The History of New York State
Book 12, Chapter 14, Part 3

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


As the people must receive the advantage of education the inquiry naturally arises how this end is to be obtained. The expedient devised by the Legislature is the establishment of the common schools, which, being spread throughout the State, and aided by its bounty, will bring improvement within the reach and power of the humblest citizen. This appears to be the best plan that can be devised to disseminate religion, morality, and learning throughout the whole country. All other methods, heretofore adopted, are partial in their operation, and circumscribed in their effects.

The outlines of the plan suggested by the commissioners are briefly these. That the several towns in the State be divided into school districts by three commissioners elevated by the citizens qualified to vote for the town officers; that trustees be elected in each district to whom shall be confided the care and superintendence of the school to be established therein; that the interest of the school fund be divided among the different counties and towns according to their respective population as ascertained by the successive census of the United States; that the portion received by the respective towns be subdivided among the district into which each town shall be divided according to the number of children in each between the ages of five and fifteen years, inclusive; that each town raise by tax annually as much money as it shall have received from the school fund; that the gross amount of money received from the State and raised by the towns be appropriated exclusively to the payment of wages of teachers; that the whole system shall be placed under the superintendence of an officer appointed by the Council of Appointment.

The recommendations of the commissioners in regard to the establishment of a system of common schools were enacted into law with no very material changes June 19, 1812. In 1894 a constitutional provision made it the duty of the Legislature to maintain common schools.

Jedediah Peck, described as the father of the common school system of the State of New York, was a man of limited education and had no gift as a debater or speaker, but he was a man of the strictest integrity, possessed of high ideals and sound judgment, and was a skillful organizer. Mr. Peck was born in Lyme, Connecticut, on January 28, 1748. He served four years in the Revolutionary Army. In 1790 he settled in the town of Burlington, Otsego County. Although nearly seventy years of age at the time, he served in the War of 1812, and took part in the battle of Queenston. He was a member of the State Legislature for eleven years, seven in the Assembly and four in the Senate. In addition to his work in establishing the common school system of New York, he introduced a bill for the abolition of imprisonment for debt, which later became a law.

The law creating the common school system of the State also created the office of superintendent of common schools. This was noteworthy as being the first State supervisory school office created in America. The Council of Appointment chose Gideon Hawley to fill this office. He was appointed January 14, 1813, and served till February 22, 1821. Mr. Hawley was born at Huntington, Connecticut, September 26, 1785. He came to Saratoga County when only nine years of age. He graduated from Union College, studied law and began practice in the city of Albany. He was only twenty-eight years of age when chosen State Superintendent. During the eight years of his service the number of pupils attending the common schools increased from 140,000 to 304,000. Notwithstanding his eminent success in administering his office and the smallness of his salary, which was only $300 a year, he was removed from purely political reasons. The general indignation caused by his removal led to his successor being legislated out of office. The Secretary of State was made ex offico superintendent of common schools. This was in 1821, and John Van Ness Yates was then Secretary of State.

Hawley was elected secretary of the board of regents in 1814 and served in that capacity until 1841. He was elected a regent in 1840 and served till his death in 1870. When superintendent of common schools Hawley did much towards introducing the Lancastrian system of schools--at one time very popular, but now almost forgotten.

In 1815 the State first contributed towards the payment of teachers' salaries, the amount being $46,398. The amount paid in 1912 for this purpose was $5,035,828.84. in 1826 Azariah C. Flagg, then Secretary of State, vigorously opposed a proposition to designate a particular series of textbooks to the exclusion of all others. In 1836 Congress passed an act authorizing the deposit of the surplus in the United States Treasury with the various States. New York's portion was about $4,000,000. On the recommendations of Governor Marcy, the Legislature provided that $160,000 of the income of this fund be added to the common school find each year.

In 1849 the Legislature passed an act creating free schools with a provision that the matter be submitted to the vote of the people. It was approved by a great majority, 249,8872 in favor of the bill to 91,951 against it. Chenango, Otsego and Tompkins were the only counties that gave a majority against free schools.

The so-called free school law did not after all provide free schools. District imposed a tax providing a schoolhouse, fuel, etc., and for the education of indigent children; the State apportioned about twenty dollars annually to each district toward the payment of the teacher's wages; the remaining sum for the payment of the teacher was raised by means of what was known as a rate bill, the amount being assessed upon the parents who patronized the schools in proportion to the number of days' attendance of their children. In 1853 the Court of appeals declared the free school law of 1849 to be unconstitutional, but this was not a matter of much practical importance, as a free school act had been passed in 1851 to which the decision of the Court of Appeals did not apply.

