Reprinted from Law and Liberty
Between scandals, impeachment lawsuits, power grabs, and disastrous foreign wars, America’s new presidents don’t hold up well compared to America’s foundations. While there are multiple reasons to explain our misfortune, education (or lack thereof) stands out in particular. What ideas, values, and aspirations shaped our leaders when they were young? College students enjoy a short but crucial time when they are fascinated by new ideas and begin to think about who they are and what their aspirations are. In the words of Napoleon, “To understand a man, you have to know what was going on in the world when he was twenty.”
Andrew H. Browning follows Napoleon’s advice in reconstructing the education of the fifty-five framers of the Constitution in his book statesmen’s schools. For Browning, the crucial agreements and controversies of the Constitutional Convention cannot be understood without examining the very different education of the various Makers. The acquisition of lifelong values and assumptions during their youth shaped their mature political prospects. Browning quotes Gouverneur Morris in 1814 as he looks back on his college years, “In all probability what I ought to do now is what I did then, my feelings and opinions having not undergone any substantial change in forty years.”
Classical Education and the Scottish Enlightenment
While many details of the Framers’ schooling are missing, their experience can be recovered from what remains of their diaries, letters, and school archives. In the first half of the eighteenth century, schools taught Latin grammar through classical literature, such as Cicero, Virgil, and Livy. Over the decades, however, the reforms initiated in Scottish universities began to affect American schools with the arrival of Scottish teachers in the colonies. New schools opened that taught not only Latin and basic mathematics but contemporary moral philosophy and English composition. Without such a dynamic learning environment, it would be hard to imagine a self-taught person like Benjamin Franklin or Roger Sherman.
Of the 55 delegates, just over half attended universities in America or Europe. Teaching others was limited to reading, writing, and arithmetic in Latin grammar schools, private lessons, or self-teaching. Most were educated in Greek and Roman literature and history, as well as the rudiments of Christian theology, although there was a significant minority who were educated by the Scottish Enlightenment at the modern colleges of Princeton, King’s College, and Philadelphia College.
Of the dozens of delegates who took the lead at the Constitutional Convention, half were educated at these newer colleges: Madison, Hamilton, Morris, Oliver Ellsworth, Hugh Williamson, and William R. Davey. The delegates who rejected the new constitution, by contrast, had three (Elbridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, and John Francis Mercer) who attended the two oldest American colleges (Harvard and William and Mary). Others went to primary and secondary schools (John Lansing and Robert Yates) or had a private tutor and later became self-taught (George Mason). Of those of the new schools, only Luther Martin (Princeton) rejected the new constitution.
It was Princeton’s James Madison and Glasgow-trained James Wilson who took charge of the Constitutional Convention, while the rest, “whose political philosophy was formulated by the Greeks and Romans, found themselves short of fresh ideas”. This does not mean that classical education did not contribute to the Constitutional Convention. Cicero in assignments and Plutarch Spirits of the nobility of the Greeks and Romans The delegates learned that pure democracy is worse than tyranny. Most understood by Aristotle Policy That good government divides power between the king, the aristocracy and the people. Legal apprenticeship also contributed to the Founders’ understanding of constitutionalism, particularly via Sir Edward Coke Institutes of Laws of England who opposed absolute monarchy. Christianity had taught the founders that any republic dependent on the virtue of its citizen was doomed to failure on account of original sin.
When the Constitutional Convention deadlocked, it was those shaped by the new teaching of the Scottish Enlightenment who led the Congress out of the controversies. Unlike their older contemporaries, these initiates were studying the “common sense” philosophy of Thomas Reid and the mixed or mixed government of Montesquieu, Ferguson, Smith, Hume, and Hutcheson. Madison’s vision of divided government was at odds with what had been taught at Harvard and Yale. These ideas were new and unfamiliar to most of the delegates except those who had studied them in the newer schools.
Schools and education
With the exception of Philadelphia College, every American college was established under the auspices of a religious denomination and all of the presidents were clergymen. For undergraduates, the course of study was classical prose and poetry, natural and moral philosophy, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, and—in New England—divinity. College students generally came from privileged backgrounds and were primarily white, male, and Protestant (Catholics went abroad for college). The colleges were small, and the enrollment of William and Mary rarely exceeded 60; Harvard and Yale had between 100 and 150 students; Princeton between 70 and 80.
