How Teaching Taught Me Why My Research on Early American Education Mattered

Mark Boonshoft

“Colored scholars excluded from schools,” American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

It is a cliché of academic job cover letters that research informs teaching, and vice versa. But it is often true; at least that was my experience in envisioning and writing my article in the Fall issue of the JER. The initial idea for the piece came from teaching the U.S. history survey. To frame a discussion about the rise of the Second Party System, and the utility of “Jacksonian democracy” as a concept, I showed Donald Trump’s 2017 speech at the Hermitage. At one point, Trump says that “Andrew Jackson was the people’s president and his election came at a time when the vote was finally being extended to those who did not own property.” Some students seized on that point. To move the conversation along, I noted both that the vote only opened for white men and that most states eliminated property qualifications for the vote before Jackson was elected president. This got students to debate whether Jackson had democratized a political culture, or just exploited it.

What bugged me was that I lacked a clear explanation for students of why the suffrage laws changed. The usual explanation for democratization in voting for white men was, well, democratization. Chilton Williamson’s classic book on the topic was titled From Property to Democracy. It also confused them to call this democratization at all, when we explicitly acknowledge how exclusionary it was.[1] Ultimately, I was trying to figure out not only what enabled the decline of property qualifications, but how that related to new forms and justifications for voting restrictions that replaced property qualifications.

At the time, I was about to submit my book manuscript, which ends by recovering how a reaction against schools primarily designed to serve an elite led to arguments in favor of public schools that advocates claimed would make democracy possible. My story petered out around the mid-1820s. In other words, at the same time the suffrage laws changed. Maybe the two were connected? Many historians had suggested that the rise of Horace Mann and Common School reform was a reaction to “democratization.” But perhaps the causal relationship ran the other way. Maybe my story of early education reform was the pre-history of suffrage reform.

The Civil War specialist in my department happened to be walking by, and we talked out my hypothesis for a bit. He said, “You should run with that idea.” It was one of those moments that epitomized what is so valuable about life in an academic department, a life that is becoming all too rare in this era of retrenchment.

The first source I went to was on my shelf—Merrill Peterson’s edition of 1820s state constitutional convention debates.[2]Sure enough, I found evidence of convention delegates in Massachusetts and New York making the argument I suspected: Property qualifications were no longer necessary because widespread public schools ensured that all future voters would be well educated. That summer, I read every set of constitutional convention debates from the North between the 1810s and about 1845. That argument was everywhere.

So too was an argument put forth by racist whites—recognized as specious by many at the time—that Black voters should be disenfranchised because they were uneducated. The second half of my JER piece—relying heavily on the Colored Conventions Project—shows how the debate over Black voting rights was often about education. As Black activists used evidence of schooling to support their claims on the vote, racist white policymakers restricted access to both the schoolhouse and the ballot. In the end, what I found is encapsulated in my title, “From Property to Education.” Instead of transitioning from property (qualifications) to democracy, the customary basis of American voting rights had become education, eventually in the form of literacy and education tests.

Three years after that class and chance conversation with a colleague, I’ve landed on a satisfying answer to my teaching conundrum . . . just as I also find myself no longer in the classroom. I left the supportive department where I came up with the idea for this article for what I thought was a “better job.” Turns out I had actually just left one university that valued the humanities for another that detested them. An early version of this article had been my job talk, but by the time copyedits arrived, I had been laid off. The point is not to say woe is me, or really anything original at all. The whiplash of that experience and this article are just intertwined for me. The feeling of loss and disappointment that accompanied the final stages of the publication process reaffirmed what we all know: that it takes time, space, financial and institutional support, a manageable teaching load, and freedom to do historical scholarship. This article exists because I had all of that. I could spend a few years answering a question prompted by teaching—my research could inform my teaching, and vice versa—because of the material conditions under which I worked.


Endnotes

[1] On this point, see Mary Sarah Bilder’s “White Male Aristocracy,” a review of Saul Cornell and Gerald Leonard’s The Partisan Republic, https://balkin.blogspot.com/2020/04/white-male-aristocracy.html

[2] Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Democracy, Liberty, and Property: The State Constitutional Conventions of the 1820s (Indianapolis, 1966).

2 replies
  1. Gabriel Loiacono
    Gabriel Loiacono says:

    What a thoughtful post. And good point that we need time and support to do good scholarship. I hope you land in such a place!

    Reply

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