The schools and schoolmasters of Colonial days in Medford.1

by Benj. F. Morrison.
owing to the fact that allusions to the subject of education in its early records are very few and very meagre, comparatively little can now be said with certainty of Medford schools and schoolmasters during the Colonial period. We do know, however, that amid privation and poverty and constant warfare, not only with a harsh climate, but with ‘savage beasts and still more savage men,’ they were laying the foundations of that which we, their descendants, are now richly enjoying. Their children are left to estimate the greatness of their labors by the grandeur of the results which have flowed from them. No commonwealth like Massachusetts can spring up and grow to its present proud position without an adequate cause; and among those who did their share of the work and bore their share of the burdens we may be sure were the early settlers of Medford.

A prominent and discriminating writer has said that ‘everything which has power to win the respect and command the obedience of men must have its roots deep in the past. As with our political institutions so with our schools and educational system generally; they were a copy, more or less exact, of what the people had left behind in Old England.’

The statement is frequently made that by the law of 1647 Massachusetts established the first system of free [p. 2] public schools in the world. But this is hardly true. They were public schools, and many of them were free; but the law made their support permissive rather than compulsory, and direct taxation for their support was by no means universal. In very many cases the town rate, that is, the general tax, was only to supplement other sources of income; and it took many years to make apparent that ‘tuition fees from the rich and free tuition for the poor made class distinctions too pronounced in a new society where in church and state all were equal.’

We must not forget, moreover, that Medford was small and poor and insignificant, enveloped literally and overshadowed by its larger and more prosperous neighbor, Charlestown. It was scarcely more than Governor Cradock's farm; and in 1700 its population probably did not exceed two hundred souls. In 1686 the county rate contained only fourteen names, and the whole number of polls in 1695 was but twenty-six. While the law passed by the Colonial Court in 1692 required every town of fifty householders to support a school for reading and writing, it was not till twenty-seven years later that Medford made any move to establish such a school. Lying so near Boston, we may feel certain that if she had had the requisite number of people she would have been obliged to comply with the law, even if reluctant to do so. Its insignificance, furthermore, may be inferred from the fact that although incorporated as a town in 1630 no one of its people seemed to be aware of the fact till about 1680,—fifty years later,—and the first white child born within its borders had become an old man of eighty-three before it had a settled minister, and this in a thorough-going puritan settlement.

Very likely as she drew her preaching from ministers settled in the surrounding towns, and from young men studying in Harvard college, so her brighter and more ambitious boys managed to attend the public schools [p. 3] established in those places. The distance was not excessive, and the boys of those days did not shrink from such a daily walk as this would require.

‘Moreover, the children of those days learned to spell work with a capital W,’ says Martin in his ‘Evolution of the Public Schools of Massachusetts.’ If they came ‘trailing clouds of glory,’ nevertheless ‘the shades of the prison house’ began early to close about them, and long before they became men they must have perceived ‘the vision splendid die away and fade into the light of common day.’

We are accustomed to think and to say that our ancestors when they landed on these shores brought with them the meeting-house and the school-house, and that these were the corner-stones on which they built. In a certain sense this is true. They brought the meeting-house to be sure, and they gave neither sleep to their eyes nor slumber to their eyelids till they had erected a house wherein to worship God; but the schoolhouse had to wait. The children's day had not then dawned, only the first faint streaks of light were visible above the eastern horizon. Neither Plato in his perfect republic nor Sir Thomas More in his ideal state had ever dreamed of such a thing as the American common school, where every child, the poorest as well as the richest, girl as well as boy, can claim, not as a charity, but as a right, the possession of the keys of all knowledge; and for the support of which a first mortgage is held on every cent of the accumulations of every childless millionaire.

The law of 1642, while recognizing to the full parental responsibility, suggested not only the viciousness of indolence and the educative office of labor, but just as plainly indicated the state ownership of the child and its responsibility for him.

Horace Mann had not yet formulated his three famous propositions on which the common school system of Massachusetts rests: [p. 4]

1st. That the successive generations of men, taken collectively, constitute one great commonwealth.

2d. That the property of this commonwealth is pledged for the education of all its youth up to such a point as will save them from poverty and vice, and prepare them for the adequate performance of their social and civil duties.

3d. That the successive holders of this property are trustees, bound to the faithful execution of their trust by the most sacred obligations; and that embezzlement and pillage from children have not less of criminality, and more of meanness, than the same offences perpetrated against contemporaries.

Although three generations had lived and died and been buried on the banks of the Mystic before the first allusion to the matter of education appears on its records, we may be sure that the children had not been wholly neglected. Domestic instruction by the mother was obliged to take the place of any public schooling, and we may be sure also that women whose hearts were brave enough to follow their husbands to this savage shore were wise enough to see that their babes were not wholly left a prey to ignorance. And so while the husband was fighting Indians and wringing subsistence from a reluctant soil, the wife was seeing to it that the children learned to read the Bible and repeat the catechism and obey the commandments of God.