By his meticulous research, Browning reconstructed the education of each Framer and assigned them to broad classes of those who were self-taught, tutored, legal apprenticeships, or went to Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, Kings College, Philadelphia College, Princeton and V the outside. Fifteen or sixteen creators from elite backgrounds attended university, while another ten or twelve of the “better kind” had no private tutors. Dozens of these “averages” made it to college and dozens more did not have a college education, but rose high enough to represent their states in Philadelphia.
What is remarkable is that the lack of a college education was not an obstacle to political leadership in eighteenth-century America. As Browning points out, “Franklin, Washington, Dickinson, Robert Morris, and Mason were among the most influential men in America. All five colleges have colleges named after them, but not one has ever set foot in a college classroom.” From self-education to teachers and apprenticeships, these initiators read Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and other ancients to learn about republican government.
Among American colleges, the two most conservative in their curricula were Harvard and Yale, which held a monopoly on New England political leadership education. In these schools, students learned Greek and Latin, logic, mathematics, astronomy, natural philosophy, and most of all classical history to prepare them as future political leaders. William and Mary also taught classics as did Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College to those Americans who were educated abroad (although they rarely earned degrees). American Catholics, who were barred from college in English-speaking countries, went to France or to the Jesuit Saint-Omer School in Maryland which was “more of a grammar school but less of a university”, where classics were also taught.
The influence of classical curricula was deeply ingrained in Europe and America until the Scottish Enlightenment, when the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh were supplemented by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Levi by Montesquieu, Smith, Hume, Reed, and Hutcheson. This new curriculum affected Presbyterian grammar schools in America, Philadelphia College, King’s College, and Princeton. In these colleges, the modern history of Robertson and Ferguson in Edinburgh were read as well as the works of Harrington and Sidney. This new approach began with the classical republicanism of the ancients but also introduced the idea of natural rights into the writings of Pufendorf and Locke.
According to Browning, this difference in education between classical and Scottish education influenced six major controversies with which the convention wrestled: 1) how Republican government could succeed in a nation as large as the United States; 2) how power should be divided between the national government and the states; 3) whether the States should be represented equally or proportionately by number of inhabitants; 4) how the executive should be elected; 5) what powers should be assigned to the executive branch; 6) Distribution of power among the three authorities.
In all these controversies, the different education of the Makers had a great influence on their thoughts and voices. Browning guides the reader through each of these debates, showing how those educated in the newer schools were the strongest nationalists in government while those who were products of the old schools remained suspicious of the powerful executive and Senate. It was this younger generation that combined the “skepticism of Smith and Hume” that citizens would be virtuous with the “optimism of Hutcheson and Witherspoon” that a republican government could be formed with conflicting interests and responsibilities that led by convention to adopt a government of separation of powers and checks and balances. As Browning writes, “It was a part that old-school makers were slow to grasp; the idea that proper structure might be more important than individual virtue simply flew in the face of what they had learned in their youth.”
The diversity of our founders’ education is most impressive when compared to our new presidents. Bill Clinton went to Georgetown, Oxford and Yale Law. George W. Bush is a product of the Phillips, Yale School and Harvard Business School. Barack Obama went to Columbia and Harvard Law. Donald Trump graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Joe Biden has only gone to a public college for his undergraduates – the University of Delaware – and a non-ivy law school (Syracuse University). Despite being better learners – at least in theory – than the founders, it’s hard to say that our presidents over the past 25 years have done better than they did.
But perhaps the greatest distribution is the homogeneity of the type of education taught in our elite institutions. Over the past 50 years, ideas such as ideology, critical race theory, versatility, and postmodern and remedial pedagogy have dominated the humanities, legal studies, and social sciences. One can graduate from our best colleges without having to read Greeks, Romans, and the Bible, let alone anyone from the Scottish Enlightenment (or anything else). Is it any wonder that our new presidents pale in comparison to the likes of Roger Sherman (self-taught), George Washington (teacher and psychologist), James Madison (Princeton), and Alexander Hamilton (Kings College)?
What kind of education one receives and how one receives it explains the disparity between the new presidents and the founders of America. The education of initiates was rooted in a deeper and broader tradition that stretches back to the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews. They believed that practical political solutions could be found in literature, history, the philosophy of the ancients, English common law, and Christian theology. Rather than adopting the wakeful present attitude so prevalent on college campuses today, Framers approached education with humility to draw wisdom from the past. They thought they could learn from those who came before them. They have been liberally educated in the truest sense of the word so that they can be free, knowing that they are part of something greater than themselves as citizens of a new country that may outpace them.