In 1867 the rate bill was abolished. It had been a great hindrance to progress, as children were frequently kept from the school to save the expense of attendance. This matter of really free schools was a source of bitter controversy in the Legislature for half a century. The idea of a rate bill probably came to the United States from Holland.

At the general election in 1850 an attempt was made to repeal the free school law, and forty-two counties gave majorities in favor of the repeal, but in New York State there was a majority of 25,038 votes against it. This was mainly due to the vote in the City of New York. In 1880 an act was passed making women eligible for school offices and entitling them to the same privileges as men in regard to voting at school elections. A compulsory education law was enacted in 1874, and this has been strengthened and extended again and again till it is now very effective. After a century of dual administration of the school affairs of the State a single system was established in 1904. This was, perhaps, the greatest single step forward in the educational history of New York, and made developments easy that were not possible before that law.

Regents of the University of New York.--On May 1, 1784, the Legislature of New York at its first session after the close of the Revolution, in response to a strong appeal from Governor Clinton in his annual message, passed an act creating the University of the State of New York. The act was entitled "An Act for Granting Certain privileges to the College heretofore called King's College, for altering the charter and name thereof, and erecting an university within this State."

This university was to be controlled by a body known as "The Regents of the University of the State of New York." This body was made up of twenty-four men of high character, named in the act, together with the principal State officers ex officio. The clergy of the various denominations were empowered to select one of their own number to be a regent, and to keep his placed filled. The first Board of Regents was organize by electing Governor George Clinton as chancellor, Pierre Van Cortlandt as vice chancellor, and Robert Harpur as secretary. The fellows, professors and tutors of any college were empowered to act as regents in respect to their own college. At this time there was only one college in the State--Columbia. The regents were empowered to establish such other colleges from time to time as they might think proper, such colleges to be considered as part of the State University and to be under the control of the regents. The board, as thus created, proved to be a cumbrous body on account of its size. A committee was appointed to study the situation and suggest reforms. The leading spirit of this committee was Alexander Hamilton and Ezra L'Hommedieu.

This committee embodied its views in a bill which was passed by the Legislature in 1787. It enacted that "An university be and hereby is instituted within the State to be called and known by the name or style of the Regents of the university of the State of New York." The number of regents was fixed at twenty-one, in addition to the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, who were made ex offico members. Later the Secretary of State and the superintendent of public instruction were added. The elective members were chosen for life. They were elected by a joint ballot of the Legislature and served without compensation. The board was authorized to grant degrees, charters of incorporation to colleges and academies, and to grant collegiate charters to such academies as might grow to be worthy of the same. The act provided that each college and academy in the State should have its own board of trustees, who should constitute a body corporate for the management of its individual affairs. The regents were authorized to visit and inspect all colleges, academies and schools which are or may be established in the State; to examine the same as to discipline and instruction, and to make yearly report to the Legislature.

At the first meeting of the board after reorganization Governor Clinton was chosen chancellor and John Jay vice-chancellor. From the outset the members of the Board of Regents have been men of ability and high character. The first academy chartered by the Board of Regents was Erasmus Hall, in Flatbush, which received its charter on November 17, 1787. By 1813 thirty academies had been incorporated. A regent must be a citizen of the State and not an officer of any college or academy under the visitation of the regents.

In 1863 the board established what was known as the Convocation of the University. The regents and officers of all the colleges, academies and normal schools were member of the convocation, which met annually at the Capitol in July. The business of the Convocation was the consideration of educational matters of general interest. The papers, presented at the Convocation, together with the discussions and the annual report of the regents with much other matter of general interest, were printed in an annual volume. In 1844 the regents were made trustees of the State Library and given charge of the historical documents belonging to the State. In 1845 they were made trustees of the State Museum of Natural History. When the Albany Normal School was established it was placed under the joint management of the Board of Regents and the superintendent of public instruction.

In 1864 a law was enacted authorizing the Board of Education of any union free school to established in the same an academic department whenever in their judgment there was a sufficient demand for the same. This resulted in greatly reducing the number of private academies. In 1865 there were 190 academies in the State; in 1884 only seventy-five. There was a corresponding increase in the number of academic departments; twenty-two in 1865 and a hundred and eighty-five in 1883.

The regents in 1894 were made a constitutional body. When unification was adopted in 1894 the regents were no longer elected for life. The number was reduced to twelve, one for each judicial district, and three at large, and they are elected by the Legislature by joint ballot and serve for eleven years. The Board of Regents elects a commissioner of education who holds office during their pleasure. The unification law provided that the Legislature should choose the first commissioner for a term of six years, and after the expiration of that term the choice should be made by the Board of Regents. The Legislature selected Andrews. Draper, who had previously served two terms as superintendent of public instruction. At the expiration of his term of service he was unanimously reappointed by the Board of Regents.

