The History of Education: The American Educational System, Early National Period (Educational Ordinances)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 26th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

In the Colonial period, each of the individual colonies determined its own laws regarding formal education. The new country was a melting pot, with many different religions and ways of life, making schooling difficult to maintain and centralize.

The New England colonies, as we’ve seen [click here], focused on compulsory public maintenance, which meant all capable children were to attend school to learn how to become good citizens. The middle colonies (mid-Atlantic region) favored parochial education, where schools were designed to educate the children with powerful minds so they could become ministers, priests, or hold public offices. The Southern colonies didn’t have much in the way of compulsory education owing to the ruralness of the countryside, with most education consisting of apprenticeships and the like. And, of course, the large slave population remained completely uneducated.

By 1785, just nine years after the formation of the United States, the US Congress decided to consolidate schools and make education mandatory. Its members enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set aside “Section Sixteen” in every township in the new Western Territory to house public schools. Public schools were organized to corral the best minds for training for public leadership.

At the same time, it allotted “section number 29” for the purpose of religion, making the separation of church and state clearly visible.

Two years later, Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided land in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions for settlement. These regions eventually split into five states: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Illinois. Of particular interest about the ordinance, though, is Article 3, which reads in part:

“Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”[1]

Together, these ordinances established that education was deemed necessary to become a good citizen and to have a strong government. Children would be encouraged to go to school, but religion was not specifically to be part of the curriculum.

Instead of township-appointed teachers, the government subsidized teacher education and placement to a certain extent, with the rest paid by state taxes. And more than just teaching reading and spelling, schools began adding the sciences to their new curricula. In this way, the federal government created a public school system available to all children, especially in the new and ever-growing Western territories.


Next week: The Yale Report


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.



[1] VanZant, Kevin. (June 15, 2004). “The Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787.” History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to