The Education of the Founding Fathers

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler ChristyI’ve been thinking lately about what is essential in education, and in honor of Independence Day, thought it might be interesting to take a look at the education of America’s founding fathers. What kind of study produced a group of  men capable of conceiving a constitutional republic, bringing it to life, and guiding it through its formative years? What did they read that created minds attuned to freedom and the communication skills to impart the vision?

In this post, we’ll take a brief look at the education of six of these men, and in the next post, I’ll share a few observations that might help you relate the education of the founding fathers to what you determine to do in your own homeschool. Enjoy!

George Washington (1732-1799)

Formal education: “He received the equivalent of an elementary school education from a variety of tutors, and also a school run by an Anglican clergyman . . .” (Wikipedia).

He read: According to an exhibit from the American Antiquarian Society, “Washington had a library that was deeply indebted to both classical and contemporary authors . . .  One of his favorite books . . . [was] a play titled Cato by the Englishman Joseph Addison. Washington, like many other new Americans, found resonance in the play’s depiction of the Roman statesman Cato’s struggle between Republican virtue and Caesarean tyranny.” You will find more information about what he read by following the links from the Mount Vernon site

John Adams (1735-1826)

Formal Education: John Adams entered Harvard at the age of 16, graduating with an A.B. (equivalent to a modern Bachelor of Arts) four years later. After teaching school for four years, he returned to Harvard and earned an A.M. (Master’s degree) and was admitted to the bar in 1758.  (Wikipedia)

He believed: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” John Adams

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Formal Education: “Jefferson began his childhood education under the direction of tutors . . . In 1752, Jefferson began attending a local school run by a Scottish Presbyterian minister. At the age of nine, Jefferson began studying Latin, Greek, and French; he learned to ride horses, and began to appreciate the study of nature. He studied history, science and the classics under the Reverend James Maury from 1758 to 1760 . . .”

“At age 16, Jefferson entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, and first met law professor George Wythe, who became his influential mentor. He studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy under Professor William Small, who introduced the enthusiastic Jefferson to the writings of the British Empiricists, including John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. He also improved his French, Greek, and violin.

“A diligent student, Jefferson displayed an avid curiosity in all fields and graduated in 1762 [age 19], completing his studies in only two years, half the time it took Adams to graduate from Harvard. Jefferson read law while working as a law clerk for Wythe. During this time, he also read a wide variety of English classics and political works. Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia bar . . . in 1767.” (Wikipedia)

Thomas Jefferson’s Reading List 

In an 1812 letter to his friend, John Adams, he wrote: “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.”

From an 1819 letter to John Brazier: “Among the values of classical learning, I estimate the luxury of reading the Greek and Roman authors in all the beauties of their originals. And why should not this innocent and elegant luxury take its preëminent stand ahead of all those addressed merely to the senses? I think myself more indebted to my father for this than for all the other luxuries his cares and affections have placed within my reach . . .”

James Madison (1751-1836)

Formal Education: “From ages 11 to 16, the young “Jemmy” Madison was sent to study under Donald Robertson,  . . . a Scottish teacher who tutored numerous prominent plantation families in the South. From Robertson, Madison learned mathematics, geography, and modern and ancient languages. He became especially proficient in Latin . . .

“At age 16, he returned to Montpelier, where he began a two-year course of study under the Reverend Thomas Martin in preparation for college, [and] in 1769, he enrolled at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. Through diligence and long hours of study . . . Madison graduated in 1771 [age 20]. His studies included Latin, Greek, science, geography, mathematics, rhetoric, and philosophy. Great emphasis was placed on speech and debate . . . After graduation, Madison remained at Princeton to study Hebrew and political philosophy under the university president, John Witherspoon . . .” (Wikipedia)

He believed: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

“A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”

Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757-1804)

Formal Education: Because Alexander Hamilton’s parents were not legally married, the Church of England denied him membership and education in the church school. Hamilton received “individual tutoring” and classes in a private school . . . Hamilton supplemented his education with a family library of thirty-four books, including Greek and Roman classics.

“In the autumn of 1772, Hamilton arrived . . . at Elizabethtown Academy, a grammar school in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. In 1773 he studied with Francis Barber at Elizabethtown in preparation for college work. He came under the influence of William Livingston, a leading intellectual and revolutionary, with whom he lived for a time at his Liberty Hall.He entered King’s College (now Columbia University) in 1773 or 1774, and began writing politically in 1775. (Wikipedia)

He believed: “Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have is this. When I have a subject in mind. I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it . . . the effort which I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Formal Education: Franklin’s family had only “enough money to send him to school for two years. He attended Boston Latin School but did not graduate.” Although his formal education ended at the age of ten, he continued learning through voracious reading. At 12, he learned the printing trade as an apprentice.

At 21, Franklin created the Junto, a discussion group for issues of the day. “Reading was a great pastime of the Junto, but books were rare and expensive. The members created a library, initially assembled from their own books . . . Franklin then conceived the idea of a subscription library, which would pool the funds of the members to buy books for all to read. This was the birth of the Library Company of Philadelphia: its charter was composed by Franklin in 1731.” (Wikipedia)

From his Autobiography: “This Library afforded me the Means of Improvement by constant Study, for which I set apart an Hour or two each Day; and thus repair’d in some Degree the Loss of the Learned Education my Father once intended for me.”

He believed: “Genius without education is like silver in the mine.”

“Let me add, that only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” (From a 1787 letter to the Abbés Chalut and Arnaud.)

Wikipedia quotations are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; balance of the article copyright by Everyday Education, LLC, and reprintable under specified terms.

2 Responses

  1. karen Loe says:

    Another GREAT post! Thanks!

  1. October 13, 2023

    […] The Education of the Founding Fathers […]

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