We may not doubt that the dame school flourished— a school, as the poet Crabbe sings:

Where a poor, deaf, patient widow sits
And awes some thirty urchins as she knits;
Infants of humble, busy wives, who pay
Some trifling price for freedom for the day.
At this good matron's hut the children meet,
Who thus becomes the mother of the street;
Her room is small, they cannot widely stray;
Her threshold high, they cannot run away;
With band of yarn she keeps offenders in,
And to her gown the sturdiest rogues can pin.

[p. 5]

The sanded floor served as blackboard, and the same rod that struck terror to evil-doers made a very good substitute for a crayon, a bit of birch bark or a broad chip made an excellent slate, and charcoal was as good as chalk.

The home, which with their descendants seems to be so fast dying out, was the centre and source of their whole life. ‘It was the conviction,’ says Mayo in his ‘Public Schools in the Colonial Period,’ ‘that every child born into this world is the child of God, capable of becoming a vital and useful member of society; and the corresponding obligation of the community to give to it the opportunity of that training at home, in the church, and in the school, which should send it forth at early manhood or womanhood a self-directing competent person and a reputable citizen of a self-governed state, that was at work silently and persistently below the surface. This conviction was the corner-stone of every respectable New England home, and explains, as nothing else can, the domestic life of that people. And out of the New England home, not from church or state, was born the early New England school. Here was the beginning of the American common school, the most precious gift to the Republic from the genius of New England,—the stone for two hundred and fifty years so persistently rejected by the builders of other commonwealths, but in these later days now recognized as the head of the corner,—the corner-stone of the new republic that cannot be broken, but upon whomsoever it shall fall it shall grind him to powder.’

Their ideas of education were crude, doubtless, but they were fully abreast of the times in which they lived, when only the preacher and the politician, the doctor and the lawyer, needed to know more than to read and write; and when, if a girl knew how to spin and to rock a cradle, she had all the education that was good for her. ‘Of the women,’ says Martin, ‘whose names appear in the recorded deeds of the early part of the eighteenth century, more than sixty per cent. made their mark.’ [p. 6]

In the management of the schools the ministers took a leading part; in fact, when laymen were joined with them as visitors and examiners, the ministers looked upon it rather as an impertinence. The school was opened and closed with prayer, and when the minister visited the school he never neglected to pray with the children. No one but a church member would have been allowed to keep a school, and no one not a church member would have presumed to do so.

Perhaps the following lines from Coote's ‘English Schoolmaster,’ a famous manual of that day in England, may have been the substance of the School Rules and Regulations:

The schoolmaster to his scholars.

My child and scholar, take good heed
     Unto the words that here are set,
And see thou do accordingly,
     Or else be sure thou shalt be beat.

First I command thee God to serve,
     Then to thy parents duty yield;
Unto all men be courteous,
     And mannerly in town and field.

Your clothes unbuttoned do not use;
     Let not your hose ungartered be;
Have handkerchief in readiness;
     Wash hands and face, or see not me.

Lose not your books, inkhorns, or pens,
     Nor girdle, garters, hat, or band;
Let shoes be tied, pin shirt-band close;
     Keep well your hands at any hand.

If broken hosed or shoed you go,
     Or slovenly in your array,
Without a girdle or untrust,
     Then you and I must have a fray.

If that thou cry or talk aloud,
     Or books do rend, or strike with knife,
Or laugh or play unlawfully,
     Then you and I must be at strife.

[p. 7] If that you curse, miscall, or swear,
     If that you pick, filch, steal, or lie,
If you forget a scholar's part,
     Then must you sure your points untie.

If that to school you do not go
     What time doth call you to the same,
Or if you loiter in the streets,
     When we do meet then look for blame.

Wherefore, my child, behave thyself
     So decently in all assays,
That thou mayst purchase parent's love
     And eke obtain thy master's praise.

But they were at work on foundations. They builded better than they knew,—perhaps better in many cases than they intended,—for we may believe that God overrules the unwisdom of the sincere and honest worker and evolves therefrom something far better than he dared to hope for. They planted industry and personal responsibility and the fear of God; they watered the tiny plants with sweat and tears; and there have grown up and spread, till they overshadow a nation of seventy millions, civil and religious liberty and universal education.

At the town meeting the most frequent matters for consideration were the preacher and the meeting-house. The meeting-house, by the way, was literally the meeting-house where all matters secular as well as spiritual were discussed and settled. When every citizen was a member of the church, and no other person was thought fit to vote, and when spiritual and secular affairs were all one, this seemed the proper thing to do.