New York has taken few backward steps, and has broadened and extended the field of its educational activities far beyond the wildest dreams of Jedediah Peck and his associates. Not only was the common school system established, but high schools have been made free to every child in the State who is prepared to enter them, and the State has provided 3,000 scholarships in the colleges of the State. It has provided schools for the deaf and dumb, the blind, the feeble-minded, the Indians, and has either provided for or encouraged vocational schools, continuing schools, vacation schools, summer normal schools, open-air schools, school gardens, school savings banks and medical inspection.

Supervision.--The State of New York early recognized the importance of supervision in the work of education. The law of 1812 establishing the common school system provided for the appointment of three commissioners for each town, afterwards commonly known as town superintendents of schools. This office was continued until 1843. The office of school commissioner was created in 1856, and abolished in 1911. The office of school commissioner was a very important one and produced excellent results when the right kind of man was chosen, but unfortunately no educational qualifications were required and often the nomination of a man was regarded as a reward for political services rendered, or a salve for disappointment in failing to secure some other office. The territory to be superintended was so large in many cases, the duties were so onerous, the term of office so short, the re-election so uncertain, that in general the results were not altogether satisfactory. The office was abolished in 1911 and the office of district superintendent was created. The powers and duties of the district superintendents are about the same as those of school commissioners, but they have a smaller territory to supervise. They are appointed for five years by a board created for that purpose, instead of being nominated on a party ticket and being voted from by all the voters of their territory. No one can be appointed who does not possess certain prescribed qualifications. So far, this system of rural supervision has worked better then even its friends had dared to hope. It seems as though the rural schools would have supervision that would compare very favorably with that in villages and small cities.

Village and city superintendents have existed for many years. The city of Buffalo has the honor of having had the first city superintendent of schools of any city in the United States. New York has long encouraged the appointment of local superintendents by appropriating a certain sum of money to each village of 5,000 inhabitants or more that employed a superintendent of schools. In cities, a sum was appropriated equaling as many times the sum allowed to villages as the city members of the State Assembly.

Both the Board of Regents and the Department of Public Instruction appointed inspectors to visit the academic school of the State. Following unification there has, as a matter of course, been only one board of inspectors. This inspection ha been productive of excellent results. In 1813 Gideon Hawley was appointed the first State superintendent of common schools, New York being the first State to provide such supervision. In 1821 the office was discontinued and the Secretary of State became ex offico State superintendent. Many excellent men held this office, but the time came when it was felt that the importance of the work demanded the whole time and thought of the best man who could be had for the office.

In 1854 the office of State superintendent of public instruction was created and Victor M. Rice was chosen to fill the position. It was an admirable choice and many excellent men followed him during the half century of the existence of that office. During this period marked progress was made in many directions. In course of time, rivalry arose because of the dual system of education that existed. The line division between the Board of Regents and the Department of Public Instruction was not very clearly defined and perhaps could not be. Naturally differences arose, and now and then the feeling was exceedingly bitter. The abler the men at the head of the two department, and the more anxious they were to make a record for their respective departments, the greater the probability of a clash. Several efforts were made to bring about some plan of unification, but it was not until 1904 that this was accomplished.

Training of Teachers--Institutes.--The institute appears to have been the first agency for the training of teachers that reached and influenced large numbers. It seems to have had its origin in a resolution offered at the Tompkins County Teachers' Association in 1843 by Superintendent Jacob S. Denman. The first institute, which continued for two weeks, was held at Ithaca in April, 1843. It was under the direction of Superintendent Denman. The institute was purely a local affair. The State neither furnished aid not directed the work. The greater part of the instruction was given by Salem Town, who latter became very prominent in educational work. The institutes were popular from the outset. They were held in seventeen different counties within two years from the time of holding the first institute at Ithaca. The work of the institute was chiefly a review of the branches required to be taught in the common schools, though there were lectures on methods and school management. The length of the sessions varied from two to eight weeks. The institutes were supported wholly by the teachers who attended. They were carried on for four years before the State had any part in them. In 1845 Secretary Young reported that the institutes were "highly deserving of legislative aid."

