When our forefathers declared, in the ordinance of 1787, that knowledge, with religion and morality "was necessary to the good government and happiness of mankind," and that "schools and the means of education should forever be encouraged," they suggested the bulwark of American liberty. The first free-school system in Illinois was adopted in 1825, and under that system schools flourished in nearly every neighborhood in the State.|
In the year 1824, Gov. Coles urged, in his message to the Legislature, their attention to the liberal donation of Congress in lands for educational purposes, asking that they be treasured as a rich inheritance for future generation, and at the same time making provisions for the support of local schools.
During the session of the Legislature, Hon. Joseph Duncan (then a State Senator and afterward Governor) introduced a bill, which was passed, with the following preamble, which shows a high appreciation of the subject at that early day: "To enjoy our rights and liberties, we must understand them; their security and protection ought to be the first object of a free people; and it is a well established fact that no nation has ever continued long in the enjoyment of civil and political freedom which was not both virtuous and enlightened. And believing that the advancement of literature always has been, and ever will be, the means of more fully developing the rights of men-that the mind of every citizen in a republic is the common property of society, and constitutes the basis of its strength and happiness-it is therefore considered the peculiar duty of a free government, like ours, to encourage and extend the improvement and cultivation of the intellectual energies of the whole people."
In that law it was provided that common schools should be established, free and open to every class of white citizens between the ages of five and twenty-one, and persons over that age might be admitted on such terms as the Trustees should prescribe. Districts of not less that fifteen families were to be formed by the County Courts, upon petition of a majority of the voters thereof; officers were to be elected, sworn in and their duties were prescribed in detail. The system was full and complete in all particulars. The legal voters were empowered at the annual meetings to levy a tax, in money or merchantable produce at its cash value, not exceeding one-half of one per cent, subject to a maximum limitation of $10 to any one person. Aside from this tax, the best and most effective feature of the law-the stimulant of our present system-was an annual appropriation by the State of $2 out of every $100 received into the treasury, and the distribution of five-sixths of the interest arising from the school funds appropriated among the several counties, according to the number of white children under the age of twenty-one years, which sums were redistributed by the counties among their respective districts, none participating therein where less than three months' school had been taught during the preceding year.
In this law were foreshadowed some of the most valuable features of our present free-school system. It is evident, however, that the law of 1825 was in advance of public sentiment. The people preferred to pay the tuition fees or go without education for their children, rather than submit to taxation, not-withstanding the burthen fell heaviest upon the wealthier classes, who virtually paid for the schooling of their poor neighbors' children, and the law was so amended, in 1827, as to virtually nullify it, by providing that no person should be taxed for the support of any school, unless consent was first obtained in writing, and the 2 per cent, which was the life of the system, was also abolished.
Such were the provisions of the first school laws of Illinois, and the virtual abolishment of the law of 1825 developed a crude system of schools that was continued nearly thirty years-under which system schools and schoolhouses were left to the local option of the neighborhood-some children having schools to go to and others no such privileges.
The adoption of the free-school system, entered upon in 1855, marks the turning-point in the educational system of Illinois, and abolished forever the crude school laws before in force.
The donation by Congress of the sixteenth section in every township (or, when sold, lands equivalent therefore), for the use of the inhabitants of the township for school purposes, amounted to over 998,000 acres of land in the State, and, had these lands been properly managed, they would have produced a school fund that would have done away with local taxation for school purposes.
The Legislature of 1854 took the first step in the right direction, by enact in a law separating the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction from the office of Secretary of State, and creating a separate education department of the government. Under this law, Gov. Matteson appointed Hon. Ninian W. Edwards State Superintendent of Common Schools. In January following, he submitted to the General Assembly a full report upon the condition of the public schools throughout the State, urged the education of the children of the State at the public expense, and presented a bill for a complete system of free schools, which, with some changes, became a law. The act was passed on the 15th of February, 1855, and embraced all the essential features of the law now in force.
It is questionable whether any other State in the Union has a better educational system than that developed in Illinois during the past twenty-five years. It is well adapted to the wants and conditions of the people, and fully up to the spirit of the age in which we live. It is within that period that all the schools and schoolhouses have been established in Mason County that amount to anything worthy of being proud of. The writer of this is gratified with the reflection that, as a member of the State Senate, he helped to pass the laws which inaugurated the free-school system of Illinois, notwithstanding the abuse that was heaped upon him for doing it by those who could not see or appreciate the beneficence of the system.
There is yet an advance step to be made to complete the system, and that is the adoption of the compulsory feature. Parents who will not voluntarily send their children to school should be made to do so by the mandates of the law; and the time is near at hand when it will be so enacted, and when every child in Illinois shall have the benefit of at least a rudimentary education.
Those who are especially jealous of their rights oppose compulsory education on account of its interference with their precious liberty, not thinking that the law which compels them to pay taxes, work roads, serve on juries, do military duty and many other disagreeable things, is just as much of an entrenchment upon their liberty to do as they please as it would be to compel them to send their children to school; besides, the liberty to bring up children in ignorance and vice is one of those things that ought to be interfered with and prevented if possible.
A government that depends upon the intelligence of the people for its existence must use the necessary means to compel the education of the masses, or go to destruction.
The way to carry out the grand idea in the Declaration of Independence-to make all men free and equal-is to do it through universal education. The unlettered man can not be the equal of the educated man, nor can he have a free and fair race in the pursuit of happiness, handicapped by ignorance.
Another step, which is to be a tremendous stride in the direction of universal and cheap education, is yet to be made. It is the simplification of the uses of letters in spelling and forming words, so that the English language may be rapidly and cheaply learned by children and those of other tongues. This great reform has long been advocated by wise and thoughtful men, and is now actively inaugurated. There is a class of professional educators who wish to make a monopoly of their profession by making our language so hard to learn that it takes years of labor and mints of money to acquire it; but this class must in time give way to wiser and better men. Many of the nonsensical, useless, which and fraudulent letters that have marred our beautiful language and made it a stumbling-block to children and foreigners, have already been dropped out of the places they have wrongfully occupied in hard and crooked words, that cost so much to learn.
When the English language becomes purified and made plain and easy to learn, it will become the universal language of the world.
The Church in the past ages assumed to be the special patron of education, and, as a part of that education, the religious dogmas of the day were engrafted upon the untutored infant mind, the cunning priest well understanding that "just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined."
That time has passed by with us, thanks to the liberty-loving intelligence of our people. We have lived to see
"The Church and State, that long had held
There are school edifices in Havana, Bath, Mason City and Easton that are justly the pride of the people of their respective localities.
The Havana Schoolhouse was built in 1875, at a cost of $30,000. Mr. Thomas W. Catlin, a graduate of Yale College, has held the position of Superintendent of Havana schools for the past two years, with general satisfaction. The present efficient School Board consists of Capt. Jacob Wheeler, J. R. Foster and H. W. Lindly.
With the following statistics which we have obtained from Mr. Badger, County Superintendent of Schools, we close the chapter on education.
Mason History Index
Every Name Index