English @ OU

Composition: History & Theory: 1800 - 1865

Early Nineteenth Century


  • 1800s: Schools were looked to in order to create a moral center for society
  • 1800s: Birth of the textbook
  • 1800s: Textbook as treatises, generalizations
  • 1817: Dartmouth case:  beginning of the concept of “corporation”—business as equivalent to one person. Dartmouth was determined to be private, not to be interfered with by the government.
  • 1820: 600 Colleges were founded between 1820 and 1850
  • 1821: the first high school opened in Boston
  • 1827: Composition modes were influenced by the Belletristic forms
  • 1827-33: Massachusetts created a Board of Education, with Horace Mann at the helm (Mann believed that education could resolve conflicts among peoples with the Common School idea).
  • 1828: first American Indian bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, was published
  • 1828: Yale Report: reasserted the importance of teaching the classics
  • 1830:  Indian Removal Act: “Trail of Tears”
  • 1835: Oberlin becomes the first coeducational state institution. (Women might choose to attend the men’s rhetoric classes but were not permitted to speak; at graduation male classmates delivered orations while women’s compositions were read for them by the professor of rhetoric.)
  • 1846: Forbidden to engage in public speaking, women students at Oberlin formed a secret debating society that met off campus.
  • 1848: 12th annual report of the Massachusetts State Board of Education—Horace Mann outlined his common school agenda
  • 1845-55:  Irish Potato famine brought Irish to U.S.
  • 1855:  US Supreme Court case ruled that the Chinese are not “white.”
  • 1852-84:  Problems between Protestants and Catholics led to creation of Catholic parochial schools
  • 1857:  National Education Association (NEA) formed by ten state teachers’ organizations to “upgrade the teaching profession”; became a strong force for creating educational policy
  • 1858: Women students at Oberlin received permission to read their own compositions but were not allowed to address their audience.

In The American School From the Puritans to No Child Left Behind (2008), Joel Spring notes that schools were thought of as places to reform the morals of society during this time. It was believed that “institutions could perfect the good person and create the good society […] a system of common schooling that would lead to a moral and political reformation of society (57). It was a common belief that schooling should be necessary for the entire population in order to have social and political order. Faculty psychology was also popular. It had elements of behaviorism to it (importance of environment in shaping character) and romanticism (finding the inner nature of individuals) (58). According to Spring, “[t]he human mind was said to be divided into several different parts, such as intelligence and morality. These different faculties were natural components of the individual and could be influenced by the environment” (58). This means that if the moral faculty is created properly, it will lead to virtuousness. Discipline and exercise of the faculties were seen as necessary for good development. Central to Faculty psychology was the belief in the perfectibility of humans.

The state of children during this time period was not very comfortable. Wealthy families tried to protect their children from the outside world: “Schools were seen as logical institutions for the extension of childhood that would protect and mold their children” (59). Infanticide was rampant among the urban poor: over 50 infant bodies were found each month in NYC in the early 1800s. For the urban poor, “those who survived infanticide and childhood diseases were often condemned to homelessness and a street life of stealing, panhandling, and prostitution” (60). It is estimated that over half of enslaved children grew up without fathers because of death and separation among plantations.

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