In 1847 the institutes were placed under State control and $60 was allowed to each county that organized a teachers' institute. In 1859 this amount was doubled. It was further increased from time to time until $40,000 was spent annually by the State on teachers' institutes. In 1862 a law was enacted authorizing local authorities to pay teachers their regular salaries while they were in attendance upon an institute. In 1885 this was made compulsory, as was the attendance of the teachers at an institute, it having been optional up to this time though very few teachers were absent.

Up to 1881 no instructors were regularly employed in institute work. A man who was employed at one institute might not appear at another during the year. Institute work was an incident of a man's life, not his regular employment. There was little opportunity for men to train themselves for this somewhat peculiar work. In 1881 a regular board of institute conductors was appointed. They gave their whole time to the work and thus made it more definite and more efficient. In 1896 city institutes were organized, and summer institutes continuing for three weeks were held in different parts of the State. The city institutes were optional with the local authorities, but they were held with more or less frequency in most of the cities of the State. Institutes were discontinued in 1911, after an existence of sixty-eight years. Their place is now taken by conferences held by the district superintendent. This system has not yet been fully worked out, and it is too early to say what the outcome will be. New York was the first State in the Union to hold teachers' institutes, and her example has been followed by nearly every other State in the Union.

Normal Schools.--As early as 1821 Governor DeWitt Clinton called attention to the importance of providing schools for the training of teachers. In 1826, in his message to the Legislature, he said: "The vocation of a teacher in its influence on the character and destiny of the rising and all future generations has either not been fully understood or duly estimated. It is or ought to be ranked among the learned professions. With full admission of the merits of several who now officiate in that capacity, still it must be conceded that the information of many of the instructors of our common school does not extend beyond rudimentary education; that our expanding population requires constant accessions to their numbers; and that to realize these views it is necessary that some new plan for obtaining able teachers should be devised. I therefore recommend a seminary for the education of teachers."

In 1827 Governor Clinton again discussed the importance of providing for the training of teachers, and suggested that a school for that purpose be established in each county. In 1828 he said: "I consider it my duty to recommend a law authorizing the supervisors of each county to raise a sum not to exceed $2,000, provided the same sum is subscribed by individuals, for the erection of a suitable edifice for a monitorial high school in the county town."

In 1826 Mr. Spencer, later superintendent of common schools but then chairman of the literature committee of the Senate, said: "Competent teachers for the common schools must be provided; the academies of the State furnish the means of making that provision." In 1830 the superintendent of common schools recommended the conversion of as many academies as there were then counties in the State into seminaries for the education of teachers. In 1833 governor Marcy said: "one of the most obvious improvements in relation to common schools would be a plan supplying them with competent teachers."

A good many quotations might be cited from messages of the Governors of New York State and from the superintendents of common school favoring the establishment of schools for the training of teacher. There was little opposition to the general proposition, but there was a wide difference of opinion as to the means that ought to be adopted. As may be noticed, the prevailing purpose was in some manner to make use of the academies already existing. There was an appreciation of the fact that they could not provide teachers in the required numbers, but it did not seem to occur to those interested that the training departments in academies would be incidents in the work of the academy and never a matter of leading important, and that the strength of the schools would go in other directions. It is a question if the same objection does not hold against training classes. Supervision by the State would probably lessen the objection, but the training classes in schools and academies would rarely be more than an incident in the work of the schools sustaining such classes. County normal schools or other schools that devote their whole energies to the training of teachers would inevitably give more satisfactory results.

The struggle for the establishment of one or more normal schools went on, not only in the Legislature, but throughout the State. At a meeting of the State Teachers' Association speakers from both within and without New York advocated the idea. The outcome was the establishment of a State Normal School in Albany in 1844. The battle was thus won. A second school was established at Oswego in 1863, followed in 1866 by three others located at Cortland, Fredonia and Potsdam. The following year three more were established, located at Geneseo, Brockport and Buffalo. One was established at New Paltz in 1885, one at Oneonta in 1887, and at Plattsburg in 1890. The last to be established by the State was at Jamaica in 1897. In 1890 the Albany Norman School was chartered by the Regents of the University of the State of New York as the Albany Normal College. It is not called State college for Teachers. It trains its students to become teachers in higher schools, principals of high school, and for the work of school superintendence. The other normal schools of the State aim to prepare teachers for primary and grammar school work.

Training Schools and Classes.--the academies of the State were at an early date used as training schools for the preparation of teachers for the common schools. In 1835 one seminary in each of the Senate district of the State, then eight in number, was appointed to instruct Teachers. These schools were selected by the regents, who named Erasmus Hall of Kings County, Montgomery Academy of Orange County, Kinderhook Academy of Columbia County, St. Lawrence Academy of St. Lawrence County, Fairfield Academy of Herkimer County, Oxford Academy of Chenango County, Canandaigua Academy of Ontario County and Middlebury Academy of Genesee County.