The first entry in our records concerning schools was on July 20, 1719, when the town voted to hire some meet person to keep a writing school in the town for three or four months in the winter season, and a committee of seven men, consisting of Captain Tufts, Capt. Ebenezer Brooks, Lieut. Stephen Hall, Engn Stephen Francis, Mr. Jno. Willis, Dea. Whitmore, and [p. 8] Mr. Jona. Tufts, was chosen to treat with some person to keep said school. Nothing came from the above action, perhaps owing to the size of the committee.

At another meeting, held on November 30, the same year, the town voted to have a school kept in the house of Thomas Willis, the ensuing winter, and a committee of three men, consisting of Engn Jno. Bradshaw, Capt. Ebenezer Brooks, and Mr. John Willis, was chosen to agree with some suitable person to keep a writing and reading school in town three or four months the ensuing winter, and to make return of their doings to the town at the next town meeting. We note in the action at this meeting that the people have diminished the size of their committee, have enlarged the curriculum of their school to include reading, have settled on a place where the school shall be kept, and instructed their committee to go ahead and to report their doings. Evidently they are in earnest and mean to have a school kept next winter.

At a meeting held December 11 of the same year, 1719, this committee reported the name of Mr. Henry Davison for schoolmaster for three months, and the town voted to pay him £ 3 and his board. Whether Mr. Davison was to board round or not the vote does not specify. The money was to be raised by levy on the inhabitants, provided it was not furnished by voluntary subscription. A committee of six men was chosen to find out whether Mr. Davison would accept the town's offer, and Thomas Tufts and Ebenezer Brooks were chosen to collect the above subscription in case it could be collected.

At a meeting held Feb. 22, 1720, the town voted to choose a committee of five men to select a site for a school-house to accommodate the whole town, and to report at the next meeting in March. This committee consisted of Capt. Peter Tufts, Dea. John Whitmore, Capt. Ebenezer Brooks, Mr. John Willis, and Mr. John Richardson, but no report of their doings appears on [p. 9] the records of the town. The minds of the people seem to have been suddenly turned to the subject of erecting a new meeting-house, and the school-house must wait.

The next winter two schools were kept, one at the east end of the town under Master Henery Davison, and one at the west end under Master Caleb Brooks.

Master Brooks was to receive forty shillings a month, and Master Davison four pounds and what he might obtain of his scholars in addition thereto. Of the character and personality of these two Medford schoolmasters nothing whatever has come down to us, so far as I have been able to discover. To them, however, belongs the proud distinction of being the only schoolmasters whose names appear on the records of the town previous to the Revolutionary War.2

From this time forward to the present day we may safely conclude, I think, that Medford has rarely been without its public winter school. Town meetings in which the subject of schools was to be considered, or meetings called for that special purpose, became frequent, and evidently the people were waking up to the importance of education for their children, but we hear no more about building a school-house till 1730.

On the 5th of October in this year the town voted to build a school-house on the town land by the meetinghouse, chose a committee of five men to attend to the matter, and then promptly refused to appropriate any money therefor. The next year, 1731, the town repeated the performance—voted to build the school-house, and then refused to raise the money. On the 17th of January, 1732, the town again refused to raise money to build a school-house.

On 25th of September, 1732, the town voted to build a school-house, to be finished the 25th of November. Captain Brooks was chairman of a committee of three to attend to the matter, and, although no appropriation was made at the time, and no allusion is made to the [p. 10] matter at a meeting held the next January, I am inclined to think the building was erected.

From about 1736 Medford seems to have had what may be called an annual school—that is, for seven or eight months each year, as this year the people voted to have a school from September to May.

On the 30th of July, 1738, they voted to have a school for the space of a year, and July 23, 1739, they voted to have an annual school.

The hiring of the master and the care of the school was usually put in the hands of a special committee, as now, but for some years before the Revolution the selectmen were charged with that duty.

The studies pursued were very few, but they sufficed. Reading, writing, and the fundamental operations in arithmetic—the three R's—were all that found a place in the course of studies in those early schools. I will spare my readers an enumeration of the things we are expected to study and teach to-day.

Beginning about 1750, at each annual meeting, after voting the minister's salary, the town immediately votes to provide a school for the ensuing year. These were the first matters attended to. Evidently the education of their children was coming to the front. And as we approach 1776, although the records throb with drumbeats and glisten with bayonets, there are no indications of any failing of that deep interest which from that day to this Medford has ever shown in her public schools.3

1 read before the Medford Historical Society.

2 Mr. J. W. Dean, librarian of the New England Genealogical Society, suggests, and he is probably correct, that Master Caleb Brooks was the father of Gov. John Brooks.

3 The last warrant for town meeting issued in his majesty's name was dated March 6, 1775, signed by Richard Hall, Town Clerk. Thus early it would seem the people of Medford were beginning to dream of complete independence.

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