieve his dream; the destruction of the South’s moral and cultural traditions and the Democratic Party into the indefinite future. Tourgee’s novel. Bricks Without Straw, was less fiction than a diatribe promoting federal school funding. It was a major best-seller.

Opposing Blair and Tourgee almost single-handedly was Edward Clark, the editorial writer for The New York Evening Post. Throughout the 1880’s Clark showed the American public the dangers. He alone saw how the census data had been twisted and misinterpreted by Dr. Mayo. “Illiteracy,” he wrote, “is bad but it is not the worst thing. There is nothing more demoralizing to a state than the assumption of its own duty by the authorities in Washington . . . unless it is arrested there is . . . grave danger for our future as a nation.”

Clark’s editorials and Tourgee’s own zealotry killed Blair. It had passed the Senate in 1884, 1886, and 1888, and each time narrowly failed the House. But Tourgee could not support it as it stood, since each state would distribute the federal funds. Tourgee saw the South as hopelessly reactionary, and would not trust it to use the money in the correct way. Tourgee insisted on bypassing state authority. Since this proved impossible, he withdrew his support, and the Blair Bill died.

The Hatch Act

While the nation’s attention was focused on the struggle over Blair, a smaller, apparently inoffensive education bill glided through Congress without difficulty. It passed because the appropriations were minuscule compared to Blair, and it did not concentrate on regional literacy. But in the long run the Hatch Act proved devastating.

The 1887 Hatch Act, or “Agricultural Experimental Station Act,” seemed to be a simple subsidy to land-grant schools to improve farming techniques. Wrong. In the never-never world of Congressional double-talk, “agricultural” specifically referred to public lands used for the land-grant schools. It did not mean crop or livestock experimentation. Hatch meant school experimentation related to human behavior. Nationally. An amendment to Hatch (the Purnell Act) clearly expresses this. It “extends the areas of investigation by the experimental stations to include . . . sociological investigations as have for their purpose the development and improvement of the rural home and rural life.” This is not about soybean production. This is about human behavior.

These events of more than a century ago have greater meaning for today. Mssrs. Morrill, Blair, and Hatch would be pleased with the 1980’s. It has taken a long time, but their ideals have come to pass. Like their hope for docile Confederate children, our children respect national authority, are passive, have little motivation to succeed, and only the skills to get menial jobs.

So it is as true today as in 1877, when a Baltimore school board president said: “There are those who hold that republics can be saved by the general diffusion of education. But the most effectively despotic government in Europe—Germany—is the one in which education is most diffused.”