Each of these schools was given $500 for the purchase of books, apparatus, maps, charts, and globes, and $400 annually for the training of teachers. The number of training classes for teachers increased from time to time until the beginning of the administration of Superintendent Draper, when there were a hundred and ninety-five such classes with 2,675 students, all these schools being under the direction of the Board of Regents. As the graduates of these classes nearly all taught in the public schools, it was thought rather incongruous to have the training of these to-be teachers under the exclusive control of one body and their certification and direction under another, so in 1889 the control of the training classes was transferred to the superintendent of public instruction.

There are well over a hundred training classes that furnish over 1,500 teachers each year. In addition the cities of Albany, Buffalo, Cohoes, Elmira, Jamestown, New York, Brooklyn, Jamaica, Rochester, Schenectady, Syracuse, Troy, Watertown, and Yonkers, maintain training schools and prepare over a thousand teachers each year. So that nearly 4,000 new teachers having some professional training are added to the teaching force each year.

School Libraries.--Governor DeWitt Clinton, Governor John A. Dix, and a number of their contemporaries saw the need of small libraries in connection with schools. In 1835 the foundation of the school district library was laid. A law was enacted authorizing the taxable inhabitants of the several school districts to impose a tax of not more then $20 the first year, nor more then $10 in any subsequent year, for the purpose of establishing a district library. In 1838 Governor Marcy suggested that a portion of the income from the United States Deposit Fund be used for the purchase of school district libraries in all cases in which the districts raised by taxation a sum equal to that contributed by the State. The Legislature acted upon his suggestion and voted $55,000 a year for this purpose.

In Governor Seward's annual message in 1839 he said: "Provision has been made for the establishment of common school libraries." In 1840 he announced:

You will learn with great satisfaction that the law providing for the establishment of libraries in the school districts has been carried into successful operation in most parts of the State.

In 1841 he said:

Of these school libraries there are very few which have not complied with the act providing for the establishment of school district libraries, and there are at this time in these various district libraries about one million volumes. Within the five years limited by law there will have been expended in the purchase of books more than half a million dollars. Although an injudicious choice of books is sometimes made, these libraries generally include history and biography, voyages and travels, works on natural history, and the physical sciences, treatises upon agriculture, commerce, manufactures and the arts, and judicious selections from modern literature.

In 1846 Governor Silas Wright reported that there was 1,145,250 volumes in the school district libraries, 106,854 having been added in the preceding year at a cost of $95,158,25.

In course of time interest in district libraries began to decline. Fewer purchases were made, and the libraries were not as well card for. In 1860 the number of volumes in the district libraries was 1,288,536. In 1881 there were only 707,155. In 1884, after $50,000 a year or more had been appropriated for district libraries for forty-six years, there were 900,00 fewer books in the district libraries than there were in 1853. This condition is easily explained. The amount that a single district could get from the State was so small that often it was not thought worth while to make use of it. After 1851 the trustees were authorized to use the amount coming to them for the payment of teachers' wages, and this was commonly done.

For many years the librarian was elected at the annual meeting. Often the person selected would not accept and the vacancy was not filled before the following year. In course of time no one was elected. The librarian kept the library in his own house and there were no regular hours during which one might come for books. One might go for a book and find neither the librarian nor anyone else at home. Very often children were not welcome, and sometimes no one was. Books were lent without any record of the loan being made. Books were scattered and lost. No one tool any interest. This, of course, did not apply to all districts, but it did to very many of them.

In 1892 a law was enacted that made a sharp distinction between public libraries and school libraries. The former were placed under the supervision of the board of regents, the latter under the control of the superintendent of public instruction. The act of 1892 provided that the library money of the State should be divided, giving each city and each county its proper share, but that no city or school district should draw any public money unless it raised an equal amount, both funds being expended for books approved by the department.

This plan did not work very well and much of the money was not called for by the districts. One reason was that no small district could secure a very large sum in any one year. Later the plan was modified so that a common school district could draw from the State for library books, maps, or globes $18 each year plus $2 for each teacher employed, provided the district raised an equal amount and both were expended for approved purchases. If a district wished to raise a smaller sum it might do so, and have the amount it raised duplicated. Academic schools were allowed to expend $268 plus $2 for each teacher employed. This sum was duplicated b y the State for approved purchases but it might be expended for approved apparatus or pictures as well as for library books, globes, and maps. This plan is still followed, and the libraries have taken on new life.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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